Notes from Beijing: Chinese Children’s Books and Other Thoughts, Part 1

FCLBeijingThese thoughts went through my mind as I visited Beijing and the International Book Fair with a focus on the local books published for the Chinese young readers.

First, simply about communication and information exchanges.

It was quite an education for me to truly understand that the “WORLD” wide web as I see and use it is definitely NOT so “world wide.”   YouTube, Google-platform, Facebook, and Twitter are all inaccessible in China, unless someone has installed IP masking devices (VPN, etc.)   So, when I tweet or share something on Facebook from New York City, I cannot guarantee to reach the millions of potential internet users in China.  According to the editor of one of the publishers, Fairrosa Cyber Library site often shows up without her being able to load the included images — and no YouTube videos can be displayed either. Furthermore, since my recent reports on Newbery & Caldecott winning publishers feature Google spreadsheet graphs (pie-charts), the information, without a plain text summary, was inaccessible to the Chinese readers of my blog.

Although I always knew about the differences in accessibilities of certain sites in China, experiencing it first hand definitely made me think twice about my comfortable assumptions.

Another striking realization came after I spoke with several representatives of major children’s book publishers: either with the editors, publishers, or rights managers: each told me that they have all sold their best titles internationally.  Upon further inquiry, “internationally” means Korea and other Asian countries such as the Philippines, and France, and other European countries such as Germany.  They almost NEVER meant North America, especially The United States.  They all told a similar tale: the U.S. publishers of children’s books only wish to sell Chinese language rights and have the books available in China for sale; very rarely would a U.S. publisher seriously consider buying and translating Chinese originals into English editions for American children.  I wonder if this situation will change any time soon?

I have always noticed that translated children’s books are scarce on the U.S. market and felt sad that the U.S. children do not have the same level of exposure to world literature and diverse viewpoints and sensibilities that I had the good fortune to have, growing up in a small island country.  I read books translated from all over. Some of my all time favorite books that were re-read many times were from Italy (Heart or Education of Love), France (Arsène Lupin: Gentleman Thief series), Cuba (Malfada – a satirical comic strip series), Japan (manga) and India (Buddhist allegories.)  And while there have always been publishers who work hard at bringing books from other cultures to the U.S., there seems to be some difficulty to sell these titles when the cultural landscape and sensibilities differ greatly from the everyday, presumed mindset of the U.S. children.

Case in point: One thing I noticed was how the strong Chinese tradition of not shying away from sad endings remains evident even in picture books for fairly young children.  Tragedy is quite common in traditional Chinese literature, theater, and now TV shows and movies, and children are often familiar with many somber tales.

Take these two books by Cao Wenxuan (曹文轩) for example:

lastpatherThe Last of the Panthers shows the devastating scenario of the “last” of many species and there is no uplifting or hopeful ending when our Panther gives up on itself and falls into the perpetual sleep.  It is heart wrenching but so effective.  A young person reading the simple text and looking at these gorgeous pictures would acutely feel the pang of loss of such majestic animal and might be inspired to be more responsible in caring for our natural world.
kingofthecapAnother title is the Hat King.  A story set during the Sino-Japanese war when the boy and his grandfather (a magician skilled in “hat tricks”) had to endure the deaths of the boy’s parents at the concentration camp and even when they successfully escaped from the camp, they had no house to go back to any more.  And that’s how the tale ends. This is a story almost never told to the children in the U.S. It’s powerful and bleak — but it’s also real and full of familiar affection.

Will either of these titles, which are top-selling picture books, or dozens of other quality peers, ever find their way to the general U.S. mass market? And if and when they do, will they be translated faithfully and stay intact?

