As noted on my list of picture books in translation, reading books from other countries exposes children to a wide range of literary styles. It is also fair to say that non-American children’s literature has a certain je ne sais quoi that enchants and delights.
In addition, the books on this list make enormously gratifying read alouds. I would go so far as to say they make better read aloud books that independent reads, and grown-ups will like them as much as kids do. While this list contains a couple of serious titles, these chapter books in translation are quirky and humorous and most are great for even the most sensitive listener. In short, they are books you will want to share with everyone!
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If you purchase books online you can support independent booksellers through Bookshop. I’ve combined my picture books in translation list with this chapter book list in Bookshop for your convenience.
Chapter Books in Translation
Note on age recommendations: “All ages” simply means that the text is appropriate for all listening ages, not necessarily that your 2 year old will sit still for a reading.
A Bear Named Bjorn
by Delphine Perret
Perret’s story and line drawn illustrations of a bear and and his forest friends is both calming and whimsical. The short, episodic tale takes place over six chapters and fans of Winnie-the-Pooh will enjoy reading about Bear’s acquisition of a new sofa, Owl’s prescription for Bear to wear glasses and Bear’s hunt for the perfect gift, among other droll events. Utterly delightful and I love that the pages are green! All ages.
Yours Sincerely, Giraffe
by Megumi Iwasa, illustrated by Jun Takabatake
This quirky Japanese import will charm both child and parent. One day, bored Giraffe decides to send a letter via Pelican Mail to the first animal Pelican meets beyond the horizon. He ends up with Penguin as his pen pal and the two exchange charming letters full of questions. The two become friends and decide to meet, but first Giraffe wants to make a costume so he will look just like Penguin. There is nothing remotely frighting in this charming, sweet and immensely playful short novel. And there is now a sequel! All ages.
Detective Gordon: The First Case
by Ulf Nilsson
I read this charming Swedish import to both my kids. Detective Gordon, the local crime stopper, has more of a penchant for tea and cakes than he does for police work, and don’t even think about asking him to use the gun. He gets a small but enthusiastic assistant when he meets up with a young mouse, who he mistakenly takes for the criminal in a case he has to solve. Together they concoct a plan to discover the real thief, who has stolen all of Squirrel’s nuts. The lovely, colorful illustrations are a wonderful accompaniment. All ages.
Bruno: Some of the More Interesting Days in My Life So Far
by Catharina Valckx, illustrated by Nicolas Hubesch
At first glance Valckx’s book may seem a bit ordinary. After all, each chapter in this short book coincides with one of Bruno’s day. But take a closer look at the table of contents and you will notice chapter four, “A stupid day (that ends pretty well)” and you will get your first clue that all is not as it appears. With deadpan humor, each chapter describes one of Bruno’s days as he meets with friends and encounters both the peculiar and the mundane. Beguiling. All ages.
Detective Nosegoode and the Music Box Mystery
by Marian Orton
This gem is from a Polish author. Mr Ambrosius Nosegoode is a retired famous detective living with his talking dog. But retired doesn’t mean much when in his new home in a small town he sets out to investigate a missing music box. This isn’t a rip-roariously funny book but there is a lot of subtle humor for discerning listeners and is a great mystery for kids who don’t like scary stories. All ages.
by Håkon Øvreås, illustrated by Øyvind Torseter
Rusty is the target of three bullies. He decides it’s time to take matters into his own hands so he creates an alter ego, a superhero named “Brown.” Brown wears (you guessed it) brown clothes and enacts revenge with brown paint. Two of his friends become “Black” and “Blue” and together they roam at night, leaving their colored calling cards around the town. Full of tongue in cheek, laugh-out-loud humor. Oh, and don’t worry, the bullies get their comeuppance. Ages 4 and up.
Letters to Anyone and Everyone
by Toon Tellegen
Find it: Amazon
I first encountered Dutch author, Toon Tellegen, when I picked up a copy of The Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties. In Letters to Anyone and Everyone, various animals write letters to each other (and to the sun!) which the wind delivers. Delicately charming illustrations accompany the letters in which the animals discuss their dreams and plans. Simply lovely and perfect to read aloud to younger children. All ages.
My Happy Life
by Rose Lagercrantz
Dani is so excited and nervous to start school but she meets Ella, who becomes her best friend right away. The narration of this Swedish import is gentle and thoughtful, allowing Dani to experience both the small happy moments of life (making friends, finding a place in school) and the sadness (friends moving away, losing one’s mother). The overarching feeling of the books is one of balance, but also that children have deep, complex emotional lives. Ages 5 and up. (For independent readers: ages 7 and up)
by René Goscinny
My son absolutely loved this classic French book. It is a collection of short vignettes about the mischievous and charming Nicholas and his gang of friends from his all boys school. Each story contains Nicholas’s droll and deadpan commentary about the adults and his humorous descriptions of his friends, their cellphone-free antics and the inevitable chaos. Both my son and I laughed ourselves silly. One of the early stories does have the boys playing “Cowboys and Indians” but as I’ve written before, I use these as teachable moments instead of rejecting the book outright. Ages 7 and up.
