155. Interview with Xueting C. Ni

Xueting C. Ni 倪雪亭 is a writer, translator and speaker, who combines her knowledge and experience of English and Chinese to share Chinese contemporary culture. She writes a blog Snow Pavilion, contributes to many online publications, and has a growing number of books to her name. From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao. The Essential Guide to Chinese Deities (Red Wheel Weiser, 2018) looks at 60 Chinese deities and their relevance today. Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction (Solaris, 2021), a collection of 13 short stories selected and translated by Xueting, won the British Fantasy Society’s Award for Best Anthology. last week!

Sinopticon. A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction, ed. Xueting C. Ni (Solaris, 2021) ISBN 9781781088524 (image source: waterstones.com)

Please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?

As well as translating, I write non-fiction about Chinese culture, in particular film, contemporary literature, music and tea. I love good food and cooking, have a collection of loose-leaf teas and tea sets which I use regularly, and have a pair of lovely black cats, whose names are Ravage and Scuzzy. 

From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao. The Essential Guide to Chinese Deities, by Xueting C. Ni (Red Wheel Weiser, 2018) ISBN 978-1-57863-625-9 (image source: redwheelweiser.com)

I read somewhere that you came to the U.K. at the age of 11. What was that like for you?  

That was obviously one of the biggest changes in my life, lots to adjust to. It helped that it happened in my childhood. As a child, you take almost anything as normal, I’d been moved round China quite a bit anyway, so that all helped with settling in. I have to say, that as a native of Guangzhou, I’ve never really quite got used to the cold of the British winter, or autumn.. or spring. My partner calls me a tropical fish! Living in China in the 80s and early 90s was an experience that left a deep impression on me, but I also spent some of my most impressionable years in the UK and owe much of my passion for reading to the Anglophone literary traditions. As an adult I feel firmly part of both cultures, which is why I do what I do, explain the wonders of my first home to the people of my second. It does mean that I need to be quite active in keeping up with what’s happening in China. Due to the pandemic and what’s happening here, I’ve not been able to go back for even a short visit for quite a while. So I have to make concerted efforts to stay in contact with friends.

When translating, I constantly come across things that would be general knowledge to Chinese readers but which are not general knowledge for English readers. I imagine this is an issue in your work as well. How do you manage this?

Of course, each culture has a shared consciousness that outsiders aren’t going to get, especially when you shortcut and reference them, but that’s the same with any group. If, say, you join a group of old friends for a night out, there’ll be in-jokes, friend forms, and meta language that could leave you quite disconnected. It’s actually more interesting, this day and age, that we have areas of cross-over. 

But Hanyu is a language so steeped in chengyu idioms, where each contains an entire story in themselves, that I do need to bridge those gaps. I’ve taken various approaches, depending on what I feel is required. Sometimes, I would explain the allegory in a footnote, like in Jiang Bo’s 江波 “Starship: Library” 宇宙尽头的书店, where the heroine is named Ehuang 娥皇, after the demi-goddess and daughter of the legendary ruler Yao 尧. She married his successor and helped him secure his rule, and whilst this gives an idea of the character of the heroine, and this mythological tidbit is interesting, it’s not necessary to the understanding of the story, so a footnote means it’s there for those who are interested, but if you’re tied up in the story, you can simply gloss over it.  On the other hand, Han Song’s 韩松 “Tombs of the Universe” 宇宙墓碑 talks about the Yiguanzhong 衣冠冢, which are empty, but dressed coffins used for burials where the bodies can’t be found. I felt English readers needed to be made aware of what they are, so I take my editor’s right to add that in. Other terms, which belong to the story, and the world of the story and the world created by the author, I will just leave in the Pinyin. Context makes them understandable, and the truly curious reader can stop and turn to google if they really want, but I feel that to over-Westernise the language is to rob the work of its heritage.

The Way Spring Arrives and other stories. From a visionary team of female and nonbinary creators, edited and collected by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang (Tordotcom, 2022). ISBN 978-1250768919 (image source: tordot.com)

You have written on all kinds of subjects, including ghosts, ghouls, and tomb-robbing. Are there any that you particularly enjoy, or that your readers particularly respond to. What are you working on at the moment? What can we look forward to next?

I’m interested in all kinds of literature, which is why it’s currently such an exciting time in China, where there’s been a flourishing of all kinds of genres. I explore this in my essay “Net Novels and the ‘She Era’: How Internet Novels Opened the Door for Female Readers and Writers in China” in The Way Spring Arrives, and I’m currently curating a selection of horror fiction. I tend to alternate between non-fiction and fiction, and see it all as part of one overarching project. I do have a sort of internal roadmap, which is based a lot on where I can see China going, what I think a western audience will develop an appetite for, what authors are investigating, and are going to be proud to put their names on. My next non-fiction will be out next year, and I’m looking forward to sharing the news when I can. 

Please tell us about your childhood reading. Did you have any favourite books or reading material? Any people or places you associate with your early reading?

I wasn’t particularly an avid reader until my teenage, but I do fondly remember reading books on Greek mythology, which I suppose is quite a usual thing for geeks around the world. These were in Chinese and had rather sombre, monochrome pictures, and probably not intended as nursery reading, unlike the western fairy tale books I also had with some beautifully ornate illustrations. I used to love listening to the lunchtime readings of Jin Yong’s Condor Heroes on Cantonese radio, which we would tune in on every school day. I think every child in my background probably had a set of “10,000 Whys”, which was a children’s encyclopedia which grew out of mid-century science writing in the Soviet block, and was then expanded by Chinese science writers. It was fun, and there were experiments you could read about and try yourself. That connection between the Early Russian science, SF tradition and its influences on Chinese literature was always very strong, and probably explains why I have really vivid memories of a copy of Alexander Belyaev’s  “Professor Dowell’s Head”, which I must have been far too young for, but didn’t feel that different from the gruesomeness of traditional ghost stories, which I’ve always loved. When I was older, and had access to that canon of ‘respectable’ English literature that Chinese girls should read to improve their prospects, I dived straight into the Victorian era, and never gave up a chance to enjoy a mystery, or the gothic. You can certainly see the roots of this in childhood reading. 

Thank you, Xueting, and many congratulations on winning the award last week!

Follow Xueting on

154 Mo Yan’s “The Gale” revisited

Last week, I visited the Treasures of the British Library exhibition, and happened to see Mo Yan’s 莫言 book 大风 Da Feng (The Gale) on display. But it wasn’t the picture book version I know (see Anna’s post no.148), rather a special edition created in 2015.

The caption read:

Da Feng. Beijing, 2015. After being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, the acclaimed Chinese author Mo Yan presented this previously unpublished short story at the Nobel Prize exhibition in 2015. The creation of this limited-edition work was a collaboration between various famous artists and master craftspeople in China. It features traditional paper-cut illustrations and a font recreated from a work dating to the Southern Song (1127-79). — Mo Yan, Da Feng (‘The Gale’), Beijing, 2015. CHI.2015.b.45

Searching for a Nobel Prize exhibition in 2015, I came across the Nobel Museum Bookbinding Exhibition 2015, which illustrates a number of his books in different bindings, but not this one.

