This post has taken me 6 months to write…

Today’s post has been the hardest post to research since I began this blog. Why? Well, as part of Reading Round Europe I’ve been searching and searching for almost 6 months (yes, half a year – that’s how dedicated I am!) for some fantastic Danish picture books available in English translation to bring to you, to share with my girls and for us all to enjoy. But have I been able to find any?

Barely. I’ve found one or two Danish picture books that were nice enough, but not so brilliant, and I’ve seen references to one or two on the internet which I then haven’t been able to get hold of to read, let alone review. What’s going on with Danish children’s literature? Why are so few Danish picture books translated into English?

Nina Christensen, Associate professor at the Centre for Children’s Literature (Center for Børnelitteratur) wrote to me:

“I think one explanation could be different views on childhood and of the role of the adult in relation to children’s books.

You might find it a provocative statement, but when I enter a children’s book shop in England – or Sweden for that matter – I find that a majority of books are made in a way so that neither child nor parent/adult is challenged too much. Generally speaking picture books seem to confirm existing norms and conventions.

A lot of Danish picture books are also like that. But I think there is also a tendency in picture books from Denmark (and Norway), to expand the borders of how you can address also small children and which kind of stories you can tell them. Today, I am working on a presentation of some recently published Danish picture books: One of them is about children in a concentration camp (illustrations by Dorte Karrebæk), one of them about a girl in a third world country who lives in a dumping ground, and in a new humoristic and ironic version of H.C. Andersen’s “What the Old Man Does is Always Right” the main character, Osama, meets three prostitutes, a drug dealer and a homeless character.

Very simply put: In some Danish (and Norwegian) picture books (older) children are exposed to i.e. cruelty towards children, naked children, sex, less than ideal behavior presented in an ironic manner etc. In relation to these examples, the child reader is supposed to be “competent” – not an individual who should always be protected from strong or strange impressions. I think this could be one of reasons why so few of them are translated. I might be wrong.”

I’d love to be able to research this thesis. Certainly it seems to be a plausible hypothesis if you also look at an article in IBBY’s Bookbird journal, “A Challenge to Innocence – ‘Inappropriate’ Picturebooks for Young Readers” by Carol Scott (2005, Vol 43, no. 1 – available to read for free in pdf form here)

Photo: Mads Boedker

All of this is background to explain with today’s book as part of Reading Round Europe isn’t actually a picture book written or illustrated in Denmark. It is, however, a gorgeous picture book based on a Danish folktale. Fat Cat written by Margaret Read MacDonald, illustrated by Julie Paschkis is an incredibly fun read-aloud full of bright and exciting illustrations, a book I’m really glad to have discovered thanks to my failure to find book translated from Danish!

Fat Cat is a hungry cat. Whatever he eats, his appetite is never sated. He eats a wash lady, a company of soldiers and a king on his elephant before devouring Mouse who was busy sewing.

The seamstress Mouse saves the day by cutting a hole through the greedy Cat’s stomach enabling everyone to escape. And because Mouse and Cat are friends despite everything, Mouse uses her sewing skills to stitch cat’s stomach back together. From that day on Cat is much more careful about what he eats, always leaving a little to share with Mouse.

The story is completely bonkers (part of its appeal, of course, to young readers and listeners) and is carried along by two wonderful catchphrases that everyone will be joining in with before the story’s out. First there’s the “SLIP SLOP SLUUURP!“, always followed by a big burp 🙂 – every child I’ve met loves being allowed to make a lot a noise as they eat and, like farting, there’s a lot of humour for kids in burping. Then there’s the hypnotic refrain of the cat, “Oh, I’m meow meow FAT! / ‘Cause I’m a HUNGRY HUNGRY CAT!” These oft repeated phrases in the book make it a great deal of fun to read aloud if you’ve the energy to get into performance mode, and they also act as effective hooks drawing in listeners, enticing them to participate in the storytelling.

Paschkis’ recognisably folksy illustrations are big (Fat Cat gradually fills more and more of each page), bold, beautiful and bright. I haven’t recognised any particularly Danish motifs, however. Indeed, although this story is based on a Danish tale, an author’s note at the end of the book points out that the “notion of a greedy animal consuming everyone it meets is popular worldwide”. This picture book won’t give you any particular insight into Danish life or customs, but it’s a supremely enjoyable book to read, listen to and look at.

