A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

A coworker put out a call on our office intranet recently asking about people’s favorite souvenirs from abroad. This was my contribution to that question… I liked it, so I thought I’d cross post it here. (By the way, I love that in French, “souvenirs” means “memories.”)

 

When I was little, my parents did a lot of traveling due to my dad’s job with Northwest Airlines. They brought many cool souvenirs back for me– I remember a wooden cow from Denmark (I think) and a big stuffed panda bear from South Korea (no, not China, strangely). The souvenir I remember the most, though, was a book from Japan, written in Japanese, in the traditional style (back to front and bottom to top). My mom used to “read” it to us by looking at the pictures and making up a story to go with it. It was something about a man who drops a rice cake into a hole in the ground inhabited by some sort of gnomes. To this day, I have no idea  what the story was really about, but I still remember it very clearly.

As an adult, a friend of mine who works in the children’s publishing industry got me interested in collecting children’s books, often gifting me with picture books for birthday or Christmas. Integrating the hobby with my love of travel, I began buying children’s books as souvenirs when I visit other countries (and anywhere, really). This began way before I had any children on the way, and I did worry for awhile that I’d never have anyone to read them to… but I still bought them, because if nothing else, I enjoy them myself. I love going to a bookstore and looking through the fun, colorful books, trying to pick out something with an inkling of the country’s culture. When I’m in a country where English isn’t the majority language, I typically look for books in the local language.

My collection has grown to be rather significant over the years, so it’s impossible to pick just one favorite. Instead, I narrowed it down to four:

1. A book of Russian fairy tales… in Russian. I love the intricate illustrations and the way the Cyrillic script looks. Even with some knowledge of Russian, I can barely read any of it, but that doesn’t really matter.

2. Les chose cassées d’Octavio (Octavio‘s Broken Things). A story about a boy who can fix anything with glue, nails, wire, etc, but who has to learn how to mend the sad heart of the girl next door.

3. Grandma Joins the All Blacks. From New Zealand, obviously.

4. An Strae Beagán (A Bit Lost). I thought it was originally written in Irish, but I recently saw it at a bookstore here and learned that it was apparently written in English by an Irish author and translated into Irish… kind of a bummer, but still a cool book. It’s about a little owl who gets lost and can’t find his mother, so a friendly fox takes him around to all the different forest animals and asks, “Is this your mommy?” Each time, the owl replies in the negative, and describes an aspect of his mother not met by the current animal. “That’s not my mommy; my mommy has big eyes!” So the fox takes him to see a frog. It goes on like this until the owlet does indeed find his mother. And then they all eat cookies. Happy endings for all.

My collection to date includes books in French, Spanish, Russian, Irish, Danish, Japanese, Hmong, Catalan, and of course English (hailing from France, Red Balloon Bookstore, Moscow, Ireland, Copenhagen, Midway Books on Snelling and University, Hmongtown Market in St Paul, Barcelona, and Australia/New Zealand/the US, respectively). Looking for books has taught me some things, as well– for example, I wasn’t able to find a book in Swahili in Tanzania, or in Spanish on Cozumel. I didn’t look that hard in Tanzania– perhaps in Arusha City I’d have found something– but my spouse and I spent a lot of time wandering around Cozumel’s main (only) town, San Miguel, looking for a bookstore. It didn’t exist. All of the librerías we learned about from the phone book or natives were actually paper supply stores. We did visit an actual bookstore in a larger town, but the only books in Spanish were obviously translated from English, and completely devoid of Mexican culture. (Which, admittedly, does say something about the world in and of itself….)

The average children’s picture book contains about 500-1000 words. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and while I love to take pictures while abroad, I think it’s worthwhile to bring words home, too.

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