I found another copy of this book on abebooks, where it is described as follows:

Tall 8vo. Size: 33 x 20,5 cm. Lvs (21) including two blanks, title page, 32 pages of text and 6 woodcut illustrations printed in red colour. Stitched, with leaves folded in the oriental manner. Original blue wrappers, title label on front cover. Housed in a special made cloth folder. First edition, published in a traditional Chinese wood-block printed edition, limited to 274 copies. It is an autobiographical short story by Mo Yan, the celebrated Chinese author who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2012. The Chinese characters are cut in an unique font used in the work “Caochuang Yunyu” dating from the Southern Song period (1127-79), of which there is only one known example. The font is well proportional, done in an elegant calligraphic style and easy to read. The lovely illustrations are from paper cuts done by the famous paper cutter Deng Hui, and have been transferred to woodblocks by the painter Cui Dezheng. Seller Inventory # 100918 [Charlotte Du Rietz Rare Books, Stockholm]

After a little more searching, I found an article about the creation of this woodblock printed book. The blocks were cut by Jiang Xun 姜寻 (1970-2022) and his team in the Mofan Bookshop 模范书局 just south of Tian’anmen Square (模范书局杨梅斜街店). In late 2014, the Nobel Museum in Stockholm invited him to design a book for Nobel laureate Mo Yan to present at an exhibition. Jiang decided to create a woodcut printed book, with traditional binding. He chose a font from Caochuang Yunyu 草窗韻語, a poetry anthology by the poet Zhou Min 周密 (1232-1298/1308) of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Jiang Xun with his design of Mo Yan’s book Da Feng (image source: China Daily) China Daily European Weekly 09/02/2016 p.1

It took Jiang three months to choose the matching characters from Zhou’s poems and piece them together for Mo Yan’s story. It was a rare font, and difficult to carve, taking twice as long as usual (usual being 30 or 40 characters a day). A team of six carved the blocks, carving about 6 pages each, and working from 8-6 every day for 3 months. A total of 274 copies were printed. The display in Stockholm opened in mid-April 2015.

How Da Feng became a picture book

In an article on chinawriter.com.cn, editor Ling Ying explained how Da Feng was transformed into a picture book.

In 2017, the head of Macmillan Century Children’s Books approached Mo Yan’s copyright agent, saying they wanted to invite Mo Yan to write a story for children to create a picture book. At the time, Mo Yan’s copyright agent declined, on the grounds that the content and style of Mo Yan’s work was very different from that of a children’s book, and that she did not know much about the format, content and suitable subject matter for picture books. Macmillan Century Children’s Books persisted, and eventually persuaded Mo Yan, who suggested she select one of his short stories for adaptation.

In autumn 2017 the head of the department put Lian Ying 连莹 in charge of the project. Lian Ying bought several copies of Mo Yan’s works, and after much discussion selected his short story Da Feng (The Gale), written when he was a student in the Literature Department of the former PLA Art Academy, and published in 1985. It was only later that she learned that the story was based on a memory from his childhood. She worked with Mo Yan’s daughter Guan Xiaoxiao to adapt the story for a picture book.

It took LIan Ying six months for choose the illustrator. At a book fair event, Lian Ying saw a picture book, The Old Tyre 老轮胎 , in which an old, discarded tyre rolls down onto a patch of grass, becoming a place where mice, hares, frogs and many other small animals play and rest. The wide expanse of grass in the painting, blown to one side by a gust of wind, takes on a glorious and varied colour in the sunset. It was clearly a static picture, but she felt the brush of the wind and the warmth of the sunlight in it, as if she had instantly travelled to the barren meadow in The Gale, waiting for the story to unfold against the wind.

老轮胎 ‘The old tyre’, by Jia Wei 贾为, illus. Zhu Chengliang 朱成梁 (Jiangsu Phoenix Juvenile and Children’s Publishing 东方娃娃 | 江苏凤凰少年儿童出版社, 2015) ISBN: 9787534660184

Zhu Chengliang took a year and a half to produce the illustrations – in thick oil-paint – and visited Gaomi, Shandong, with Mo Yan to make sure that he painted the landscape and everyday details accurately.

Lian Ying recalled that Zhu Chengliang later told her that when he was young, he had been in the army in the Suzhou countryside, planted rice and cut grain, and tied them to a wheelbarrow for transport, and that he had common memories and feelings with the era depicted in The Gale, and that the story of The Gale also evoked many memories for him. The scene in Mo Yan’s writing, in which a gale sweeps a cart full of straw through the air, created a powerful image in Zhu’s mind that was both dynamic and impactful, and made him imagine how he could depict the gale described by Mo Yan.

Finally, when considering the font for the book’s title, they instantly remembered that they had seen Mr Mo Yan’s calligraphy at the Mo Yan Literature Museum 莫言文学馆 in Gaomi, and asked him to write the book’s title.

The Mo Yan Literature Museum 莫言文学馆, in Gaomi, Shandong (image source: baidu.com)
Mo Yan’s calligraphy for the picture book title (image source:inf.news)

All in all, it took four years to transform Mo Yan’s short story into this wonderful picture book.

Da Feng 大风 (The Gale), by Mo Yan 莫言, illus by Zhu Chengliang 朱成梁 (21st Century Publishing, 2021) ISBN 978-9863448587

153. About Chinese YA – interview with Chenchen Du

The 9th YALC (the UK’s Young Adult Literature Convention) took place at the London Film and Comic Con, at Olympia, London, 8-10 July 2022. This year, perhaps for the first time, there was an event about YA translated into English. Chenchen Du was in the audience and kindly volunteered to tell us more about her interest in Chinese YA literature.

“Run Wild” 撒野 by Wu Zhe 巫哲 (image source: jianshu.com)

Hi, Chenchen, please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?

I recently graduated with a Law degree from the University of Warwick. I am an avid reader and run a bookstagram account at @dawn.writesstuff with almost 2k followers, where I post images of the covers of books together with a review. They are mostly diverse YA books.

I have also finished writing a full length YA speculative novel called “From the Ghost of Ash Monroe” and am trying to find an agent to get it published. 

I have also worked at the bookshop at the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts. We worked 12 hours per day and a lot of famous authors from across the genres came to sign their books. As a bookworm, I found it a very rewarding experience. 

I would love to translate Chinese YA literature into English!

You recently went to the YALC. Could you tell us about it?

YALC is basically a comic con but for Young Adult novels. YA novels from all genres were displayed and sold. Panels of well-known YA authors talked about certain topics (eg LGBTQ+ representation in YA books, YA books about witches and so on) and there were other events such as a graphic novel author giving a tutorial of how to make a graphic novel from scratch. Some events were designed to support aspiring authors, like a 10-min talk with an agent. There was also an event regarding translation of YA books from other languages into English, which very few people attended.

