This is a brief note to say that Emperor’s Riddle by Kat Zhang (Aladdin, May 2017) fits the bill of my continuing search for fun stories set in contemporary China that features Asian American children and authentically captures both the modern day life familiar to western readers and the cultural flavor unique to China. Definitely a book that I will introduce to the Chinese American mother and child who came seeking books featuring characters that “look more like her.”
Readers of this blog and friends & colleagues might have known that I am originally from Taiwan, growing up as a racial majority, upper socio-(but-not-economical) class, and never having to figure out my racial identity as a marginalized child, teen, or young adult.
When you grow up occupying only a small slice of the population pie (less than 1/16 for Asian Americans of varied country origins,) your self-image and self-worth must rely not only on your family’s heritage and conviction, but also on your school environment, your neighborhood, and media representation.
For the last few years, I have identified myself as a Person of Color so I could unite with my Asian American, Brown American, and Black American brothers and sisters to raise awareness of the institutionalized racism they (we) must confront and rectify together. However, I must confess the hesitation, the discomfort, and the sense of being an “imposter” in many of such groups that I insert myself in at work, at professional settings, and social gatherings. I attend the monthly Faculty of Color meetings to discuss and strategize how to make my school a more inclusive and just environment for everyone. I go to the annual People of Color Conference for educators to glean and share new knowledge and lesson plans. I read books and articles and discuss about all sorts of sub-topics related to the systemic oppression so many of my colleagues, friends, and students have to contend with on a daily basis.
Every so often, I say to myself, “But you have never personally experienced any of these, except for perhaps once in a while someone jokingly (or seriously) thinks that you can do math a little better or that you are probably quite docile.” The last point could be exasperating since I am so far from being docile or gentle but the misconception or stereotype never gives me an iota of emotional stress. My racial identity could be easily just part of my whole being: like that I’m short or I am near-sighted and that I am a mother and a librarian. I am more and more aware of how much a luxury it is that I can go about my day, moving in all sorts of spaces to not be keenly aware of my racial identity.
This is the kind of luxury (privilege?) that I imagine many of my white friends, colleagues, and students have. And I also imagine that this is why so many of them are still struggling to figure out why their brown/black/Asian counterparts cannot simply “let this racial identity thing” go, or cannot simply train themselves to not allow racial identity to dominate one’s self-image or as the main influence of one’s notion of self-worth.
The more I think about my own identity, the more I know that I cannot claim to be a Person of Color in 2017 America. Instead, I feel like I need a different category — a different label, perhaps. My socio-economic status, my immigration status (naturalized citizen by marriage,) my work stability, and my lack of external threats from law enforcement, etc., makes me, if not 100% equal to most upper-middle class white Americans, close enough to Being White. This explains why I often do not have the “ouch” reaction that many people of color have when encountering media misrepresentations, lack of representations, or grossly inaccurate stereotypical expectations — all because I have not experienced years of being misunderstood or being reduced to a “type” and not being seen and valued as a unique individual. If there is some sort of continuum of Racial Identities — then I would drop my pin (when it comes to how privileged and how socially resourced I am) somewhere in the “White” section. Since I cannot claim to be actually White, I will from now on think of myself as Off-White and hopefully can use this identity to help my White colleagues, friends, and students to figure out how we can help advance the anti-racist and social justice causes.
I welcome comments and thoughts — am I being completely off here? Am I usurping anyone’s identity to claim myself as Off White or is it somehow accurate and perhaps even rings a bell for other Asian Americans?
For the second year in a row, I posted Children’s Literature Ambassador Gene Yang’s Reading Challenges (Reading Without Walls) as a preamble to the Summer Recommended Reading Lists for my students. The three main points are:
- Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like me or live like me.
- Read a book about a topic I don’t know much about.
- Read a book in a format (or genre) that I don’t normally read for fun.
Last Wednesday, a parent brought her 4th grade daughter to the library to check out summer books and her first question to me was, “Who decided on the summer reading challenges?” Seeing her and her daughter, both of East Asian descent, it suddenly dawned on me that the first challenge was not a “challenge” at all, but a re-enforcement of what has been the norm in the child’s reading experiences: almost always reading about someone who doesn’t look like her. The mother confirmed my realization by saying that there are pretty much no books with characters that look like her! So I grasped at the straw of the second part of the same challenge: live like me and said that this could mean someone living in a rural area, from a different era, or different country.
The next ten minutes saw me scouring the library collection, trying to offer SOME titles with characters that might mirror her daughter’s appearances or experiences, written by authors of a similar background — to very little success. She already read all the books by Grace Lin multiple times. Linda Sue Park’s books do not seem to speak to her (even though I thought Project Mulberry might work just fine…) Cynthia Kadohata’s books tend to cover more somber topics that the child does not want to read over the summer (and The Thing About Luck was already checked out!) Marie Lu’s books do not feature East Asian main characters and Kiki Strike’s girl pal Oona Wong has a father who is a major criminal. The books by Ying Chang Compestine are either too serious or too scary or do not feature a girl main character. I was hoping she would probably take out Millicent Min, Girl Genius but she took one look and didn’t like the idea of reading about a girl who’s super smart. Eventually, they took out some other books and left not unhappy but definitely not entirely satisfied.
And I was left pondering: Why did I not see how the first part of the challenge might read/feel to child readers who have not seen themselves reflected in books all along? Why? Because I defaulted readily into the “white audience” mode and only realized the imbalance when confronted with this real-life scenario that offers me a broader view. I also realized how lacking of knowledge I am to fun books (fantasy, mystery, school humor, graphic novels, etc.) that feature East Asian characters prominently for tweens! Suggestions welcome!
