Border Crossing in Children’s Literature: A Consideration of the Second International Symposium for Children’s Literature & Fourth U.S.-China Symposium for Children’s Literature
When asked to speak at a conference I recommend throwing caution to the wind and going for the longest title imaginable. Thus did I speak at Princeton this past Thursday as part of the Second International Symposium for Children’s Literature & Fourth U.S.-China Symposium for Children’s Literature hosted by the Cotsen Children’s Library (Princeton University Library). My speech’s title? Deep breath now:
“Bypassing the Gatekeepers in an Age of Obsolescence: How the the Democratization of the Online World Both Aids and Challenges the Work of Children’s Literature Experts.”
This conference, you see, was held for a number of Chinese experts and educators, all with a distinct interest in children’s literature. Unlike America, they don’t have a history of “gatekeepers”. No long and lengthy history of professional review journals of children’s literature and far less children’s literature librarians, booksellers, and academics in the field. My talk gave a rundown on the history of children’s literature criticism in America and how it’s changing. Sharp eyed spotters queried whether or not the talk is online (I have so little experience with academic papers and conferences that I’m still finding out if there’s some place this was published) and if it was just a rehash of an old and egregious ALSC article I did for Children & Libraries a couple years ago (which, thank goodness, it is not or else I’d be rightfully accused of not learning anything at all over the last few years).
Anyway, my talk was by no means the most interesting one. Thanks to the existence of small humans that live in my home and, for some reason, prefer me to be in their presence at all times, I cut my visit to the conference short. This I wish I didn’t have to do because the talks on hand sounded so bloody marvelous! You can see the full roster of them here and feel my pain alongside me. I mean, did I get to see the magnificent translator Helen Wang talk about her job? I did not. Did I get to hear a compare and contrast between Shel Silverstein and Ren Rong Rong? Nope. And did I (and this kills me) get to hear about the Soviet influence on Chinese children’s literature between 1949 and 1966? I mean, COME ON! That sounds AMAZING! But no.
Fortunately, I did get to hear some of the speakers. How? Simultaneous translation. In a booth above and behind us sat translators. We, below, listened on headphones. Not only did this make the Chinese speakers comprehensible, but if you kept them on then you could hear the English speakers pretty darn well too. Extra Bonus: I didn’t accidentally take one of the translation devices home. Whew!
In a way, this conference provided a plethora of potential blogging material. So many fascinating topics were brought up, that you’ll have to forgive me if I present what I did see through the children’s literature blogging lens.
After the opening remarks by Andrea Immel (Cotsen Children’s Library) and Mingquan Wang (Library of the Ocean University of China) a group of kids came in from the YingHua International School, a private day school with a full Chinese immersion preschool and elementary school. The younger children presented a riddle game done for the Lantern Festival and the 2nd and 3rd graders sang a song called “Country”. The audience, suffice to say, was charmed.
As it turns out my paper was part of the first panel for the day. One consisting of Marc Aronson (“Bridges and Challenges: What Makes for Excellence in Juvenile Nonfiction”), Lifang Li (Dean of the School of Chinese Language and Literature at Lanzhou University and author of the talk “A Theoretical Conception of the Value System of Chinese Children’s Literature Criticism”), chaired by Debroah Stevenson (editor of the review journal the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books and the director of the Center for Children’s Books at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, amongst many other things). The trouble with being a panelist is that one is not able to take sufficient notes on one’s own fellow speakers. Marc did give me a great idea for a blog post, however. As he pointed out to me later, why is it that we always talk about the writing styles of fiction writers but never the styles of authors of nonfiction books? I’ve filed that one away for future ponderings.
After a break (the translators have to take periodic breaks to keep in fine fettle) it was time for “Paratextual Readings of Chidlren’s Literature and Media.”