I liked the event overall and I got to meet up with my online bookish friends. But it was slightly disorganized since it was the first YALC event after the Covid lockdown. 

You’re passionate about YA from China – could you tell us about YA literature there?

YA literature in China is very hard to define because unlike in the West most (if not all) published Chinese YA books begin as web-novels that gain enough popularity to then be made into multiple volumes intended to be read in one go. In other words, it is serialized fiction that does not fit into the mold of the English publishing industry where each book in a series must be a self-contained narrative. 

In terms of who reads Chinese YA fiction, there is a huge range from primary school students to people who are facing the Gaokao, the standardized exam determining which university one will go to, and the most important exam of one’s life. 

  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling // J.K.罗琳 : 哈利波特。神秘的魔法石 – translated by Su Nong 苏农(Cao Suling 曹苏玲 and Ma Ainong 马爱农)(image source: Wikipedia)
  • The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins // 苏珊·柯林斯 : 饥饿游戏 – translated by Geng Fang 耿芳 (image source: goodreads)
  • Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan // 雷克·萊爾頓 : 波西傑克森:神火之 賊 – translated by Wu Meiying 吴梅瑛 (image source: jd.com)

However, despite there being amazingly original Chinese YA novels, most YA novels in China are translated from English, notably the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games and Percy Jackson series. Harry Potter has such a huge impact on the Chinese YA market that on the Chinese side of Internet, Harry Potter fandom rivals that of Western countries. 

Could you tell us about some of your favourite Chinese YA novels?

“Girl’s Diary” 女生日记 by Yang Hongying 杨红樱 (image source: Baidu

“Girl’s Diary” 女生日记 by Yang Hongying 杨红樱 is a classic. It is on the younger end of YA  in terms of the protagonist’s age. She’s about 12, and it perfectly captures the coming of age vibe of YA fiction, starring the main character in her final year of 6th grade, and having to figure out which middle school she will go to. The book also goes deep into the psyche and stories of the protagonist’s classmates and showcases the daily struggle of adolescents growing up in China. 

“Run Wild” 撒野 by Wu Zhe 巫哲 (image source: goodreads)

“Run Wild” 撒野 by Wu Zhe 巫哲 is a 3-volume story about two boys in their last year of high school before the Gaokao. The boys fall in love, and also have to navigate complicated family dynamics and trauma, as well as the academic stress.

“Rose Cottage for Girls in Need” 蔷薇少女馆 by Jie Wu Ai Er 皆无艾尔 (image source: Baike)

“Rose Cottage for Girls in Need” 蔷薇少女馆 by Jie Wu Ai Er 皆无艾尔 is a speculative urban fantasy YA novel about a bunch of young people setting up a cottage for counselling who solve problems for girls who are in need. The cast is a found family that is filled with eccentric characters. The main character is a teenage vampire, the cottage owner is a total recluse, there is a girl who gets hurt way too easily (her name is Glass 琉璃), and there is a mysterious clock counting down the days until it reaches 0, which is rumoured to be the end of the Rose Cottage.

“Ya She” 哑舍 by Xuan Se 玄色 (image source: amazon.co.uk)

“The Antique Shop” 哑舍 by Xuan Se 玄色 is a historical fantasy that weaves together real Chinese historical figures across different dynasties with a modern twist. The main setting is a shop run by a mysterious man who appears immortal and has a dragon tattoo that shifts on his body. A doctor, who is the shop owner’s best friend, constantly stops by to help and listen to the stories of those who come to the shop to seek answers or ancient artefacts that bring back the historical fantasy aspect of the setting. There are 6 volumes so far. It has an amazing overarching plot but also chapters that function as individual short stories about the lives and journeys of different historical figures. If you’re into ancient Chinese dynasties and mythology, this book is definitely for you!

Please tell us about your own childhood reading. What did you like to read as a child?

My favorite childhood series was “The Diary of a Smiling Cat” 笑猫日记 by Yang Hongying 杨红樱. I devoured every book of that series. When I was 7, the first book of this series was the first physical book I ever read for myself. 

“The Diary of a Smiling Cat” 笑猫日记 series by Yang Hongying 杨红樱 (image source: bookdepository.com)

Thank you, Chenchen!

Follow Chenchen Du on her bookstagram @dawn.writesstuff

152. Jemma Stafford translates the ‘My Cat Hates Me’ series

Before the pandemic, when browsing in bookshops in China, I kept seeing the same book with a willful-looking cat on the cover and a recognisable style of calligraphy. Then, I saw more of these books, sometimes with just the cat on the front, sometimes with other pet characters. They were obviously very popular books and very humorous, but I wasn’t getting the joke! So I was delighted when Jemma Stafford, who is translating these books, agreed to an interview. Thank you, Jemma!

Bai Cha 白茶, Jiu xihuan ni kanbuguan wo you ganbudiao wo de yangzi 就喜欢你看不惯我又干不掉的样子 (Changjiang wenyi chubanshe 长江文艺出版社, 2015) (image source: amazon.com)

Please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?

I’m Jemma! A Chinese-English translator. When I was young, my parents used to house foreign exchange students who came to my hometown to study English. It was a tiny seaside town, and apart from the students there was not much in the way of international influence. A number of our resident students were from Taiwan, and everything they had to tell me about their language and culture was so fascinating! My interest in Chinese language began there, even though I wouldn’t be able to pursue it until into my mid-twenties when I finally attended university following ill-health. Being that bit older, I felt conscious of language learning accessibility, and was acutely aware that as a child, accessibility to foreign language and culture in rural Devon had been extremely limited – something I would like to see change – prompting me to volunteer as an advocate for language learning and a mentor whilst doing my BA. Following my BA in Chinese Modern and Classical at SOAS London, during which time I gained a great interest in translation studies and classical Chinese literature, I undertook an MA in Chinese-English Translation at the University of Bristol. I am now due to begin a PhD at University of Leeds, focusing on Chinese-English translation. I also love videogames, comedy and cats.

The second book in the series (image source: thepaper.cn)

We recently discovered that you have been translating the super popular cat books. Could you tell us about these books?

I am working on a series of five books, all of the same franchise. Authored originally by web-comic artist Bai Cha 白茶 ‘white tea’ (an alias), these books are collections of comic shorts about the life of Bai Cha with his pets and, sometimes, other extra guests, that started out life as a webcomic series. Originally titled “I love that ‘you can’t stand me but can’t get rid of me’ look” 《就喜欢你看不惯我又干不掉我的样子》 , they are being released in English as the ‘My Cat Hates Me’ series. The comic shorts focus on Your Highness (originally Wu Huang 吾皇) and later his pug buddy, Bubba Boo (originally Bazhahei 巴扎黑). The books contain a lot of internet meme humour and young culture born of technology and social media, whilst also describing the struggles and joys of being a pet owner. These books are a runaway success in China, the characters are very well-known and much loved, and the author, Bai Cha [real name Liang Kedong], has won numerous awards including the LIMA Chinese IP of the Year 2018. The humour borderlines adult, better suiting teenagers and upwards owing to its occasionally strong language, but more so, because the internet humour employed will resonate more keenly with them.

