By Kelsi Vanada
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is, for me, a prime example of a book with a child narrator that’s often included in literature curricula for middle schoolers, but which in many ways speaks to an adult audience. I taught at a small K-8 school for a few years right out of college, and when I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, I often found myself laughing at Lee’s humor or acknowledging some truth that it frustrated my students not to be able to understand without a great deal of explanation from me. The book has a very adult message to convey, and it’s effective precisely because that message is conveyed by a child.
Dutch writer Toon Tellegen’s collection I Wish is full of poems with (largely) child speakers. It’s illustrated by Ingrid Godon, translated into English by David Colmer, and published by Archipelago Books’ Elsewhere Editions imprint for children—and it is, to use a great cliché in earnest—a real breath of fresh air. I’ve read little poetry from a child’s point of view that wasn’t written exclusively for children, and the genius of Tellegen’s poems is in their mystery. Are they written for an audience of other children, or are the poems conveying a message to adults? To my mind they have a hybrid audience, like To Kill a Mockingbird. David Colmer’s great accomplishment in his translation of I Wish is that he creates a voice in English for the various speakers that doesn’t pick a side, but instead breaks down our sense of what is “childlike” and what’s for adults. And how adults read these poems may in fact depend on how they view children.
The school where I taught employed the philosophy of British educator Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), a contemporary of Maria Montessori. Mason held children in very high esteem. Though they needed support to learn the habits necessary to live well, to Mason all children were “born persons,” not incomplete humans with partly formed souls.1Mason, Charlotte. Volume 6: Towards a Philosophy of Education. AmblesideOnline’s Annotated Charlotte Mason Series. https://www.amblesideonline.org/CM/vol6complete.html#029 They were made to learn, ready to consume a “feast” of great ideas communicated through beautiful language. 2Ibid. Volume 6: Towards a Philosophy of Education. AmblesideOnline’s Annotated Charlotte Mason Series. https://www.amblesideonline.org/CM/vol6complete.html#051 At the time of the Industrial Revolution and the turn of the century, when especially poor and immigrant children were often viewed as less capable of learning than the upper classes, these were radical ideas for a Victorian woman to teach to other young women in Mason’s teacher-training unions.
In I Wish, almost every poem is a brief monologue that begins “I wish…,” expressing some desire. They are titled with the name of a child and paired with their illustrated portrait on the facing page. Tellegen’s poems share Charlotte Mason’s high opinion of children, in that they show children to be capable of great depth of reflection about difficult ideas. In many of the poems, the child speakers think about death, for example. “What does everyone know? That everyone dies in the end,” say twins Marie and Rose (54). For her part, Charlotte Mason called ideas “live things of the mind,” and the teacher’s goal was to provide for at least one new idea a day to take root in each child’s mind and prompt growth—this, to her, was education.3Ibid. Volume 6: Towards a Philosophy of Education. AmblesideOnline’s Annotated Charlotte Mason Series. https://www.amblesideonline.org/CM/vol6complete.html#105The poems in I Wish explode with “living ideas.” Loneliness, despair, the meaning of self-love, responsibility for the wellbeing of others—these are among the difficult themes of the book.
Although each poem’s speaker expresses their own desires and fears, Colmer has created a voice in English for the book as a whole that is consistent, and which unites the different poems. They are infinitely readable, their language highly spoken and familiar (“racked their brains,” “Band-Aids”), with just a touch of still-accessible sophistication (“In the clear,” “I was inscrutable too”). Their poetic form adds pauses and a few intriguing line breaks, but the poems are written in complete sentences. The effect is partly one of universality—that humans across the globe struggle with many of the same emotions is very much a “living idea.” In addition, the consistent voice throughout the poems provides a safe grounding, even as the poems deal with the aforementioned issues of great difficulty and sadness.
