Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

When I did my degree in Literature, most books I read were written by what we came to call the DWM. That is, Dead White Men. My classes were 90% American and English literature, and the books probably 90% DWM authors. At the time, I didn't question it. We were reading what was considered to be classics, and I enjoyed most of the books.

But a few years ago a friend confessed that his girlfriend was annoyed with him for constantly reading DWM. Why wasn't he bothering with female authors? So he spent an entire year trying to read nothing but female authors. I can't say I ever went as far as that, but I did become more aware of not just what, but who I was reading. I am certain there are many people who might agree more women writers need to be taught at schools. On the plus side, I think they are very well represented in modern publishing. Glancing at my bookshelves now, I'd say I've a pretty good male-female balance.

My real concern with reading, though, is that very few people read books in translation. Possibly worse, UK and US publishers seem more keen to export their own authors rather than finding great works of world literature. So many people will say that reading offers an expanded view of the world, but I find it hard to agree with that when most of us only read from a select geographical region.

That's not to say great works of foreign literature don't make it into English. There has recently been a surge of interest around Scandinavian stories thanks to Steig Larsson. Many classics come from outside the English-speaking world as well. But I still feel most English-speaking publishers are interested in selling, rather than buying, foreign rights.

And this is when I discovered Pushkin Press, who only publish books in translation. There was a book in Waterstones that kept catching my eye. The cover was gorgeous, and it was so much fatter than all the other books on the children's shelves surrounding it. A story about a knight on a quest isn't usually the first thing I go for, but I found I couldn't resist any longer.

The Letter for the King was originally written in Dutch by Tonke Dragt in 1962. She's considered to be one of the greatest Dutch writers for children, yet I would guess most of us outside the Dutch-speaking world wouldn't have heard of her. A shame, really.

The Letter for the King is fantastic. It is written in an older, more simple language than is used in most books today, but has so much charm. Tiuri, our would-be knight had he not been charged with an urgent task of delivering a letter, is a wonderful protagonist for children. His thoughts are simple, easy to understand, yet he is intelligent, brave and incredibly loyal to his task. Throughout his quest to deliver a letter to a king of a neighbouring kingdom, he encounters many people who offer to help him, and many times his trust in others becomes a misfortune in his tale. There are enemies lurking, willing to kill the young man in order to steal the letter.

Despite its hefty length for a children's book (460 pages), The Letter for the King is an exhilarating read with some lovely illustrations by the author. Each step of Tiuri's journey brings another adventure, another danger, and another friend who shows that often there is more good than evil in the world.

I commend Pushkin Press for finding books to translate and publish in English, and I can't wait to see more of what Pushkin bring into the English market. They've done a fantastic job with The Letter for the King, and I would highly recommend this title to anyone wanting a bit of old-fashioned chivalry and adventure.

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