Wu Huang 吾皇 and his pug buddy Bazhahei 巴扎黑

What was it like to translate these books?

These books presented some interesting challenges. One particularly huge challenge was maintaining the tone of the humour without overwriting it. In a handful of cases, jokes did not translate at all because they were Chinese puns and wordplay without an English equivalent, requiring some considerable creativity! In other cases, topics that might be regarded sensitive needed to be toned down for the anticipated primarily American audience. A degree of localisation has been used where it was deemed necessary. Sometimes names have been ‘translated’ to retain the humour intended, or in the case of city names, neutralized into generic ‘Cityville’ style names, to help reader accessibility. Deciding on the pets’ names was a surprisingly tough call, as I didn’t want to erase the source culture or language, but did want to convey the intent. The cat’s name is Wu Huang (a form of address to the Emperor of China), so translating it as Your Highness retains the meaning. The pug’s name Bazhahei was rendered as Bubba Boo – Bazhahei is a meaningless sound heard in music, much like ‘Oh boopie doo’, so I tweaked that a little to come up with Bubba Boo, which is not wildly unlike the names given to small dogs like pugs these days!

To give an example of one of the jokes that needed altering, there’s a short that centres around the search for a missing dog. During their search, the dog’s owners drop by a dumpling shop for a break, when a customer comes in and asks for dogmeat dumplings. Although the dog’s owner is angered, the fact that dog meat dumplings are available at all may be troubling for some readers, so in the English version, the customer asks for a Hot Dog instead, keeping a dog-related joke without causing offence.

Another challenge was finding equivalent internet meme humour – the book’s original Chinese title itself is a meme, prominent on WeChat (Weixin) and Weibo (Chinese social media platforms). Memes are, by their very nature, born out of common usage repeated over and over in a particular circle or platform, and it’s only natural that different cultures will spawn different memes. I often found myself plumbing the depths of the Chinese internet to discover usages and origins of memes and how best to represent them in English, either with a similar meaning, common meme or a joke that delivers an equivalent punchline. 

My favourite jokes were always the plays on words, and there is a phenomenal one coming in Book 3 (that I can’t elaborate on too much at the moment), which is a personal name consisting of one character repeated several times. The character sounds like ‘cool’, and looks OK written down, but it sounds terrible when spoken out loud – the absolute antithesis of cool! I can’t say more on that right now but it really made me laugh!

Anyone who had ever owned a cat or dog will love these books, because internet humour aside, many of the shorts cover universal pet owner experiences, things that you will read and feel an immediate understanding and empathy towards. As the series progresses, the author really finds his footing and the jokes just get better and better! You’ll love them!

“I didn’t move a muscle while I waited for you to come back, why don’t you believe me?”
“Play with me”

Are you working any new translations at the moment?

Well, I’m working on the rest of the series, and I also work freelance, translating videogames and researching videogame translation practices and reception. I really love the mixed bag that working in both literature and videogames presents, the combination of humour, drama, sci-fi and fantasy. I have a soft spot for ancient Chinese, so translating stories and games that are themed on ancient China with touches of classical flavour really appeal to me. Generally, anything that allows me the room to be creative with the source is a blessing. There are a great many approaches to how translation should be practiced, but for me, when it comes to anything intended to entertain, a degree of creativity that allows accessibility to new audiences whilst also introducing them to other cultures, building up a gentle familiarity and interest, is absolutely the best. I feel that if an approach is too direct, too word-for-word or too heavy on jargon, it turns off potential new audiences, which is a shame when there is so much excellent international literature out there.

Could you tell us about your own childhood reading?

I loved reading as a child, I was fortunate in that I took to reading quite naturally and had an above average reading age. I loved adventure stories and fantasy books, think the Magician (Raymond E. Feist) and Terry Pratchett novels. But I also read a lot of biographical stories from Eastern cultures, such as Wild Swans (Jung Chang) and Geisha (Mineko Iwasaki), keen to learn more about the other side of the world. As I got older I became more interested in videogames, particularly narrative-heavy stories made in Japan (known as RPG, role playing games and VN, visual novels),which later led me to want to learn more about Chinese videogames. Stories are becoming more interactive with the advent of videogames, and more high-quality stories than ever are now videogame stories. That said, I’m talking as an adult! As a child, I’d have loved to have had more books from and about the rest of the world – when I was in primary school, I didn’t have anything like that, and come secondary school, all the library had was the Arabian Nights tales. As a teenager, buying my own books was my only avenue to global literature. As a young person, my favourite book was any book our foreign guests brought with them! I was a night reader, reading in bed until I fell asleep – nothing is better than being so engrossed that you drift off to dream about it!

Thank you, Jemma. We can’t wait to see My Cat Hates Me, in English!

The first volume of My Cat Hates Me is currently at press, with publication due in October 2022. Keep an eye on the publisher’s twitter feed for details: @BrownBooks

Jemma Stafford on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jemma-stafford/

151. Amanda Ruiqing Flynn on children’s books and bookstores in Taiwan and Singapore

Amanda Ruiqing Flynn recently moved from Taiwan and has settled with her young family in Singapore. We’re delighted she’s taken the time to tell us about her experiences of looking for children’s books and bookshops in both places. Thank you, Amanda!

Please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?

It’s an honour to share my thoughts with Chinese Books for Young Readers! I was born in Singapore and emigrated with my family to England when I was eight. English is my first language. I studied Chinese for three years in primary school in Singapore but stopped using it when we moved to the UK, much to my grandma’s despair! As I came into adulthood, I had a strong urge to rediscover the language, partly due to my interest in China and partly due to my roots. I did a BA in Chinese and Development Studies at SOAS, University of London, in 2007. The course was rigorous, with emphasis on Chinese language as well as literature. As part of the course, I studied at Beijing Normal University 北京师范大学 from 2008 to 2009. It was at SOAS that I discovered the world of Chinese literature, studying authors such as Lu Xun 鲁迅, Xu Zhimo 徐志摩, Gao Xingjian 高行健, Shi Tiesheng 史铁生 and children’s author Bing Xin 冰心. 

After graduating in 2011, I moved to Hualien, Taiwan, and worked as an English teacher in an international kindergarten. I continued to live there for seven years, teaching English and creative writing to students of all ages as well as developing a deep understanding of Taiwanese culture. My love for the written word in both English and Chinese grew through my teaching and from using Chinese every day. My perspective towards the Chinese language straddles that of a native Chinese speaker with an intuition for grammar and intonation, and one of a linguist who is fascinated by individual words and the semantics of the language. I feel lucky too to have lived in Singapore, China and Taiwan, places where Chinese has evolved in different ways.