The children’s portraits, zoomed in on their faces, are quite unsettling. Ingrid Godon has created them in a kind of serious, old-fashioned style, while at the same time they’re made intimate by a touch of cartoon quality. Too-wide eyes stare back at the reader. These children know the world, and it hurts—that hurt shows in their speech and in their faces. They may be young, but most of them don’t speak from blithe innocence: “There is more pain in the world than anything,” says Paula (68). Children can handle difficult themes, and they need literature that values their personhood, both affirming and challenging them. (Charlotte Mason had a word for the kind of fluffy reading material that belittled children intellectually: “twaddle”4Ibid. Volume 6: Towards a Philosophy of Education. AmblesideOnline’s Annotated Charlotte Mason Series. https://www.amblesideonline.org/CM/vol6complete.html#210).
As Lawrence Schimel and Daniel Hahn discussed in a recent conversation called “Translating for the Future: Children’s Literature in Translation” as part of the “Translating the Future” conference, often it comes down to an adult (publisher, parent, librarian) deciding which children’s literature is published or purchased or read. “It’s the gatekeepers who think that [children] are not prepared or they’re not ready to deal with some of these things,” said writer, publisher, and translator Lawrence Schimel of the cultural information found in books for young people. It’s important that I Wish presents living ideas and real human emotion, and what better way to share this with Anglophone readers, especially if their audience is comprised of children growing up in a monolingual culture.
Tellegen reminds adult readers of I Wish, through Colmer’s translation, that children’s capacity for understanding the difficult truths of the world is great, and we do them wrong if we belittle that understanding. Nora, for example, is called pretty when she blushes, and seems to experience this as uncomfortable gendered attention—and in no uncertain terms: “Blushing is war on my face” (22). I Wish has something to teach adults about unfettered, creative—and often humorous!—expressions of longing and pain. One of my favorites is a short poem from Emma. She so incisively cuts to the frustration of knowing you’re too hard on yourself, without knowing what to do about it:
I have a little list of conditions I have to
fulfill to be satisfied with myself.
When I read that list, I think,
there are two things I can do:
either make a list that’s even shorter
or never be satisfied with myself.
What should I do? (50)
Emma and the others convey with abandon their fears of death and desires for love, even when they are speaking to themselves—that’s how I read most of these monologues, thanks to Colmer’s intimate tone in translation. The reader is somehow able to listen in—and I imagine both children and adults alike reading Emma’s poem and feeling instant identification, at their own age levels.
Further blurring the line between what is for children and what’s for adults, not all the poems in I Wish have child speakers. In fact, some of the poems that move me most have adult speakers, such as world-weary Olga. She says,
I wish he would then look at me, smile at me,
wrap his arms around me and whisper
in my ear that he now, finally, understands
what he’s living for. (26)
The emotion in her longing is made all the greater because she shares it in the child-voice of the other poems, to which the reader has become accustomed—but the illustration makes clear that this is an adult. Perhaps the lesson for child readers is that adults have unfulfilled wishes too. The speaker’s voice and naivete (she calls her imagined lover “a boy”), is another way in which the child-adult boundary is mysteriously blurred in I Wish—the children are mature and the adults are somehow child-like. These are complex characters that give readers at any age much to chew on.
Of course, how you categorize a book’s audience depends on cultural factors. In his “Translating the Future” conversation with Lawrence Schimel, British writer, editor, and translator Daniel Hahn tells about a time when he and a Danish editor shared the task of splitting a series of stories into one anthology for children and one for young adult readers—and how they each felt the other’s culturally based criteria for which stories were appropriate for which age group seemed arbitrary. In the case of I Wish, its themes, voice, and illustrations break down the divide separating adults and children, and what’s proper to each.
My approach to this delightful book is from an adult’s perspective. But I hope those of you who have children or spend time with young people will read some of these poems with them—and let me know how they react! It’s exciting that I Wish helps fulfill Elsewhere Editions’ mission to “build a list of books that shows faith in children as enthusiastic, sensitive, and serious readers.” Like Charlotte Mason, it sees them as persons.
Tellegen, Toon. I Wish. Illustrated by Ingrid Godon. Translated by David Colmer. Elsewhere Editions, 2020.
Kelsi Vanada is a poet and a translator from Spanish and sometimes Swedish. Her translations include Into Muteness (Veliz Books, 2020) and The Eligible Age (Song Bridge Press, 2018), and she is the author of the poetry chapbook Rare Earth (Finishing Line Press, 2020). Kelsi is the Program Manager of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in Tucson, AZ.