China, BEA’s guest of honor this year, was the enthusiastic host to the May 28th BEA panel on Children’s and YA literature in China and America. Their interest in children’s literature was evident. But the event required a lot of patience.
The event started 45 minutes late –two-time Newbery Honor author Patricia Reilly Giff was stuck in traffic. (Despite this, attendees who arrived on time, stayed, and meanwhile, the Chinese hosts passed out calligraphy sets to audience members, with beautiful carved brushes.) Every comment by panelists was followed by translation into English or Chinese. It was exciting to see a fully bilingual BEA event, but it was slow-going for panelists to get their ideas out, since they had to pause every few sentences to wait for the translator.
The tenor of the event was very formal, with extensive introductions given to each of the panelists – Liu Guohui, editor-in-chief of People’s Literature Publishing House, and president of Daylight Publishing; Li Yan, v-p of China Publishing Group; and Cao Wenxuan, an acclaimed Chinese children’s author and professor at Peking University – all from China. Aside from Giff, the American panelists included Nicholas Richards, a translator of children’s books; Mary Pender-Coplan v-p of Maria B. Campbell Associates, an international literary scouting agency; and Jocelyn Lange, director of foreign rights at Random House.
In brief opening remarks, Li Yan explained his interest in promoting Chinese culture abroad, asserted how big and successful Chinese publishing houses are, and that children’s publishing is a priority. The majority of the time went to Patricia Giff and Cao Wenxuan. Giff talked of how as a child she and a friend tried to dig to China, and what a dream it was that her books were now available to children in China.
Cao Wenxuan said he was very busy at BEA, and was eager to discuss his newest novel, The Burned Brand (title translated from the Chinese), for children ages 9-15, that he hopes will educate everyone about World War II and how war destroys our humanity. His most famous work, The Straw House (University of Hawaii Press, 2009), has sold over eight million copies in China, and he was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award last year.
Lange spoke of the “enormous challenge” of getting books into China. Award-winners like Giff’s Lilly’s Crossing see success there because Chinese publishers like books that have won prizes. But Chinese publishers look for branding opportunities, so books by Richard Scarry and series like Magic Tree House and Dr. Seuss also do well. Young adult novels, however, and other content-driven titles that focus on drug use, homosexuality, sexual situations, and mental illness (among other themes) are not allowed into the market, Lange explained, because of censorship. Serious topics overall are very difficult to publish in China.
Interestingly (and rather sadly for Mary Pender-Coplan, who was never invited to utter a word), the moderator called an end to the panel just after Lange began speaking about censorship in China. They made time for calligraphy, however, and encouraged attendees to take a picture of what they wrote, so it could be posted on Chinese social media.