In 2016, I was awarded a scholarship under the Taiwan Scholarship Program to study for a Masters of Fine Art at National Donghwa University in Hualien 花蓮. As the three-year course was taught in Chinese, I had to step up my language skills to keep up with native speakers, learning about artistic concepts and discussing art in Chinese. I also found that by seeing art through a non-Eurocentric lens, my thoughts and the vocabulary I had to express myself became richer.

Hualien is home to Taiwan’s indigenous population, so I learnt a great deal about how art in Taiwan has been influenced by this. Whilst completing my master’s degree, I also worked as a professional translator from Chinese-English, completing translation projects for National Taiwan Museum and Hualien County Government amongst other organisations. With my range of interests and experiences I now hope to branch into the translation of children’s books and fiction from Taiwan and Singapore. In late 2019 I moved back to Singapore, having met my husband here. Our son was born here in 2021 and is now a joyful and spirited 15-month-old who loves books!

You’ve just moved from Taiwan to Singapore. In terms of children’s books and
bookstores, what are your first impressions of Singapore? How does it compare with Taiwan? 

I moved back to Singapore in September 2019, and my initial impressions of bookstores
were that they are very much dominated by big chains such as Books Kinokuniya, Times and Popular Bookstore. English-language books certainly predominate here, as the common working language is English. Children learn their mother tongue languages of either Chinese, Malay or Tamil too in school, however books published in these languages are in the minority. Wanting to discover more “local” offerings, I delved deeper and found two well-known independent bookstores, namely Books Actually and Huggs-Epigram Coffee Shop Bookstore, which are the shopfronts of two local publishers, Math Paper Press and Epigram Books. They stock children’s books but don’t specialise in them. However, as of now, they have ceased to operate their shop fronts which is a real shame.

Hook on Books – window display (photo copyright Amanda Ruiqing Flynn)

Physical independent bookstores in Singapore are not so easy to come by due to high
shop rental prices here. So I was overjoyed to discover two bookshops dedicated to books for young readers. The first is Hook on Books 童言童语, an independent bookstore specialising in Chinese-language books from China, Taiwan and Singapore, as well as books translated into Chinese, all catering to young readers. The atmosphere is warm and incredibly friendly, and the decor makes me feel like I’ve been transported back to Taiwan.

Hook on Books – table display (photo copyright Amanda Ruiqing Flynn)

The owner is Singaporean and the shop manager is Taiwanese. She is warm and very keen to help you find the perfect book for your child. What I particularly like about this store is that they categorise the books into age groups as well as themes, which makes browsing very accessible. Each year they hold an illustrated story competition open to children up to aged 11 and the winners’ books are displayed and sold in the store. It’s such a great incentive that encourages children to write in Chinese. 

Hook on Books – shelf display (photo copyright Amanda Ruiqing Flynn)

The second independent children’s bookshop I found is Woods in the Books, situated on the trendy Yong Siak Street, again with a very child-friendly atmosphere conducive to reading and daydreaming. Singapore-based online stores for children’s books in Chinese include My Story Treasury and One Last Book. 

As for Taiwan, I am more acquainted with the bookstores in Hualien where I lived for seven years than I am with those in Taipei. Hualien, known as the countryside of Taiwan, has a strong history of literature, with many writers settling there to write. Famous writers like the late Yang Mu 楊牧 taught Chinese Literature at National Donghwa University in Hualien and Wu Ming-Yi 吳明益 currently teaches Chinese Literature at the same university. Until 2018, the main bookstore in Hualien was the fantastic Zhengda Bookshop, which has a great array of Chinese-language books, including a comprehensive children’s book section. In 2019, the Eslite chain of bookshops finally arrived in Hualien, and it drew in crowds due to the comfortable atmosphere conducive to whiling the afternoon away reading, with a cafe and an events corner too.

Whilst living in Hualien in the 2010s, I found that the city had a really beautiful selection of book-cafes, a common hybrid in Hualien, perfect for the laid-back way of life there. There tends to be a big array of independently owned businesses with beautiful and comfortable decor inside. My two favourites in Hualien were Alice Cafe Books  and 時光1939. Both were along the same stretch of road, Minguo Road, and were situated in old Japanese low-rise wooden houses. Alice Cafe Books had beautiful hinoki wood furniture and an area full of children’s books for children to read. They also held storytelling sessions at the weekends. 時光 1939 is also a reading cafe where you are free to browse the books in the reading cabinets, and sip tea on tatami mats, the store cats purring on your lap. Reading Time 時光二手書店 and 舊書 鋪子 are another two book-cafes, both selling second-hand books, including children’s books, and I loved spending time in them.

Overall, I feel that it is a lot easier for independent bookstores to survive in Taiwan than in Singapore, yet I feel hopeful when I see bookshops like Hook on Books 童言童语 in
Singapore. Both countries are served well by big chain bookstores, with Singapore selling the majority of its books in English, and Taiwan the majority of books in traditional Chinese. In Singapore, Chinese-language books are definitely available, but they take up less shelf space and the collections are not as comprehensive. 

Another difference is that Chinese books sold in Singapore are written in simplified Chinese and those sold in Taiwan are in traditional Chinese, reflective of the kind of Chinese taught in schools and used in society. The books also reflect the way in which Chinese is taught. In Singapore the hanyu pinyin method is used for learning Chinese, and in Taiwan the zhuyin or bopomofo method is used, so the annotations for books for young Chinese learners are totally different. They aren’t interchangeable either, so if you are familiar with one method, you won’t necessarily understand the other. Having learnt Chinese using the hanyu pinyin method, the zhuyin method is like Greek to me!

In terms of the vocabulary within the Chinese books available in each country, the
Chinese in Taiwan is influenced to some extent by the long period of Japanese colonisation from 1845 to 1945. For example, in Taiwan, a bento-style lunchbox similar to Japan’s bento is called biandang 便當, a transliteration of the Japanese word bento. In Singapore I am not understood if I say biandang; here they say fanhe 饭盒! Another difference is in Singapore we would say deshi 的士 for taxi, and in Taiwan we say jichengzhe 計程車. So I would say differences in vocabulary will be reflected in the words used in children’s books from Singapore, Taiwan or China.

I must promote the quality of libraries in both Singapore and Taiwan. While the UK is
reducing funding going into libraries, I think in Singapore and Taiwan, libraries really do serve the public well. For quite a few of my students in Taiwan, making regular trips to the library during the weekends is the norm. I am also particularly impressed with how state-of-the-art libraries in Singapore are and it has long been a culture of young people here that they will choose to hang out in the library on the weekends, quite unheard of in England!

Did you have any favourite picture books in Taiwan? Could you tell us about them? Was there anything in particular that you and your son liked about them?

A Taiwanese author-illustrator whose work I really enjoy is Lai Ma 賴馬. He has published dozens of children’s books. His beautifully illustrated storybook, Yonggan xiao huoche 勇敢小火車 (The brave little train) is a favourite of mine. 