Sue Chen (Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Australia) moderated. The first speaker was Frances Weightman, a truly delightful woman with whom I’d shared a shuttle the day before. Ms. Weightman is Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds with a keen interest in introducing academics and non-academics in Chinese literature (even going so far as to write the book The Quest for the Childlike in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Fiction: Fantasy, Naivety, and Folly). She proceeded to give an utterly fascinating presentation (“Marketing Chinese Children’s Authors in an Age of Celebrity”) that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
In her talk, Ms. Weightman looked closely at the author Cao Wenxuan. In spite of the fact that he is a worldwide celebrity of children’s literature (he won the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2016, amongst other things) the book he’s best known for here in the States is Bronze and Sunflower, published last year to great acclaim.
Now there’s been a lot of talk here in the States about treating children’s authors and illustrators (particularly male ones) like “rock stars”. Well, to be perfectly frank, we can’t hold a candle to what China’s does for Cao. Ms. Weightman wanted to look at how Chinese children’s authors are presented by their publishers and in the books themselves. She mentioned that she wasn’t particularly interested in who constructs the author’s image. Rather, she just wanted to look at what kind of image of the author is being consciously constructed in the 21st century (a.k.a. the age of social media). Her conclusions? The divide between the personal and public is being broached like never before.
But before we go further, let’s talk a little about what we mean when we talk about an author’s image. As an example, Ms. Weightman mentioned reading Roald Dahl. These days, in his books, she was surprised by the sheer amount of backmatter and information presented about the author. His hut, his physical writing process, etc. On the one hand we expect young children to immerse themselves in the magical realms, but at the same time we also expect them to be interested in the adult creators of those realms. And we only really do this with authors. I mean, we wouldn’t expect them to care about the director of a film would we? Are kids taught about the creators of toys? Not usually. So she looked at this celebration of authors in Chinese children’s books. Cao Wenxuan seemed a logical choice. He has global recognition. And best of all, his publisher has released a commemorative edition of Bronze & Sunflower with a huge amount of backmatter about the author. Why is this any different from something about Dahl or another author? Because of how Cao is being presented.
In the book there are 75 photos of the author. The text reads, “He holds a knife in one hand and sword in another.” Academia is the knife and being a writer is another. Imagine a kid reading about their favorite author and coming across this description: “Literature in his left hand, academia in his right hand.” Over and over again the book lists his literary works alongside his academic ones. They take great care to stress this dual image. “Regardless of where he finds himself, he is always calm and collected.” After a while you have to wonder if this backmatter is for the child or the parent. But how different is that from books here in America? Many is the time I’ve looked at backmatter and decided it was made with the intention of speaking to parents or teachers and not kids. But the choices in the special edition book are, as Ms. Weightman pointed out, very specific. There’s a picture of him with family, “Just like Bronze, he is an elder brother.” This is deliberately curated to emphasize him as a family man, and also one intimately tied up with the characters he creates.
For contemporary American authors, we don’t really do this to the same extent, no matter how successful the book. J.K. Rowling may have biographies but there is no commemorative edition of Harry Potter that shows photos of her in her youth. No version of Wonder or The One and Only Ivan or any of the books by Kate DiCamillo do this. Even John Green, at the height of his celebrity, doesn’t have books where it’s just photos of him and his life at the back. And yet, as one audience member was quick to point out, in the past America would extol the virtues of the “canon” of children’s literature (read: white and male) to a similar degree. Take Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for example. When it came to American schoolchildren it was important to set up a kind of cult of personality. It’s a kind of gatekeeping, passing readers from one world to another, with a specific aim of controlling the disruptively imaginative world the author created. Educators wanted to make sure that kids understood that behind this frivolous world stood an authority figure with morals who was NOT as disruptive as their writing. The teachers would teach this and that would bring all the children under a single kind of American heterogeneity. Deborah Stevenson then also pointed out during this Q&A after the talk that due to the inner lives of many children’s authors, maybe it’s a good idea that we not look too much behind the curtain. Not everyone’s personal life is tailor made for intense scrutiny (see: Roald Dahl),
By the way, if you’re interested in academics with a focus on Chinese children’s literature, please be so good as to check out the blog Chinese books for young readers, which Ms. Weightman helped to set up. It contains content you will not be able to find anywhere else.
