China leads the world in exports in industries like electronics, plastics, and textiles, but not in children’s books. Historically, the U.S.-Chinese publishing relationship has been lopsided, with China translating many English-language classics, such as The Cricket in Times Square and Tuck Everlasting, but U.S. publishers passing on Chinese children’s books. Today, U.S. and Chinese publishers are starting to tackle the imbalance in this area, despite such challenges as translation and different storytelling styles. Signs of progress include the five-year-old Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair, author Cao Wenxuan’s 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Bronze and Sunflower, the naming of China as the official guest of honor at this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and new talent-identification efforts.
“For a number of years, it seemed like every award-winning book in the United States was instantly translated into Chinese,” says Junko Yokota, director of the Center for Teaching Through Children’s Books and professor emeritus at National Louis University. “Now the Chinese government is saying, ‘Enough of that. We need to grow our own children’s literature.’ ”
Chinese publishers are responding to a growing market, fueled by the rising number of middle-class parents with money to spend on pleasure reading. (Last year, for the first time, Asia boasted the world’s largest number of billionaires, with China above the other countries in Asia, according to a UBS/PricewaterhouseCoopers report.) It’s also easier than ever for parents to buy books through retail websites such as Alibaba-owned Taobao, Amazon.cn, and Dangdang. As a result, the children’s book market is growing 10%–15% a year in China.
Over the years, China has translated many books from English, but U.S. publishers have imported very few Chinese children’s books. “That trend continues today, but there is also an initiative to balance things a bit,” says Jon Yaged, president of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, which seven years ago started Macmillan Century, a joint venture with Nanchang-based 21st Century Publishing House. “It’s been one way, and now we’re expanding it to make it go both ways.”
Though the number of Chinese children’s titles in the U.S. remains small, it’s increasing, with recent entries such as Home for Chinese New Year (Shanghai Press), I Have a Little Lantern (Better Link Press), Look! What Do You See? (Viking), and An’s Seed, Buddy Is So Annoying, Express Delivery, and Who Wants Candied Hawberries? (all from Candied Plums). Spurred by the success of writers such as Wenxuan, U.S. publishers are spreading the word that international authors write beautiful, entertaining stories.
It helps that the United States Board on Books for Young People highlights outstanding international books, including the 2017 titles A Well-Mannered Young Wolf, translated from the French, and Lines, Squiggles, Letters, Words, translated from the Portuguese. And U.S. publishers continue to introduce new Chinese titles. This August, for example, Lerner’s Graphic Universe imprint is publishing My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder by Nie Jun, about the kindness and hints of magic a girl and her grandfather see in their neighborhood; in fall 2019, Hilary van Dusen, executive editor of Candlewick Press, plans to publish another novel by Wenxuan, titled Dragonfly Eyes, translated by Helen Wang, who also translated Bronze and Sunflower.
Still, translations historically don’t fly off the shelves. “Very few translated works really get big sales, unless they have strong sales and marketing support like Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series,” says Roxanne Hsu Feldman, a Chinese-American school librarian who grew up in Taiwan.
This sentiment is echoed by Arthur Levine, v-p and publisher of Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books. “We have the challenge on one hand of people who say, ‘I’m not interested in a translated book,’ and the challenge on the other hand of people who say, ‘How wonderful, a translated book; that’s great that you do that’—and then don’t buy the book.”
Andrew Rushton, U.S. managing director for NorthSouth Books, says: “What’s missing at the moment, whether it’s picture books or YA or middle grade or maybe even adult fiction, is a couple of figureheads. There’s nobody leading the way and opening a lot of doors for everyone in the same way Stieg Larsson opened the door for Scandinavian crime writers in the U.S.” The closest at the moment is Wenxuan.
Patsy Aldana, founder and former publisher of Groundwood Books and chair of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, points out: “When you have [translated] books that work, people begin to see that there is some good reason why books should be translated. That’s why the success of Cao Wenxuan’s work is so important.”
Trends in Chinese Children’s Books
“The idea of a picture book with a fun story is something quite new in China,” says Rushton. NorthSouth Books published the English translation of Taiwanese author Fang Suzhen’s Grandma Lives in a Perfume Village, a contemporary story about young Xiao Le, who visits his ailing grandmother before she dies and comforts his mother after. “I think the flood of titles coming in from outside has shown Chinese publishers that the limits of what a children’s book can be are way beyond their understanding of the medium,” Rushton adds. “This has encouraged them to experiment themselves.”
Neal Porter, v-p and publisher of Neal Porter Books at Holiday House, spent 12 days last summer speaking with Chinese editors, authors, and book promoters in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Xian. “The notion of a Western-style 32-page picture storybook is a relatively recent development in China, and it’s something they’re keen to know more about as they develop their own lists,” he says. “Traditionally, China produced primarily educational titles, often ones with strong messages that we would term didactic, and these are kind of an anathema to trade publishers in the U.S.”