Yonggan xiao huoche 勇敢小火車 (The brave little train) – by Lai Ma 賴馬 (Qinzi tianxia 親子天下, 2016) ISBN 9789869319263

It’s about a train named Karl who learns what it means to be brave. The story starts with Santa, who spends most of his year apart from Christmas writing letters and giving out gold stars to people who have been brave. It is usually the job of Karl’s mother Wendy to deliver these letters and stars, but Wendy’s engine breaks down one day, so Karl is enlisted to help out. During the long train journey delivering letters and stars, he faces trials like traversing dark forests and crossing high bridges, and the friends he makes on the way cheer him on to overcome these challenges. Lai Ma’s style of illustrations bring joy, they are very detailed and colourful, a visual feast for a child and parent to explore and talk about. Apart from the plot of the story, you could spend hours just looking at the pictures and finding animals or plants. I have found that apart from the heart-warming story, it’s also a good book for my son to learn object-word association as he is learning to speak.

Yongbao 擁抱 (Hugs) – by Jimmy Liao 幾米 (Da kuai wenhua 大塊文化, 2012) ISBN 9789862133392

Another popular Taiwanese author-illustrator whose work I love is Jimmy Liao 幾米 . Since he is well-known and well-translated he may seem like too obvious a choice, but I find that his work stands out to me every time. The quality of his illustrations are brilliant and the books are beautifully written about topics that make you think, dream, explore and believe in yourself, which are concepts I wish to impart to my son. My favourite book of Jimmy’s is Yongbao 擁抱 (Hugs), a book about the beauty and warmth of hugs, and their ability to cure all. It’s the perfect book to read on a rainy day or when you’re feeling low, and a chance for children to learn about emotions! If you ever get the chance to visit Yilan in Taiwan, outside of the train station there is an area called Jimmy Square 幾米廣場 full of 3D sculptures and installations of his artwork – it’s well worth a visit!

Art-Zoo 藝術動物園, by Jackson Tan – front cover (Taiwan diantong gufen youxian gongsi, 2017) ISBN 978-981-11-2771-7

I’d also like to share an ABC book called Art-Zoo by Singaporean Jackson Tan, a
designer and the artist behind the studio Phunk. Having read plenty of ABC books for children, this one stood out for me. Apart from the letters of the alphabet on each page, accompanied by unique and imaginative illustrations of animals, there is a bilingual Chinese and English interesting fact about each animal on each page. I thought that to be a refreshing change in style and one that makes the book suitable for children of all ages as it appeals on different levels. It is certainly a very appealing first ABC book for my son; the concept and illustrations are simple yet bold and eye-catching.

Waipo zai nali 外婆在哪里 (Where’s Grandma?) by Edmund Lim, illustrated by Tan Zi Xi (Epigram Books, 2012) ISBN 9789810720780 (Image source: Epigram Bookshop)

In Singapore, the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism helps to fund the publishing of
many books for young readers, either solely in Chinese, Malay or Tamil, or as bilingual versions with English translations within the same book. In their collections, I have enjoyed Waipo zai nali 外婆在哪里 (Where’s Grandma?) by Edmund Lim, illustrated by Tan Zi Xi, a story about a little boy named Luke whose best friend is his grandma. One day Grandma suffers a fall and everything changes from that day onwards as Luke learns to deal with his grandma’s worsening Alzheimer’s Disease.

Tiaopi de Bage 调皮的八哥 (The naughty mynah) by Evelyn Sue Wong, illustrated by Tee Sieok Bing (AFCC Publications, 2014) ISBN 9789810903381

Another more light-hearted book is Tiaopi de Bage 调皮的八哥 (The naughty mynah) by Evelyn Sue Wong, illustrated by Tee Sieok Bing. Mynah birds are seen everywhere in Singapore, characterised by their black coats and orange beaks. The story is about a mynah bird who tricks a teacher from England about how phrases in Chinese are spoken, so the teacher embarrasses himself in front of his new class. Soon though, the mynah bird gets its comeuppance!

I am so excited for the future of children’s books and storytelling in Singapore. I think there is so much scope for growth and the discovery of new talent. I also think that Singapore is well-placed to champion bilingual children’s literature due to its multilingual society. This is an area where Singapore is striving to push thanks to advocates of the written word like Singapore Book Council, who are organisers of the incredible Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) happening 26-29 May this year. There are talks, panels and workshops for writers, illustrators and parents. The four day event is not to be missed, with talks in person as well as online, so you can tune in from anywhere in the world. There is a fantastic line-up this year!

As an artist, have you illustrated any picture books yourself? As a teacher, have you taught children?

I am currently in the process of writing three children’s stories, projects very close to my
heart, and I plan to draw the illustrations too. The first one is a lost in translation book for children, featuring a Taiwanese stray dog who was adopted, and then brought to Singapore with its owner. It is inspired by my own transition from Taiwan back to Singapore, and is aimed at two to six year olds. The second is a bilingual Chinese-English picture book which uses the mechanics of the book itself to tell the story, aimed at six months to two year olds. And, I’m in the middle of writing a 6000 word children’s story about a girl named Lim Li Li. It’s a story set in Singapore and mixes fantasy with environmental themes, as well as family ties and Singapore’s kampong history. I am very excited about these three projects and can’t wait to share more about them in due course.

I have been teaching children aged 4-18 for over ten years, having taught students in Taiwan as well as the UK, China, and Singapore. My strongest ties are to my Taiwanese students since I began my teaching career at an international kindergarten in Hualien. When I left the school, I carried on tutoring a few of these students, and parents would recommend me to other parents through word-of-mouth, so I soon had more students than I could handle. I love teaching because I feel I can make a difference to the way a student looks at language and their relationship with it. I would have parents come to me desperate because their child was indifferent towards, or disliked, English. Perhaps due to traditional rote learning methods of learning English in Taiwan, students couldn’t see how the language applied to their lives. So I would patiently introduce English to them in a way that was interesting and accessible, through story books and writing imaginative stories about themes they were interested in. Then I would start teaching new vocabulary and grammar, using these as tools to make their own stories more interesting. This method worked like magic with my students. I would see initially ambivalent children and teenagers gripped by the power of a story and driven by being able to express their own ideas. And through teaching, I too have gained a deeper love and understanding for languages through the years.

I have had quite a few frustrated parents in Singapore share with me that their children
don’t like reading. At first I was confused as there are ample resources here and the parents told me they encouraged their children to read. However when I probed deeper, the parents told me that they gave their children the book to read by themselves while they themselves did something else, and then I understood why the child didn’t want to read. Author James Baldwin said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” I think this is so true when it comes to reading, so I try to emphasise to parents that it’s all about the bonding experience of reading together, about cultivating that bond between parent, child and book, through the parent’s reading voice and the exploration of the illustrations, the interest and love in discovering a new story. That way, the child will learn to love books and be excited by them.