7 Comments

Filed under Field Reports, WIWWAK

7 responses to “Notes from Beijing: Chinese Children’s Books and Other Thoughts, Part 1

  1. Judith V. Lechner

    I wonder if Chinese children’s book publishing has moved in new directions since 2005 or that I was not looking in the right books stores. I saw books mainly focused on traditional stories, such as those of the Monkey King, or Chinese translations of European fairy tales. As for American publishers not being willing to publish translated books, that is what the Mildred H. Batchelder Award tries to remedy, but with not much success. What a loss for American children. I too grew up in small country that translated many wonderful international books, though from an earlier generation.

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  2. fairrosa

    Judith — my childhood was decades ago, as well. The titles I mentioned were all from the mid-20th century. Currently, in China, the market for children’s book is split between translated works from North America and European countries and original Chinese titles. And I suspect that the current creative and original work in China for children is indeed a newer trend. The printing, paper, and binding qualities are also really high now.

    There are still many many many retellings of traditional tales and many published solely for “educational purposes.” I have one more post coming up about some of these. Stay tuned :)

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  3. Ann Hotta

    I have asked the same questions myself in the past, but unfortunately I think there are disincentives for international publishing. For example, in order to publish a book from another country, a publisher has to enter into a contract with the original country for the rights. Reprinting a book requires signing a new contract, so it’s more work, plus a publisher can’t easily enter into a long-term editorial relationship with a promising author or illustrator. Plus finding and hiring a top quality translator, another extra piece, is also essential for a book’s success. Here in the US a publisher can choose from many potentially great authors and illustrators, some of whom might even have been raised in other countries and be able to bring some of those sensibilities to their work, so it makes less sense to go abroad to find a book. I share your disappointment in our lack of exposure to books from around the world, but I also think that there is huge untapped potential to find some of those international perspectives within the diversity of U.S. authors and illustrators out there waiting for a break.

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  4. fairrosa

    Ann, I am well aware of all the different “steps” you listed in your comment. I worked in Macmillan Children’s subsidiary rights department and know quite a bit about how international/translation rights are handled. The thing is: it’s the SAME process both ways. When the Chinese publishers buy from the U.S. publishers, they have to go through all these steps — and yet, that’s what they have done and are still doing! In international book fairs/trade shows, the U.S. publishers mostly do not go to buy, but to sell. Buying = paying upfront and potentially losing money in the long run if the books do not sell vs. Selling = making money right off from selling the rights. There also seems to be a real lack of translators pool in the U.S. where translation is a well-oiled machine in some other countries (like China.) This is of course due to the fact that English is a required second language and a desired skill to learn even in college level while Mandarin/Chinese is still viewed as a minor skill.

    I am not proposing that we do not tap into those who came from other countries to tell stories — however, why not have all? We don’t tell people to just be satisfied with American artists’ work — don’t look at Picasso’s or Miro’s or Klee’s art — be happy that we have Hopper, Warhol, O’Keefe, Lawrence, Wyeth — and weren’t some of them originally from a different country? Their different sensibilities should be sufficient?

    I say give them all — I share with my students the artwork of Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, Liu Bolin, Tango (Sleepless in Shanghai,) and Cai Guoqiang. And I need to know MORE new artists and what they are working on in China now — to understand more in-depth of the contemporary culture there. Because, to be honest, I am tired of the “Chinese art is calligraphy, brush painting, and landscape, etc.” understanding of this modern and ever-changing country. (And I imagine that many people from other countries will share my desire for the people in the U.S. to understand THEIR changing and moving countries as they are and not as a static and vague portrait.)

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  5. fairrosa

    Just a quick note: I am also very aware of the tension and the potential conflict between having more American authors/illustrators of foreign heritages/origins and importing books directly from other countries. However, I am optimistic that the market can shift and change and even expand to accommodate the much needed multiplicity. (Call me silly?)

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  6. Thank you for this fascinating report! I translate children’s books from Portuguese to English, so I’m familiar with many of these issues and the need for children in the U.S. to be exposed to books that were originally published abroad. I’ve also written books with international settings in places where I’ve lived, and there are differences in terms of how someone who continues to live in that country perceives realities and absorbs the literary style of the place, as opposed to an emigrant or a U.S. expat.

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