In premodern China, books taught kids to risk their own health and safety for their parents’ sake, says Minjie Chen, a librarian at the Cotsen Children’s Library in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University. “Children’s literature was hijacked by political propaganda, especially during the Cultural Revolution.”
A 2017 study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, by Cecilia Cheung, a University of California at Riverside psychologist, found that Chinese storybooks emphasize enduring hardship and learning, hard work and respect for others, whereas those from the U.S. use uplifting themes and often portray protagonists with high self-esteem and unique strengths. The inspiration for her research was a conversation with a recent immigrant from China. “She complained that the storybooks in the U.S. are not didactic enough and did not seem ‘useful’ in teaching her children lessons about how they should lead their lives,” Cheung says. “I was intrigued by her comment and decided to find out whether and how children’s reading materials differ across cultures.”
In the Chinese book A Cat That Eats Letters, for example, kids must stop a feline that feasts on sloppy characters, and the only way to do so is to write carefully and practice daily. By contrast, The Jar of Happiness takes an approach more typical in the U.S.: a girl tries to make a happiness potion in a jar, loses it, and then realizes that good friends, not the jar, make her feel cheerful.
This difference is also evident in books for older kids. “Teenagers in China, when they’re in middle school and high school, are consumed by test preparation,” Chen says. “I think Anne of Green Gables is popular in Asia partly because it is easier for Chinese students to identify with the heroine, who worries about getting good grades in school and doing well in high-stakes exams.” Drugs, crime, and even dating (which are common issues in YA novels here) do not loom large in Chinese adolescent life, she says.
Priorities in Translating Chinese Works
Linguistic differences can pose a problem in translating text for U.S. readers, partly because they’re accustomed to sparse text and partly because one Chinese character can represent several English letters or even words. “We need to pare down to four sentences per page instead of 20 sentences per page,” says Christopher Johns, sales and marketing director for Tuttle. That’s easier said than done.
“Chinese text is much shorter and more succinct than English text because one Chinese character can be one word or phrase in English,” says Michael Buening, director of programming at China Institute. “It could also be a word for which there’s not a direct translatable word in English.”
For In the Forbidden City, which contains a great deal of historical text, he and his team decided to increase the format size for the translated book and also add introductory historical background for U.S. readers who didn’t grow up hearing details about the palace built by the third Ming Dynasty emperor in 1420. And translators do difficult work (for little pay), while holding down other day jobs.
Helen Wang spent a few months translating Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, but the whole process—from first contact with Walker Books to publication—spanned almost two years. It was her first time working with the publisher, and editor Emma Lidbury’s first time working on a translation from Chinese. Wang translated the first chapter very closely to the original, and then kept Lidbury’s feedback in mind as she tackled the second chapter a little more freely. “Chinese storytelling has some features that don’t always work so well in English—repetition, lots of adverbs, adjectives, metaphors, and parallel phrases,” she says. “Translating is about being as faithful as possible to the original work and its author, and at the same time presenting it in the most appropriate way for the target reader.”
Bronze and Sunflower “reads like a classic story but also gives a window into life during the Cultural Revolution from a child’s point of view,” says van Dusen at Candlewick. “Cao Wenxuan’s writing style is typical for Chinese writers in that it tends to meander and occasionally repeat. The reader needs to give in to the pace and appreciate the detail he is able to infuse into the setting and situations.”
To best capture author Wenxuan’s “beautiful and clear” prose in his picture book Feather (Elsewhere Editions), translator and poet Chloe Garcia Roberts took her time and even read her work to her six-year-old son to “make sure the words had a good mouth feel,” she says.
Geography and language barriers make traditional marketing efforts trickier for translated books in general. “You have obstacles, like that the author and illustrator aren’t available for promotional events,” says Mary Cash, v-p and editor-in-chief of Holiday House, who noted the limits of social media. “It’s not the same as a U.S. author or illustrator making friends with their local booksellers, children’s librarians, and teachers, who like to have them visit.” And Skype talks won’t work with non-English-speaking guests.
When pairing an author and an illustrator for a picture book, publishers on both sides of the world weigh matters of authentic representation and international appeal. Roger Mello, a Brazilian artist, illustrated Feather, and Sonja Danowski, a German artist, illustrated Grandma Lives in a Perfume Village. Chinese publishers see cross-cultural collaborations as a way to increase the visibility of their books, says Chen. And a book like Feather does not have a specific regional or historical context, so it lends itself to “universal collaboration,” Lee says. By contrast, she adds, Who Wants Candied Hawberries? is set in a place that “needs to be portrayed by cultural insiders.”
Cultural authenticity is important to Chinese buyers—and U.S. buyers as well. Some older titles have been found to promote ethnic stereotypes. For example, in 1938’s The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop, illustrator Kurt Wiese painted the siblings’ skin yellow and gave them all small eyes, says scholar Xu Xu, a former assistant professor of children’s literature at Central Michigan University. “The book represents the Chinese people as cruel and callous and also irrational.”