I think the development trajectory of Singapore as a pragmatic society which took on
English as the working language has meant that each generation has had a different relationship to English vis-à-vis their mother tongue. Certainly for my generation, during this transition the mother tongue languages have been somewhat left behind in order to make way for English. And I think now is the time where we are rediscovering a love for Chinese, Malay and Tamil and the richness of the culture and personal history that goes hand in hand with these languages. A way this can be done is through literature, especially that for children. So in years to come, I hope to see more homegrown Singaporean children’s literature which combines English as well as either Chinese, Malay or Tamil, encouraging a transition from a pragmatic to a more artistic use of language.

Could you say something about the artwork and illustrations in picture books in
Taiwan and Singapore? Do you see anything that excites, intrigues, amuses you or particularly catches your attention? Are there any illustrators that you follow? 

Yes, there are a few illustrators I love both in Taiwan and in Singapore. I tend to be very
drawn in by illustrators whose work can tell a story and stand strong on its own, and whose images bring warmth. My own artwork is also full of colour so I am particularly attracted to good use of colour too. I am going to use this chance to promote my former university schoolmate and friend Eason Ko! Eason and I both studied Fine Art at National Donghwa University, Hualien, he for his bachelor’s degree and me for my master’s. His work is fantastical and dream-like, and his use of colours and detail means that each time you look at his work, you discover something new. His work speaks straight to my heart and is already being collected and put on a list of emerging top illustrators in the world. He is an incredibly hardworking and humble person, and deserves so much success. Eason is currently studying for a MA in Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art. You can explore his work at I am Eason Ko (@easonillus).

Bubian de, yiyangde 不变的,一样的 (Everything’s fine), by Ah Guo 阿果 (Cao gen shushi 草根书室, 2021) ISBN 9789811810541

I also love the work of Singaporean illustrator Lee Kow Fong, aka Ah Guo 阿果. His
illustrations have a beautiful childlike quality to them and I particularly love that he illustrates scenes from Singapore, often through a child’s eyes. His latest book, Bubian de, yiyangde 不变的,一样的 (Everything’s fine), is about the Covid-19 pandemic through the eyes of a child in Singapore. For children growing up in these unprecedented times, they live in a world full of fear projected onto them by adults. Amidst these uncertainties, the constant they have in their lives is love. The book has over thirty beautiful watercolour illustrations and children and adults alike in Singapore can relate to them, with lots of scenes of local life adapted by the pandemic restrictions.

Every two years, Singapore holds an exhibition called Pameran Poskad, where artists,
illustrators and hobbyists can enter postcard-sized artworks. I go there to discover new
illustrators and in the last exhibition I discovered a lovely illustrator who goes by the name @bananasboy on Instagram. I think there are many talented illustrators in Singapore and Taiwan and the beauty and challenge is finding out about them and matching their styles with the right stories. A great place to discover new illustrators is at the AFCC’s Book Illustrators Gallery 2022 which will showcase the best picture book illustrations by illustrators and artists from Southeast Asia and the global Asian diaspora.

Could you tell us about your own childhood reading? Any favourite books? Do you associate your early reading with a particular person or a particular place?

I was one of those children who devoured books like a lion devouring its prey. I would go to the library in Crowborough, East Sussex, where I grew up, every weekend and borrow ten books each time, then read them in two days, reading under the covers late into the night and in the bathroom when I couldn’t find anywhere else for some peace and quiet. I think my parents would have gone bankrupt if they had had to buy all those books for me! 

I loved a wide range of books, from Judy Blume’s coming-of-age stories like Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to the Point Horror series to autobiographical work. A novel that stuck with me in my teenage years was Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah, an autobiography about a girl growing up in 1940s China.

As a young child, I have fond memories of my father often reading to me before bed. Can’t You Sleep Little Bear by Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth was my favourite book and I now read it with my son too. I absolutely love the gentle and timeless nature of the story and illustrations. A series I loved were the Berenstain Bears collection. I had a collection of five books in a cardboard briefcase that I used to take everywhere with me, until I think eventually the cardboard fell apart from overuse. I had such a vivid imagination as a child that I thought the characters in my books would come to life at night. I remember reading Enid Blyton’s Secret Toybox Tales, a collection of stories and poems about toys, and then being so terrified that the toys would come to life if I ever opened the book again. So the book stayed unopened on my shelf until my desire to read the book again trumped my fear!

If you would like to contact me to chat about books, art, writing, translation, or teaching, please reach out to me, I’d love to hear from you!

Website: www.amandaruiqingflynn.com
Instagram: @amandas.paint.and.pen
Facebook: @amandaruiqingflynn

Amanda Ruiqing Flynn and one of her artworks “Symbols of Aphrodite” (both images copyright Amanda Ruiqing Flynn)

150. Rén – how to live a happy and fulfilled life, by Yen Ooi

We’ve posted a number of pieces about Huang Beijia’s middle grade novel I Want To Be Good, tr. Nicky Harman (nos 97, 144, 147). And in 2019 Minjie wrote a very interesting piece “The Meaning of Being a Good Chinese Girl over Two Millenia – From Biographies of Consorts to ‘Little Princesses’ series” for the Cotsen Children’s Library blog, in which she asked “How do you define a “good” Chinese girl? What moral standards, behaviour, and mentality have Chinese girls and women been exhorted to adopt? Biographical stories, moral instruction books, fictional narratives, and school textbooks are among the genres that shaped the conduct of Chinese women and girls through text and image for two millennia.”

So how do Chinese and diaspora children (and adults) cope with the demands of being good, and learn to be themselves? We asked Yen Ooi, who has just published her new book Rén – The Ancient Chinese Art of Finding Peace and Fulfilment. Thank you, Yen!

Rén – The Ancient Chinese Art of Finding Peace and Fulfilment – by Yen Ooi, illus. by Sinjin Li (Wellbeck Publishing Group, 2022) ISBN 978-1787398221

Please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?

Hello! My name is Yen Ooi. My surname Ooi is actually Huang 黄 in Mandarin. Ooi is how it is pronounced in the Hokkien dialect in Malaysia.

I am a writer and researcher. I am currently working on a PhD that looks at Chinese science fiction. I have written and published short stories, articles, poetry, a novel, a computer game and most recently, a non-fiction book Rén – The Ancient Chinese Art of Finding Peace and Fulfillment.

I have been working as a writer for just over ten years and I love working with different formats, mediums, and genres. I’m passionate about exploring ideas of culture and identity in storytelling. As a British East and Southeast Asian (BESEA) writer, it is wonderful to be a part of communities like The Bubble Tea Writers Network where BESEA writers can connect and engage with each other’s work.

Could you tell us about Rén, and about how you came to write about this book?

In ancient China, there was a very clever philosopher known as Confucius (; Kǒngzǐ) and he taught people how to be kind and good through five main virtues. Rén 仁 is the most important of the five virtues and it teaches us how to live a happy and fulfilled life. 