Do you see why this conference was a goldmine in terms of blog content? And it didn’t end there! On first glance the talk “Chinese Literary Story on Disney DVDs: A Comparison of the Paratexts in the Chinese and American Versions of The Secret of the Magic Gourd”, presented by Xiru Du of Penn State University where she teaches children’s literature, didn’t look like it would provide me with much fodder. How wrong I was!
First up: definition time. The word “paratexts” in this case was coming from the book Paratexts: The Thresholds of Interpretation by Gerard Genette. Basically, Ms. Du was examining the Promotional Materials and Bonus Materials of a Disney film you’ve never heard of. The Secret of the Magic Gourd was Disney’s first co-produced Chinese film. Was it released in the United States, though? No, it was not. Not in theaters, anyway. But an American version did come out on DVD in 2009.
As Ms. Du spoke, she explained how the film’s promotional materials would reference the original folktale. This made me wonder about similar situations when children’s literary adaptations like Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Twilight are made. To what extent did their original trailers and posters reassure fans that they were being faithful to the books? Then I began to remember specific instances. Do you remember how in the film of Twilight there was a moment where, at some point (during the credits, I believe) they show Edward holding an apple in his hands in a direct reference to the original book jacket? How often have you ever seen a film do that? Harry Potter’s original poster did a kind of Star Wars poster style when it was first being promoted, which had the advantage of showing characters and elements that fans would be looking for in the film. Now think of Wimpy Kid! In that case the art style of the original book was replicated in the title sequence! Hunger Games replicated the starkness of the black original covers on its posters. I mean, these days (and I don’t think people would disagree) films are more faithful to literary adaptations than they’ve ever been before (part of the reason I keep hoping for a straight Wizard of Oz adaptation one of these days). People reward faithfulness, IF the book is well-known. But what about more recent adaptations? For example, A Wrinkle in Time was changed quite a lot, but those changes were done for a good greater than literary accuracy. Rather the changes were made (most, not all of them) to advance representation on the big screen. And then what about Wonder? Accurate within an inch of its life, right? So was the book directly referenced directly in some way? I can’t remember. Though, thinking about it, the movie posters did remind me of the British book jackets (hm).
Next, we heard from Professor Natasha Heller of the University of Virginia. Her topic was “Mindfulness, Picture Books, and Global Cultural Flows.” The focus? That Peaceful Piggy series from Albert Whitman & Co. and Kerry MacLean.
Mindfulness is a big business these day. Heck, there are at least 1,000 books on Amazon for children that are focused on it. But, as Professor Heller pointed out, this is part of a decades long trend to remove or dumb down the Asian elements that come with mindfulness. The Peaceful Piggy series by Kerry Lee MacLean is a good example of how this series was created for American audiences and then changed when it was translated into Korean.
Personally, I remember when this series first came out. It was, as I remember it, one of the first of its kind. In the books, meditation is viewed as a “self-care regimen” where naming and managing emotions is just as important as mindfulness. The Peaceful Piggy sequel The Moody Cow is interesting because in the book the cow has an Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day day and is told how to calm down. Compare this to other books about anger like, When Sophie Gets Angry. As you might imagine, in America mindfulness and meditation are entirely separate from religion and spirituality and are just seen as ways of dealing with the self. They may have Buddhist origins but they are presented in a secular way.
Now let’s look at the Taiwanese translations, which are framed differently and published by a Buddhist Press. Professor Heller explained how new titles were given to these books. Moody Cow became The Mind Jar of the Furious Cow (which I think we can all agree is a MUCH better title!). Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda became Greedy Monkey, Happy Panda. The translation also reshapes that particular book by focusing on what the monkey needs to do to change its behavior. A common feature of Taiwanese children’s books is to offer parents guidance. In the case of this series, a painter and art educator wrote a guide at the end of the book, legitimizing the book through an outside authority.
After that it was time for me to head out. Is it any wonder that I wish I could have stayed?
Many thanks to Dana Sheridan and Minjie Chen for allowing me this opportunity to just learn and learn and learn and learn.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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