And in his 1937 And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Theodor Geisel drew a Chinese man with chopsticks and slanted eyes. The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, Mass., replaced a mural that included the image after authors Mike Curato, Mo Willems, and Lisa Yee criticized the “jarring racial stereotype.” This is one of the reasons that, as Feldman says, “it’s incredibly important to understand other countries as they stand now and not constantly only have stories set in some quaint or mythical past.”
Stereotypes and other misrepresentations don’t sit well in an increasingly multicultural country. After English and Spanish, Chinese is the third-most-spoken language in the U.S. “As more and more K–12 public schools offer Chinese to their students, we’re motivated as a publisher to produce strong children’s titles that engage children in the Chinese language, culture, and traditions,” says Johns at Tuttle. School libraries tag bilingual titles in their data, so librarians can easily search online for books that have both simplified Chinese characters and English letters. “Libraries are way ahead of the curve on this stuff,” Johns says. “They understand who comes to them.”
Retailers aren’t far behind. Every year Barnes & Noble does an end-cap, in which many Tuttle titles are featured, for Chinese New Year (now a holiday for New York City schoolchildren), and many independent bookstores, libraries, and museums offer similar promotions. On Amazon, the largest customer for most publishers, Chinese books find a good readership, according to Johns. For the Year of the Dog, Tuttle is already going into a second printing of its bilingual folktale The Bronze Dog by Li Jian.
It’s getting easier to make that goal of literary exchange possible. “The Chinese government is trying to bring Chinese books into America so we can learn more about their country,” Johns says. “They’re very bullish about making sure we understand their culture.”
At the government-backed Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair, about 150 state-owned and private publishers exhibit; writers, translators, and illustrators get prize money; and a fellowship program brings 10 publishers from around the world to the country for six days. “Many foreign publishers don’t know about the product in China,” says Carolina Ballester, the fair’s international program manager. “You need quality content, and it takes time.”
The word is getting out. China was the guest of honor at BEA in 2015. And for the first time in 25 years, it will be the guest of honor at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, which this year will feature 147 original Chinese illustrations by 30 illustrators, 3,000 Chinese titles in a China Pavilion, and at least 60 Chinese children’s publishers and authors, including Wenxuan.
Publishers are stepping up, too. In China, Macmillan Century is sponsoring a new YA literature contest, announced at the Shanghai fair. Scores from a panel of judges, and responses from online readers, will determine which stories get published there and possibly in the U.S. Within the next year, Macmillan also plans to bring its first Chinese picture books to the U.S. market, though it hasn’t chosen which ones it will release yet, says Yaged, who recently returned from Beijing and Shanghai.
Multicultural Stories Matter
Given the push toward diversity and wider representation in children’s books today, it’s no surprise that editors and booksellers want to increase the number of diverse books by authors from marginalized groups in the U.S. and also international authors. “Chinese-American authors are Americans,” Aldana says. “They’re writing about the experience of being Chinese in America. If we want to know about China as opposed to what it’s like to be a Chinese-American, we need to read books from China. Both are important.”
Lisa Lee, editor of Candied Plums, a new children’s imprint of Paper Republic that’s bringing contemporary Chinese picture books to the U.S., says: “Books in translation enable our kids to reach beyond their own language and culture, better understand and learn from each other. Every child has the right to [both] read books in their native languages and appreciate books about other languages and cultures.”
At PS/IS 30 Mary White Ovington in Brooklyn, where many of the K–8 students speak Arabic, Asian languages, and Spanish, librarian Alla Umanskaya—a Russian Jewish immigrant—stocks dual-language titles and translated-into-English titles; invites guests such as Ji-li Jiang, author of Red Scarf Girl (HarperCollins) and Red Kite, Blue Kite (Disney-Hyperion), to give readings; and is always on the lookout for more diverse books. “It’s not only for Chinese kids,” says Umanskaya, that she seeks out representations of Chinese culture; it benefits everyone.
As Kendall Storey, the Elsewhere editor who discovered Feather at Bologna and hired Roberts to translate it, puts it, “People can often find points of connection or identification in these very different experiences. Looking beyond our borders at different ways of living, of seeing and being, is so important.”
Many pointed to Chinese books’ potential to help children (and their parents) better understand the earth’s 7.5 billion inhabitants, nearly one-fifth of whom live in China. “It’s important that we expose American kids to other cultures, that we don’t adopt a kind of isolationist view of the world,” says Porter.
Aldana notes, “Given that country’s importance in the world, we need to know much more about the real lives of Chinese people.”
Cash at Holiday House echoes that sentiment. “Our children are going to be ill-prepared for the global future if they don’t have a basic understanding of life outside the United States.”
In finding worthwhile portrayals, Porter says, “The key word is authentic. You want material that truly reflects the culture, as opposed to, in the old days, a Western author writing about what they imagine life to be.”
Karen Springen is a former Newsweek correspondent who now teaches journalism at Northwestern University.