This message was written by Sarah Sierens and Kristel Detollenaere, language specialists in the teacher training at HOGENT. They found inspiration at Foyer VZW, Freinetschool De Mandala and the Boekenkaravaan of De Schoolbrug during the project Little Children – Great Opportunities. 

Bookcase with a mix of Dutch and foreign books in the Flemish preschool Mandala

Early Childhood Education in 2021 is a mirror of society: a rich mix of nationalities, cultures, and languages. In response, authors bring more diversity to picture books. At the same time, more and more preschools are implementing a grounded vision of multilingualism. Research shows that one can capitalize on multilingual reality by giving home languages ​​a place at school and in the classroom. This results in a positive attitude towards language diversity and higher well-being of children and their families. Moreover, the home language can be integrated into language learning strategies that support both the acquisition of the home language and the language of instruction. 

One may hope that preschool teachers adapt their reading practices and opt for a mix of monolingual and multilingual picture books. But still, multilingual picture books are underrepresented in preschool classrooms. Why is it that? According to the teachers we spoke with, many are faced with the following three questions: “Which books can I use best?”, “Where can I find them?” And “Who will read those stories?”

In what follows you will receive a detailed answer to the first two questions. The third question will be addressed in a subsequent blog post, where we will also discuss how you can approach multilingual reading in a practical way.

Which multilingual books can I use? 

A good multilingual storytelling or reading session naturally starts with selecting a good book. Not every picture book in another language or in multiple languages is equally suitable for multilingual reading. 

The picture book must meet the following additional criteria: 

  • The storyline is clear and has a common thread. 
  • The story is short and sweet so that the child does not lose attention. 
  • The story does not contain stereotypes, such as female characters in a caring role.
  • The characters are recognizable. For example, animals always do well. 
  • The illustrations are clear and appeal to the imagination so that one can follow the story without knowing the language. 
  • The design is sober. This is also a must for textless picture books. A good example of this is “The Umbrella” by Dieter and Ingrid Schubert. 
  • The book stimulates action, for example searching for something, guessing what follows, carrying out assignments. For young toddlers, there is ‘Monkey on the run’ by Leo Timmers, a viewing and search book with funny details that invite you to talk and discover. 
  • The book encourages people to talk about it and ask questions. 
  • The book appeals to all children. Therefore, do not always read aloud in the languages that are most represented in the group, but make sure that all languages ​​are covered. Children who speak a minority language should also be involved. 
  • Watch out for language sensitivities and cultural differences. For example, do not choose a story with a pig as the main character.
  • Inform yourself about the exact language variety of a child’s home language. If a child speaks Arabic at home, keep in mind that Standard Arabic is a literary language used by educated people. Uneducated Arabs understand Standard Arabic, but cannot read, write or speak it. After all, Arabs speak different dialects that are mutually intelligible, but which are not written. This means that you will first have to have Arabic books translated into one of the dialects, after which you can have them read by a native speaker.

Where can I find them? 

It is certainly not easy to find and buy high-quality multilingual books. Here we discuss the different types of picture books that you can use for multilingual reading and list some websites that can help you on your way. If your school does not have enough budget to purchase books, try to locate them in a library. More and more libraries are offering multilingual picture books.

Silent books 

You don’t need a book in a different language to read it in a multilingual way. Books without text are very suitable for multilingual narration by illiterate parents, for example. Due to the lack of text, the reader can come up with a storyline for the pictures and choose his own words and adapt them to the language level of the toddler. A classic but timeless example is Raymond Briggs’ Snowman. There is also “Petit Poilu”, an accessible comic series by Céline Fraipont and Pierre Bailly about a boy who is drawn into an adventure on his way to school. Øyvind Torseter’s “The Hole” is also recommended. In the book, the main character, who has just moved, discovers a hole in the wall of his new home. However, the hole lives its own life and assumes the shape of other objects.


Picture books with text 

In addition to the wordless picture books, there are multilingual picture books with text. In this category, you will find on the one hand the bilingual picture books, specifically designed for multilingual preschoolers (in at least two languages), on the other hand, the qualitative translated literature that has been translated from the original language into different languages. 

Nik Nak multilingual booklets combine Dutch with another language

These well-known high-quality picture books are very suitable for the classroom:

There are several publishers and bookstores specializing in multilingual picture books. Often these are international publishers who combine English-language publications with other languages, such as Other publishers and book shops include Language Lizard, Little Linguist, Mantralingua, and Hoopoe Books.

Moreover, consider the use of digital picture books, which are sometimes offered in several languages. 

Top 10-lists

How do you know which books are worthwhile and offer sufficient quality? These websites can inspire you:

  • The Bologna International Children’s Book Fair annually awards the best international children’s books.
  • The International Jugendbibliothek publishes an annual catalog of quality books in more than 30 languages. 
  • The IBBY database identifies qualitative children’s and youth books in European languages ​​and in the main non-European languages ​​spoken in Europe (such as Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, Dari…). The IBBY Honor List is a biennial catalog in which every IBBY department can present interesting books from its own country 
  • The Institut du monde Arabe publishes a selection of Arabic children’s books. They have an online bookshop.
  • The online magazine Takam Tikou focuses on children’s literature production in Africa, the Arab world, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean region. Under the heading “Bibliographies des quatre mondes” book tips from the different regions are collected, sometimes in French, sometimes in multilingual, sometimes in a regional language. 


Good luck!

If you want to take the leap to multilingual reading, don’t let the barriers deter you. After all, barriers exist to be overcome. The pleasure of reading and enjoying books and stories is so fundamentally important for all children that language should not be a barrier. The French writer-illustrator Tomi Ungerer, himself trilingual, put it this way:

I experience a sunset in French, German, English, and /or Alsatian. That way I can enjoy four sunsets at the same time – not bad from an astral point of view.



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