By Young Vo
LULI AND THE LANGUAGE OF TEA
By Andrea Wang
Illustrated by Hyewon Yum
ONE IS FOR BEE
An alphabet book in translation
By Ellen Heck
When people ask why I started on my path to writing dictionaries, it’s easy to acknowledge an early love of reading. But that love was fueled by growing up in a multilingual environment – my tongue striving to mimic the wandering vowels of my Vietnamese friend’s language; my Mexican classmates trying to teach me how to roll a r when all I could do was gargle; my grandmother working her way through the Finnish alphabet, then baffling me with a syncopated sweep of the three extra letters at the end, starting with the Swedish loan letter: ruotsalainen ! a! O! These early language experiences don’t just tune our ears to phonological variation; because language happens in relation to other people, it also attunes us what it means to be included or excluded.
How fortunate that two of these three new books are about the power of language. Young Vo’s ‘Gibberish’ begins as a story of displacement. An immigrant boy named Dat has recently arrived in a country where he does not speak the language. On his first day of school, his name is mutilated by both the bus driver and the teacher, and his hesitant attempts to make friends at recess are ignored – until “something unexpected” jumps out of a tree and starts communicating with him, playing through playground first and then on the bus by making drawings. Soon the “something” has become a “somebody” and the two have started a friendship despite the language barrier.
Heavy stuff, especially for a picture book, but the framing of the story turns the cruel trope that other languages sound like “gibberish” to English speakers. We’re on the inside with that, where it’s English that sounds like gibberish.
The artwork masterfully helps to turn that trope around. The inhabitants of Dat’s new town are gray, cartoonish monsters whose language, transcribed on the page, is a key word of Wingdings; That and his mother, on the other hand, are full color and human. As Dat forms a linguistic and social connection with the monster known as Julie, his environment and his new friend slowly change from grayscale to color, cartoon character to child. It’s a tender reflection of what it feels like after you’ve been social on the outside, when linguistic connections spark and fizz, and your first few words (“tree,” “boat,” “book”) suddenly multiply to equal “At home”.
“Luli and the Language of Tea”, written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Hyewon Yum, is also a story of a child in a classroom who doesn’t speak the language, but in this case there is inclusion from the start. The setting is a school playroom for the children of adults taking ESL classes next door. It’s really multicultural and multilingual – which can also be lonely, as Luli discovers.
The first day she plays alone, like all the other children. The second day she brings a teapot, a can of tea leaves and a thermos of hot water, and invites everyone for a cup. She soon notices that her word for tea is very similar to other children’s words for tea. The shared activity unites them. No language or culture is prioritized and no one is left out.
One of the linguistic treats of the book is that the word for tea is presented in each language both phonetically (as it sounds when pronounced aloud) and in written form, giving the readers a visual taste of Mandarin, Russian, Hindi, Persian and Arabic. In the back is a guide to tea around the world through the eyes of individual characters, and the endpapers feature teacups from different countries: all different and all beautiful.
The ultimate demonstration of inclusion and the beauty of world languages is Ellen Heck’s ‘A Is for Bee’. This richly illustrated multilingual alphabet book with colorful notepad drawings is not as regards inclusion, it is inclusion. Instead of following the Anglocentric pattern of apple, ball and cat, it looks in a wide variety of languages to create a new abecedarium.
The cat is still there, don’t worry, but it’s on “G”, with Spanish (gato), Ojibwe (gaazhagens) and Korean (goyangi) performance. The effect is kaleidoscopic and dazzlingly delightful. Any lover of language, or any child who loves new sounds, will be entranced.
Also notable is the sheer number of languages represented (69 in total), including many that are uncommon in English contexts – Hausa, Quechua, Malayalam, Tlingit, Gujarati, Mongolian – and some that are in danger of extinction.
When writing about other languages in English, of course, one has to take this into account. In her author’s note, Heck, who was inspired by reading Lithuanian alphabet books to her son, explains how she decided to transliterate words from languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet, and how she decided which spelling to use for words. which are transliterated or spelled in various ways.
Then there is the matter of how you pronounce these words. Ask anyone who’s frustrated that “rough” and “by” don’t rhyme: we have enough trouble with English as it is. How on earth can we figure out how to use a word like . have to pronounce? xoots (“brown bear” in Tlingit)?
This is where “A Is for Bee” becomes more than just a picture book. The publisher of Heck, Levine Querido, has built a web page where parents and educators can hear each of the words spoken by a native speaker of that language. This resource will not only be an auditory sensation for children; it will also be an accessible gateway for budding ethnolinguists.
All three of these books invite children to celebrate the wonders of a multilingual world. It’s enough to make you scream ruotsalainen ! a! O!