Children's Books: A Week in Books

Philip Pullman Children's books must join the Euro zone
WHEN I was a boy, one of my favourite books was Erich Kastner's Emil and the Detectives, known to English readers since the 1930s. I also loved Tove Jansson's delightful fantasies about the Moomin family, who lived in a weird but believable Finland. And I well remember Paul Berna's A Hundred Million Francs, set in the sort of shabby Parisian banlieue that turns up so often in the films of the nouvelle vague. Emil's Berlin, and the Baltic resort of its sequel Emil and the Three Twins, were as vivid to me as Arthur Ransome's English Lakeland. I hadn't been there either, but what did that matter when I could read all about it?

Publishers in those days found it possible to sell us books in translation. It can still happen now: Gudrun Pausewang's powerful novel of the Nazi Holocaust, The Final Journey, has been well received. Its translator, Patricia Crampton, has recently won the Marsh Award for her work. Nor is there a lack of people with genuine commitment to European books. Author Aidan Chambers, for example, has just chaired a panel of Dutch-language writers for young people. As a publisher, Chambers has put out translations from the Netherlands, Germany, Norway and elsewhere. And, of course, there was Sophie's World.

So the Continent is not entirely cut off. But it was only recently that I really became aware of how ignorant we now are. I was at a children's literature conference in Stavanger, talking to an audience of Norwegian teachers, librarians and other book people. There I met several writers whose books sounded interesting and topical. I wanted to read them but, of course they aren't available here.

Maybe the Centre for the Children's Book will make a difference. This excellent enterprise, whose project team, Elizabeth Hammill and Mary Briggs, has been working to raise the money, aims to develop an archive of materials - manuscripts, illustrations, letters - relating to British children's literature. The collection will be the heart of a wider set of activities, all celebrating the best in this field.

Such a Centre will only be a start. British children's literature is part of European children's literature, and vice versa. Emil and that stunning girl on page 34 of A Hundred Million Francs were my close friends. I'm sure there are many more friends waiting over the Channel for British readers, but there seems to be no way of getting to know them. I have a solution. The European Commission has resigned in disgrace. It was clearly responsible for the wrong things. What we need is a Commissioner for Children's Literature whose first act would be to fund the Centre for the Children's Book.

Philip Pullman's `I Was a Rat!' is published in April by Doubleday. The Centre for the Children's Book is on 0191 274 3620

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