Interview with Lyn Miller-Lachmann, translator of Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World), by Henriqueta Cristina; illustrated by Yara Kono (Enchanted Lion Books, 2017)
AG: What’s the story behind the translated edition of Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World)? What attracted you to this project?
LM: My publisher, Enchanted Lion, has had a relationship with the Portuguese publisher Planeta Tangerina for many years, and we collaborated on two other books before Three Balls of Wool. The Portuguese edition of Three Balls of Wool came out in 2015, and its editor sent the book to my editor right away. The editor in Portugal was very proud of this story, which captures a time in the country’s history when people endured and in multiple ways resisted a brutal right-wing dictatorship that was overthrown in a peaceful revolution in 1974. The project attracted me because in 2014 I witnessed and covered the fortieth anniversary of the Carnation Revolution for my blog, and what I saw inspired me to write my own novel set in that period in Portugal.
Three Balls of Wool is based on a true story of a family that is forced to flee Portugal because the parents have run afoul of the fascist government. They choose to move to a country where “all children go to school”—because the government in Portugal believed in keeping the population ignorant in order to control them better—but they came to realize that universal access to education does not mean the people have freedom.
AG: The moment when the mom compares all the children in matching sweaters in their new country to an army in uniform really underscores the reality so many refugees face—how escaping a bad situation doesn’t automatically mean freedom, and oftentimes brings up a whole new set of challenges. What do you hope this story can show kids about this experience?
LM: Most people don’t want to leave their homes and families, and this is especially true of people forced to run for their lives. While the parents in Three Balls of Wool try to protect and reassure their children, the narrator knows by the lines in her parents’ foreheads that things aren’t right. As the mother in the story points out, children usually adapt more easily to learning a new language and making friends. At the same time, the mother’s knitting, which makes the best of a difficult situation, not only reassures the narrator but also instills pride in the family’s traditions and their resourcefulness in a strange new country. I hope this story helps children to see the strength of their own family traditions as well as what newcomers can contribute to the places where they end up.
AG: This story has crossed international borders through its translation and publication. Do you think that impacts the meaning of the story?
LM: Though it takes place in a particular time and place, Three Balls of Wool is a universal story, and the fact that it has been translated into multiple languages—I have photos of the French edition that I took at an exhibit in Portugal of Yara Kono’s work—testifies to that universality. There has been a lot of interest in the story in Europe, where most of the refugees from the Middle East have resettled. For us in the United States, the publication of the book has coincided with an outbreak of xenophobia among a powerful minority that fails to understand that our diversity is our strength because they don’t study history or they adhere to a biased, cherry-picked version of history that bears little relation to reality. And that, by the way, is why we need to study and understand history—to counteract ignorance and propaganda.
AG: The rhythm of your language is so beautiful. This is one of my favorite parts: “Every night for the next few weeks her needles clicked and flashed: knit-purl, purl-knit, twist, reverse. Mom knew the names of all the stiches.” There’s a language in the sounds of the knitting, which the narrator then goes on to repeat, providing an opportunity for the family to bring a language of their own to visibly shape their new home. How did you think about the rhythm of the language during the translation process?
LM: That was a real challenge for me, because I don’t knit. Fortunately, just after taking on this translation, I attended a writing retreat that included a friend from my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Meg Wiviott, who is an avid knitter. She helped immeasurably with the knitting terms as well as the language, as she’s a poet and the author of the acclaimed YA historical novel-in-verse Paper Hearts, based on the friendship of a group of young women who helped each other survive in Auschwitz.
Being multilingual also helped, because the language is just as poetic in the original Portuguese, and I worked hard to capture the rhythm of the original—Portuguese is a very florid language—but in the somewhat different cadence of English.
AG: The book’s backmatter includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. How powerful to include this document inside a children’s picture book! I love the idea that Three Balls of Wool gives a home to these important words on children’s bookshelves. I read that you are also working on a teacher’s guide. How do you hope kids and families will use this document?
LM: I’d like to see children and their families examine the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the context of their own lives. Why is it important to have those rights? Do you feel you have those rights? What would life be like if you didn’t have them—for instance, if you couldn’t go to school and you had to work in a factory, on a farm, or in a market stall? From there, they can look at events in the news, such as DACA or the criminal justice system, and examine whether our society respects those rights for everyone. If not, what can they do to change things? And why does having a document like this help to bring about change?
AG: You are a blogger at The Pirate Tree, a wonderful resource for reviews of social justice children’s books! How did The Pirate Tree get its start?
LM: We started in 2010, around the time that The Pirate Tree’s founder, Jessica Powers had her own YA novel, This Thing Called the Future, published by Cinco Puntos Press. She, the other bloggers, and I noticed that there were very few sites dedicated to social justice books. Most of those books come from small presses like Cinco Puntos, and they have a hard time getting attention from the mainstream media. So while our focus is social justice books—and we tend to review a lot of middle grade and YA because that’s what we also write—we look especially for books published by small presses as well as authors who’ve chosen to publish the books themselves because the mainstream houses tend to shy away from these topics and small presses have very small lists.
AG: What are some of your favorite social justice and activism children’s books?
LM: I’ve read some great picture books on social justice and activism recently. Some of my favorites in the past couple of years are Innosanto Nagara’s My Night in the Planetarium and his latest, The Wedding Portrait; The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin; Milo’s Museum by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Purple Wong; and A Gift from Greensboro, a poem by Quryash Ali Lansana illustrated by Skip Hill. It’s interesting that many of the outstanding activism books seem to be for the youngest readers these days, but they’re also books that the entire family can share and talk about.
AG: What’s next for you?
LM: I’m looking for more great books to translate, but I’m also writing a series of young adult “resistance stories,” beginning with the one set in Portugal, that are drawn from the experiences of teens in the past and in other countries who have faced oppression. The choices that these young people made—as all these novels are based on real people and events—can guide us as we in the United States resist the loss of our own civil rights and the liberties that we had long taken for granted.
AG: Thanks, Lyn!
Thank you for inviting me!
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of three novels for teens—Gringolandia, Surviving Santiago, and Rogue—and the translator, from Portuguese to English, of The World in a Second, Lines Squiggles, Letters, Words, The Queen of the Frogs, and Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World). Gringolandia—the story of a refugee teenager from Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship and his relationship with his father, a just-released political prisoner—was an Américas Award Honor Book and selected for the ALA/YALSA Best Books for Young Adults list in 2010. She reviews for The Pirate Tree and blogs on travel, politics, and writing at www.lynmillerlachmann.com.
By Henriqueta Cristina
Illustrated by Yara Kono
Translated by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Enchanted Lion Books