The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly
by Luis Sepúlveda
Find it: Amazon
I read this book to both my boys at dinner and the story charmed us. A injured bird wants to save her progeny so she lands on a balcony and extracts a promise from Zorba, the resident cat, to look after her egg. The cat, unsure how to care for the egg consults the several of his neighborhood cat friends to help him. The menagerie of colorful characters take their research and duties seriously and together they keep the egg safe, raise the tiny hatchling and somehow manage to teach it how to fly. Wonderful. Ages 5 and up. (As an independent read ages 8 and up.)
Astrid the Unstoppable
by Maria Parr
We fell in love with Astrid in this Norwegian import and this book is by far one of our favorite read alouds. Plucky Astrid, who earned the nickname, “The Little Thunderbolt” may remind you of other intrepid heroines like Pippi Longstocking. She loves to explore her beloved Glimmerdal, and her best friend is a crotchety old godfather, Gunnvald. One winter, a family comes to stay in the holiday cottages and Astrid finally gets some local friends to go adventuring with. But then she learns a secret about Gunnvald and things might never be the same. Ages 7 and up. (As an independent read ages 9 and up.)
Adam and Thomas
by Aharon Appelfeld
This story of two Jewish boys who hide in the forest is incredibly moving. The boys have been sent into the forest by their mothers. They build a nest in the tree and when their supplies run out, they start to forage for food. A peasant girl leaves them food and Adam’s dog Miro finds them deep in the forest with a message from his mother. The war intrudes into the forest in small ways when people pass though. Everyone tells them to stay in the forest and hide. When winter comes the struggle to survive becomes more urgent. The narrative style is quiet, almost dreamlike and the narration switches between the two boys’ viewpoints as they learn valuable lessons from each other. (Originally published in Hebrew) Ages 9 and up.
by Anna Starobinets
Originally published in Russian, this feline adventure is kooky,funny and endearing, and totally unique. I read it out loud to my then-8 year old and he loved it. Baguette the cat must perform a heroic feat in order to get Purrina to agree to marry him. Baguette’s grandmother is an oracle who reveals that he is part of a long line of special time-traveling cats. Baguette must travel back in time, find and bring back the Catlantic flower so every cat might again, have nine lives. Ages 7 and up.
The Cat Who Came in off the Roof
by Annie M.G. Schmidt
First published in the Netherlands in 1970, this is a charming story about Mr. Tibble, a shy reporter who befriends a cat, Miss Minou. Miss Minou is no ordinary cat, though and she delivers valuable information about the goings on around town which help Mr. Tibble advance his journalistic career. Ages 7 and up.
Emil and the Detectives
by Erich Kästner
Find it: Amazon
This German novel, published in 1929, was was of the first books to feature a juvenile detective. When Emil is sedated with laced chocolate and robbed on a train of his grandmother’s money he doesn’t want to let his family down and sets out to solve the crime himself. Fast-paced and suspenseful, this story will keep young readers (or listeners) eager for the resolution. There is also a fun 1964 movie from Disney! Ages 6 and up.
Comet in Moominland
by Tove Jansson
Finnish author Tove Jansson gave the world a literary treasure: the Moomins. All the Moomin books are gentle, quirky fantasy stories about a group of curious creatures. In this book ,Sniff and Moomintroll, visiting an observatory, learn a comet is heading towards Moominvalley. They return home, having the obligatory adventures along the way, with a plan to take shelter from the impending catastrophe. Only the greatest of curmudgeons will not love Jansson’s creations. All ages.
The Robber Hotzenplotz
by Otfried Preußler
My son laughed out loud while I read him this classic German children’s book! The Robber Hotzenplotz steals a musical coffee mill from Kasper’s grandmother but the police are utterly inept and it is up to Kasper and Seppel to rescue the goods! The two friends set out on a mission to retrieve the coffee mill but Hotzenplotz engages the help of a magician who loves fried potatoes. Everything runs amok! We have enjoyed several of Preußler’s books, including the marvelous, The Little Witch and The Little Water Sprite which are on our 2nd grade read aloud list and our spring read aloud list. All ages.
The Secret of the Blue Glass
by Tomiko Inui
This tender book translated from the Japanese may stir memories of The Borrowers. But Inui’s tale of Little People and their caretakers touches on the seriousness and repercussions of WWII on civilians in Japan. The action begins in 1913 when Tatsuo Moriyama’s teacher, before she returns home to England, passes on to him the responsibility of looking after a family of Little People. When Tatsuo has his own family, his children take up the job of caretaker but when WWII forces them to the countryside, taking care of the Little People poses new difficulties. A wonderful, thoughtful book, first published in 1967. Ages 8 and up.