Lesson learned and hopefully will be able to apply in the future.
The Chinese bilingual picture books published by Candied Plums are now widely available through various book wholesalers and retailers: including Baker & Taylor, Ingram, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble online.
The editor and rights manager Lisa Lee attended BEA in New York and met many librarians and booksellers who all marveled at how well made, original, and beautiful these bilingual (and some English only) books are. As a consultant to the company, I definitely feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. It has been a joy to work with Candied Plums and especially Lisa and a privilege to provide a service to a much needed corner of the children’s literature field.
According to these two articles, one by the Guardian, Peppa Pig pulled: China cracks down on foreign children’s books and one on South China Morning Post, What does China have against Peppa Pig?, the Chinese Government has started to limit the number of picture books originally published overseas in order to both foster local children’s book publication and have a firmer control over the kind of ideology conveyed through the local picture books. (Thanks, Jeff Gottesfeld, for posting these links on Facebook!)
I am monitoring this progress and will report back for those interested in following this topic. But, right out of the bag, I’d like to point out that the number of translated books for children in China has always been huge and overpowering. Look at this screenshot of the top paperback picture book bestsellers on their largest online children’s bookstore: 2 from the Netherland, 4 from the United States, and 2 from France. Not a single title is by Chinese authors or illustrators.
Compare this to the top selling picture books on Amazon in the U.S. (There is no such category, only best selling children’s books.) There are eight picture books in the first twenty titles which are mostly Harry Potter books: First 100 Words by Roger Priddy, The Going-To-Bed Book by Sandra Boynton, The Wonderful Things… by Emily Winfield Martin, Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry’s The Gingerbread Man (Little Golden Book) by Nancy Nolte (Author), Richard Scarry (Illustrator), and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. All of them are published in the U.S., by U.S. authors and illustrators. In fact, it has always been rare for foreign, translated work for children to thrive in the U.S. marketplace.
So, I imagine that the need for #OWNVOICE is real and urgent in China.
There is a reason I used this hashtag since I saw that someone invented this other hashtag on Facebook to stress that China Need Diverse Books: #CNDB (modeling after the #WNDB, We Need Diverse Books hashtag) as if the Chinese market is flushed with nothing BUT Chinese creators’ works. The reality is quite the opposite.
Let’s truly examine the full ranges of the issues of picture book fields in these two countries before making judgements regarding the nature and influence of this potential “government mandate.”
The fact is: the U.S. has no government mandate, but a free market, that dictates what gets published and sold. And what we have is usually an extremely U.S. or Western centric slate of titles year in and year out. Any publisher is BRAVE enough to bring a couple of culturally unfamiliar, translated books into the U.S. market is praised, patted on the back, but rarely sees monetary success because of such courageous move. (And why isn’t the Betchelder Award ever cites the Translator along with the Publisher. Or for that matter, why aren’t translators’ names always prominently placed on the cover or title pages? That’s another whole blog post to come.)
As some of you know already, I am working with Candied Plums, a new children’s book imprint, to bring contemporary Chinese books to the U.S. There is no mandate from anyone or anywhere, except for the publisher’s and my desire to bring more cultural understanding and accessibility to the U.S. readers. These picture books, in my opinion, do not promote the “Chinese/Communist Dogma,” nor do they convey any specific ideology except for displaying all ways that we can be human. These books should be as popular in China as all the imported books. So, perhaps, just perhaps, the publishers who have been working hard at publishing their #OWNVOICES would have a better chance at reaching their #OWNREADERS with this new, drastic mandate from the Government?
It’s FINALLY happening!! So excited to report that the first group of books (20 titles) from Candied Plums, an imprint of Paper Republic, located in Seattle and Beijing, are finally available in the U.S. marketplace.
You can purchase the titles through Amazon or Baker and Taylor (and hopefully more venues in the immediate future.)
I have proudly served as Candied Plums consultant for the last year and a half and am impressed by the diligence and vision of those who venture into this new territory with me. Manager Richard Li (Li Yun), editorial and rights coordinator Lisa Li (Li Xiaocui,) and editor Nancy Zhang (Zhang Tong) have poured their heart and soul into bringing the best contemporary children’s picture books to American readers: both Mandarin Learners and non-Chinese readers. Some titles are available in both English and Bilingual Chinese (with English translation at the back of each book) versions while some are only available in Bilingual Chinese version.
Kirkus has reviewed some of titles and it seems that the reviewers all adore the stories and illustrations but worry about the fact that the English translation of the bilingual version does not appear along side the Chinese text. This is a deliberate choice by the editorial team. We want to present the books as close to their original version as possible while still giving the English readers a completely clear sense of what each page conveys. It is a bold and risky choice — but perhaps it is also a chance for readers of all ages to get excited about something new and groundbreaking. The company’s budding website will include companion audio recordings of each title. I can see a fun library program where the librarian can play the audio version, stopping to translate each page with the provided English text, and give the young audience the pleasure of the storyline, the illustrations, and hearing an unfamiliar but widely used language in the world.
To give a bit of a taste of what the books are like, here are two titles and links to their reviews by Kirkus.
Candied Plums’ Winter 2016/2017 Catalog also offers detailed information, description, and language learning levels.
Please also visit the Candied Plums’ Website. Spread the word and give us feedback so we can continue bringing the best of Chinese children’s books to American young readers, schools, libraries, and families.
I kind of knew about this upcoming fantasy for a while but didn’t realize that it’s not just ONE book, but a TRILOGY. Woot!
Can’t wait to have new words, new phrases, new characters, new magical experiences and new emotional responses to Pullman’s creation. The world is a richer place because it contains His Dark Materials and the wisdom of Philip Pullman!
Read the Guardian article here: