A Cross-Cultural Conversation Between Two Master Storytellers at the 2017 USBBY Conference

By Minjie Chen and David Jacobson

The 12th United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) Regional Conference was held in Seattle, Washington October 20-22, 2017. The theme of the conference was “Radical Change Beyond Borders: The Transforming Power of Children’s Literature in a Digital Age.” For the first time, a speaker from China—author Cao Wenxuan曹文轩—was invited to deliver the biennial Dorothy Briley Memorial Lecture at the USBBY Regional Conference. USBBY is one of the national sections of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), the organization that gives the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Awards and selected Cao as the winning author in 2016.

In his Dorothy Briley Lecture titled “A Good Basis of Humanity for Mankind,” Cao defined children’s literature as that which promotes morality, justice, aesthetics, and compassion in youth. He expressed confidence in the future of the publishing industry, pointing out that “good writings are always coveted” no matter what kind of platform, paper or digital, is used to carry content. “The day we stop reading,” he said, “is when human civilization ends.”

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A conversation between Cao Wenxuan and Roger Mello, facilitated by Junko Yokota. (Source of image: William H Teale‏)

Later in the program, Cao Wenxuan and Roger Mello, Brazilian illustrator and winner of the HCA Award for Illustration in 2014, held a lively conversation facilitated by Junko Yokota, member of the 2018 HCA Award jury. Cao and Mello have created two picture books together, an unprecedented collaboration of two HCA Award winners from vastly different countries and cultural backgrounds.

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Feather written by Cao Wenxuan and illustrated by Roger Mello. English version (Elsewhere Editions 2017) translated by Chloe Garcia-Roberts.

Both Cao and Mello say they are each passionate bird lovers. Feather tells the story of a wandering feather, trying to find out which bird it has come from. When asked if he was surprised by anything in Mello’s art, Cao mentioned Mello’s choice of depicting porcelain in the book. Flighty birds and floating feathers are shown as decorative patterns on still porcelain bottles, which, as Mello explained, creates contrasts in weight and mobility. Chinese take porcelain for granted and treat it as an ordinary presence, but Mello’s choice, Cao said, was a fresh reminder to him of how important the material is in Chinese culture. He pointed out that his and Mello’s understandings of his own culture (Chinese culture) were different, but he embraced and celebrated that difference. If Feather had been illustrated by a Chinese artist, the picture book would have been an entirely different product, Cao said.

This is a divergent take on the hotly debated issue of who has the right to tell, or illustrate, whose stories. Chinese publishers have intentionally invited non-Chinese artists to illustrate Chinese children’s books. Sometimes this can take away Chinese artists’ opportunities to illustrate those same books, though not always–for example, Cao’s novel The Grass House can be found in multiple editions with illustrations by different artists. So far there have been no complaints of cultural appropriation in China. On the contrary, Chinese publishers and writers perceive such international and cross-cultural collaborations as ways to increase the visibility and marketability of Chinese works both inside and outside China. Far from being a powerhouse in publishing for youth, China has just made her debut on the international children’s book market. Still the power dynamics between China and other countries is different from that between minority groups and white people in the US, so any attempt at a comparison should be made with caution.

Other non-Chinese artists who have illustrated Cao’s books include Sonja Danowski (Germany), Birde Poulsen (Denmark), Patrizia Donaera (Italy), Eva Montanari (Italy), and Aleksandar Zolotić (Serbia). Cao expressed admiration for the art of Mello and Danowski, who were both speakers at the conference. While I (Minjie) helped translate for him at the conference, Cao told me that Mello was invited by the Chinese publisher to be the illustrator because the publisher was impressed by Mello’s whimsical imagination, and Danowski, her exquisite craftsmanship. He also said that he and Roger didn’t need to communicate with each other, because their hearts understand one another.

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草房子 [The Grass House] written by Cao Wenxuan and illustrated by Sonja Danowski. Beijing, China: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2016. (Source of image: Sonja Danowski)

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Sonja Danowski, a young German artist who attended the USBBY conference, is the illustrator of another picture book by a Taiwanese writer. 外婆住在香水村 [Grandma Lives in a Perfume Village] written by Fang Suzhen方素珍 and illustrated by Sonja Danowski. Beijing, China: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2014. (Source of image: Sonja Danowski) Available in English (NorthSouth Books 2015), translated by Huang Xiumin.

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柠檬蝶 [Lemon Butterfly] written by Cao Wenxuan and illustrated by Roger Mello. Beijing, China: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2017. An accordion-style picture book.

The second picture book by Cao and Mello is called Lemon Butterfly 柠檬蝶, currently in the original Chinese version only. A lemon butterfly goes on an arduous journey to search for a field of flowers, crossing rivers and mountains and getting lost before it finally reaches the field, only to find that flowers have been submerged under water. The surprise ending gives a philosophical spin to the story, which also presents environmental concerns. Cao told the audience that he studied philosophy for fifteen years, and has found the format of the picture book perfect for expressing philosophical issues.

In the story, the butterfly takes an accidental detour by following the scent of flowers wafting from hoof prints in the mud. Cao revealed the cultural reference behind the scene as a line from Chinese poetry, “Returning from treading on fallen flowers, even horse hooves are scented” (踏花归来马蹄香). The poem famously inspired Chinese brush paintings that depict butterflies dancing around hoof prints.

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Mello unfolded the accordion-style picture book Lemon Butterfly for the audience. (Source of image: Johanna Ulloa‏)

Mello made the picture book accordion style, and cut out the shape of butterflies, rather than illustrate them. As he explained, instead of showing butterflies, he decided to portray the absence of them.

Cao admitted that Lemon Butterfly was currently the most expensive picture book sold in China. (Priced at RMB 98.00, or about USD 15.00, it is easily three times the average cost of a picture book sold in China.) Nevertheless, judging by how many copies the team had signed, he said it has been selling well. It was therefore hardly surprising that an impromptu auction at the conference of a copy of Lemon Butterfly, signed by Mello and Cao, raised $1700. The money will go to the IBBY Children in Crisis Fund, supporting children whose lives have been disrupted through war, civil disorder or natural disaster.

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Cao Wenxuan signed the American edition of his Bronze and Sunflower, translated into English by Helen Wang (Candlewick 2017). (Photo courtesy of Ms. Wu Xiaohong, Phoenix Juvenile and Children’s Publishing Ltd.)

I (Minjie) will end this post with a comment on the locale of the USBBY conference. True to its reputation, Seattle was rainy and cloudy for the duration of the conference, but what better city there is to host a gathering of writers, artists, librarians, and children’s literature researchers who are passionate about exposing young readers of the 21st century to diverse and international cultures and experiences? Nourished by the Pacific Ocean water and perched on the edge of the North American continent, Seattle has embraced Eastern and Western cultures with audacity and style. Proof of that?–I had never visited a bar where I could have the bartender bring me juicy soup dumplings as tasty and authentic as you would find in the best xiaolongbao 小笼包 places in Shanghai or Manhattan Chinatown–until I came to the magic city of Seattle.

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