In keeping with this month’s France theme, I would like to spotlight A Time of Miracles, an upper middle-grade, younger-YA novel translated from French that captured my heart.
The Association for Library Service to Children, part of the American Library Association, gives an array of Book and Media Awards each year at an event as known in children’s literature as the Oscars are in film. Winners of the Batchelder—and Newbery, Caldecott, Wilder, Belpre, Sibert, and others—are chosen by committees of librarians who examine the year’s releases in many categories, from books for beginning readers to informational books, to audiobooks. The awards identify solid content for young readers, toddler to teen.
A little-known fact about these awards—beyond that there are awards other than the Newbery and Caldecott—is that the Batchelder garlands world literature.
The Newbery and Caldecott are for American literature. They go to authors and illustrators resident in, or citizens of, the U.S. To qualify for a Newbery, an author must also write in English.
The Batchelder, by contrast, goes to a U.S. publisher who sought a children’s book originally published in another language in another country, and commissioned a translation. In a global era, the Batchelder rewards publishing global literature.
Take some time, if you would, and check your child’s bookshelf (or, in a library, the shelves in the children’s and YA sections). How many books were not written in English, by an author in the U.S. or U.K.?
Chances are, very few. Only about 2 percent of U.S. children’s books are translations. Most were written in English and are set in English-speaking countries or a fantasy world—and if they unfold in countries besides the U.S. or U.K, they are often still written by U.S. or U.K. authors. So they look through the lens of U.S./U.K. culture.
There are dozens (thousands!) of languages and about 200 countries. Mildred L. Batchelder, a Midwestern librarian, believed children deserve to read stories from their whole planet. She promoted books by world authors “to eliminate barriers to understanding between people of different cultures, races, nations, and languages.”
That brings me back to my subject, the novel A Time of Miracles by Anne-Laure Bondoux, translated by Y. Maudet, published by Delacorte Press. A Time of Miracles has certainly knocked down barriers for me. This book follows a boy who endures a five year-long journey through the war-torn Caucasus in the 1990s, to seek asylum in France. Before reading it, I knew little about the region between the Black and Caspian Seas, but I can now name several countries there and relate them to conflicts after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In addition, thanks to this book I can connect the Caucasus to current news about child refugees. I can relate it to motherhood, because a woman in the novel faces suffering and impossible decisions, to parent the boy to safety.
I can relate it to other conflicts, in Morocco, Tunisia, Colombia, the Philippines, and Liberia, because “unaccompanied foreign minors” from these countries also appear in the book.
Like so many good novels, it opens my understanding in simply countless ways.
And I believe I will retain this understanding, due to the novel’s heart-piercing narrative. Due to its flavors and aromas—loukoums, tea steeped on a samovar, bergamot. And due to its origins outside of English, which lead to freshness of language: “I’ve caught a despair,” the boy moans to the woman, who tsk-tsks him back to health.
I will recall this book because of the characters’ names: Abdelmalik, Hoop Earring, Gloria, Monsieur Blaise, Zemzem.
I will remember it because it portrays as novel, experiences I saw as mundane. The boy says of a convenience store, “I like this place, flooded with light, where anyone can use the toilets for free, drink from the taps, warm up under the electric hand dryer, and admire the candy stand.” That will come to mind now when I go to QuikTrip.
And I will remember this book for innovations by both author and translator, which evoke learning a new language—an experience notoriously difficult to describe:
“Repeat after me,” I say. “Mercijevouzenpri.” Thankyouverymuch.
“Not bad. Uncafésilvouplé.” Acoffeeplease.
“Good. Pardonmeussieujevoudréallèalatouréfel.” Pardonsiridliketogototheeiffeltower.
“Pardonmeussieuje . . . You’re tiring me out, Koumaïl. It’s too difficult!”
“OK, I’ll learn by myself. But don’t complain if you get lost in the street of Montmartre.”
You may have guessed that I also found this novel politically relevant, in an age of nativism and civil discord and refugee caps. Politically relevant, it is.
But more than that, it is a story that reaches across the sea, from a different lexicon, through the fog of current events, and out of the past, to tell a tale for all time. That is why it richly deserved translation, why Delacorte Press deserved the Batchelder for publishing it, and why you (and a middle schooler near you) should treat yourself to A Time of Miracles.