Looking for cat-craft-inspiration I turned to the ever wonderful Crafty Crow and was rewarded with hand print cats from Meet the Dubiens and a tutorial for drawing an Andy Warhol-inspired cat from Art Projects for Kids. Both simple ideas, easy to follow up without much preparation.

We used the tutorials to make a cat mural…

Here are some close-ups – I think the cats are pretty expressive 🙂

Whilst we made our cat mural we listened to:

  • Cat and a Bird by… Cat and a Bird.

  • A couple Danish kids’ songs on youtube (not particularly brilliant music, but interesting for being sung in Danish, and English translation provided)

  • Cool for Cats by Squeeze

  • Lovecats by The Cure (thanks to @AliB68 for reminding me of this!)

  • Other projects that could have been fun to do alongside reading Fat Cat include:

  • Making some mouse toys for your cat, via FeltSewGood (just wish we had a cat to sew for!)

  • Sewing your own cuddly cat, using these instructions from Sweet Softies

  • Baking some Danish biscuits like we did here.

  • Of course, sod’s law says that now I’ve published this post I’ll get a flood of brilliant recommendations for Danish picture books in English translations. Well all I can say is, “Bring ’em on!”

    14 Responses

    1. Cheryl Rainfield

      I just bought The Umbrella by Ingrid & Dieter Schubert from Amsterdam. It is an absolutely gorgeous book. Nothing to translate, though, as the picture book is wordless–but I thought you might like to know about it if you don’t already.
      Cheryl Rainfield recently posted..Buying Picture Books as a Treat

    2. Zoe

      Thanks Cheryl! The Schuberts are great – we have quite a lot of their books as they’re now based in the Netherlands (although German in origin) and so several of their Dutch lang books have made their way into our home.

    3. Catherine

      I have a book of Danish Nursery Rhymes – It’s Raining, Said John Twaining. I bought it because I remember it so vividly from my childhood. I don’t think the author – N. M. Bodecker – is Danish, just someone who had lived in Denmark and translated the rhymes.

    4. Kerri

      Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing this author and book. I checked our library and they have this book and many more by the author. I am not sure if my little one is ready for them, but I reserved them just to get an idea. Thanks for sharing your craft idea too!


      • Zoe

        Hi Kerri, Great to hear the book is in your local library. I hope you enjoy it when you get to read it!

    5. Sara

      Interesting letter and rationale.

      I’ve had a terrible time finding Danish picture books in English. The ones we have are in simple Danish, we just translated as we read. And at least one of those is originally German.

      I grew up with some relatively hard-headed Norwegian immigrant children’s authors in Minnesota where assimilation has been as delayed as everyone could make it (the D’Aulaire troll books, Wanda Gag). But no Danish ones.

      • Zoe

        Thanks for the tip Janet. I know and love Gecko Press but I don’t think they have any Danish authors – lots of Swedish and German though. Maybe Julia, who runs Gecko Press can prove me wrong…

    6. Mette Neimann Iversen

      I’m a Danish childrens librarian, and I can think of two recent translations:

      one is danish classic with rhymes:

      Rasmussen, Halfdan (f. 1915) A little bitty man and other poems for the very young / forfatter: Halfdan Rasmussen ; illustrator: Kevin Hawkes ; oversættere: Marilyn Nelson, Pamela Espeland. – 1. edition. – Somerville, Mass. : Candlewick, 2011.

      The other one is one of the books that Nina refers to: A book about an adopted frog with a personality disorder – very very funny!

      Strid, Jakob Martin Little Frog / forfatter: Jakob Martin Strid ; illustrator: Jakob Martin Strid. – [Slough, Berkshire] : Alanna, 2011. – When Little Frog drops into the lives of a very normal family, the trouble starts. The family loves him and he loves them – the problem is, he’s very, very naughty. Little Frog has to go on a long, lonesome journey before he finds out that even though he does naughty things, his family still loves him very much

      • Zoe

        Hello Mette! *thank you* – so grateful for your suggestions. Will see if I can get hold of them.

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