I have been researching ancient Chinese teachings for my PhD and I found that Rén was easy to understand and practise. It helped me when I was feeling down during the pandemic, when everyone was locked-down at home. Because it was so helpful, I thought that it was important to share with others, and with the help of my agent and publisher, we made the book.

The wonderful illustrations in the book are by Sing Yun Lee (under the moniker of Sinjin Li). I met Sing through our science fiction networks and we’ve wanted to collaborate for a while. I was over the moon when the publisher agreed to work with her for Rén, as I knew that her drawings would improve the book and help communicate the ideas even more clearly.

Rén – Thinking Person

Is Rén for adults or children? 

Rén is for anyone who is interested in Confucius’s philosophy and mindfulness practice. My young nieces who are 13 and 14, have been reading Rén and making notes on things that might be helpful for them specifically. Of course, I’m happy they are interested in my book. I’m also reassured that they are interested in thinking for themselves, and not just doing what they are told.

In Rén, we learn that we all have specific roles in situations. Children tend to be in the ‘child-follower’ role most often. I think children can benefit from understanding how different roles work, and that grown-ups have roles too. Often, when grown-ups are teaching children, they are fulfilling their responsibilities. When we all are able to fulfil our roles and responsibilities appropriately, it helps create a harmonious community around us.

Rén – highlighting an individual’s role in different situations

You’re also researching Chinese science fiction. Could you tell us about your research? 

I love reading and writing science fiction. In my research, I’m looking at what makes Chinese science fiction special (and different from regular science fiction). I particularly love finding cultural details in Chinese science fiction and similarities across stories that are written by writers from Chinese diaspora communities internationally and Chinese-speaking countries. 

In mainstream media like TV, film, games and books, there are a lot of general science fiction stories that have created an expectation of what East Asian (with Chinese, Japanese, Korean culture and more) representation should look like in future. A lot of Chinese science fiction writers internationally are trying to change and diversify this expectation, and my research also looks at how this is done.

Yen Ooi and her daughter, visiting Mary Anning’s “monsters” at the Natural History Museum, London

We’re particularly interested in books for young readers – could you recommend a title or two for young readers? 

I have been exploring lots of books for young readers with my daughter who is nearly five years old. We’re on a bit of a science spree at the moment and we’re enjoying learning not only about the science, but also the people who made key discoveries.

My daughter received a fossil kit last Christmas, which we had a lot of fun ‘excavating’ to discover a mini triceratops skull. Then, our good friend Amy got us Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist, by Linda Skeers (Sourcebooks Explore, 2020), which tells the wonderful story of the first palaeontologist Mary Anning and the fossils she found. Recently, we visited the Natural History Museum (London) and saw Mary’s monsters on display!

We love how beautiful The Bluest of Blue: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs by Fiona Robinson (Abrams Books, 2019) is. It’s about Anna Atkins who is a botanist and photographer, and she was the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographs!

Grow: Secrets of Our DNA by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Emily Sutton (Walker Books, 2020) is a great book to learn about DNA, which makes up all the living things on Earth, and how it works.

As part of the BESEA community, we are very excited to find more books with characters and stories that reflect our own cultures and traditions. Eyes that Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho (Harper Coll, 2021) is a lovely example, with affirmative illustrations to tell the story of three generations who share a lineage that can be seen through their features.

Watercress by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin (Holiday House Inc, 2021) is an Asian-American story that explores the differences we feel as people with East Asian heritage living in a Western country, reminding us of our family’s histories, while we create new legacies of our own.

Have you come across any science fiction stories that you would recommend to young readers? (Perhaps you saw our post 77 – Science Fiction for Children, selected by Liu Cixin and Han Song?)

There are a lot of wonderful science fiction stories from female writers which tend to get overlooked, unfortunately. Xia Jia’s ‘Tong Tong’s Summer’ comes to mind first as it was one of the first short Chinese science fiction stories that I read. It explores the relationship between a grandchild and a grandparent while introducing futuristic possibilities of assistive technology. Hao Jingfang’s ‘Summer at Grandma’s House’ is another story about a grandchild and grandparent, but here, science fiction is used in the setting to tell the story of a teenager who’s trying to figure out what he wants to do. 

Personally, I am a big fan of Regina Kanyu Wang’s stories and I would recommend ‘The Language Sheath’ which will resonate with children who grow up with a different first language from their parents, I think. The language relationship in the story reminded me a lot about my own struggles with having English as my main language. And as my Chinese languages got pushed into the background, the difficulties I had in reconciling them within my own identity and culture started to show. Knowing that this is something common to multilingual and multicultural families helped me find new ways of embracing it.

Regina has also recently edited a collection of Chinese science fiction by women and nonbinary writers stories called The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, and she recommends the title story ‘The Way Spring Arrives’ to YA readers – it is a love story that uses Chinese mythology and science fiction.

Please tell us about your own childhood reading. Any favourite books or reading material? Any people or places you associate with your early reading?

Growing up in Malaysia, my parents gave me free reign to read anything I wanted. I loved Roald Dahl’s children stories for its crazy imaginations and made up words. Most of the books I read in English were written about children in England, so I had to imagine what life was like here. The schools and houses were very different from my life in Malaysia where it is hot all year round! The stories I read had fireplaces and snow!

I used to have a collection of Chinese fables written for children and the story, The Butterfly Lovers (梁山伯与祝英臺, or 梁祝, for short) was, and still is, my favourite. As a classic Chinese legend (a convoluted love story – like Romeo and Juliet), there have been countless versions of the story told in many many forms. When I was a teenager, I even learnt to play the Butterfly Lovers Concerto (梁祝小提琴协奏曲) on the violin.

The Butterfly Lovers — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0WFWZ6KDCs

149. Interview with Chiara Tognetti about Chinese children’s books and rights

What’s involved in bringing Chinese children’s books into a different language? Chiara Tognetti offers foreign rights and international publishing services through her Chiara Tognetti Rights Agency. She kindly agreed to tell us about her work and the books she represents. Thank you, Chiara!

Chiara, please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?

I always loved languages and different cultures. When I was little, apparently I was sometimes caught speaking in made-up languages. In school, aside from my native Italian, I studied English, Latin and ancient Greek and at university I chose to study Languages and Literatures of South Asia. I finished my studies at SOAS, University of London and from there I decided to follow my passion for books and in particular children’s books – as I had by then discovered how captivating illustrations can be next to words. I landed my first job at HarperCollins Children’s Books and that’s where I discovered the world of foreign rights and the work that rights professionals do to encourage books to travel across languages and cultures. I knew I had found my space in the publishing world. After leaving HC, I worked for ten years at Walker Books. That was for me an invaluable experience. I met children’s books heavyweights such as Helen Oxenbury, Sam McBratney, Michael Rosen, Anthony Browne, Lucy Cousins, Kate di Camillo, Chris Haughton, Jon Klassen to name just a few. I worked in close contact with some of the best children’s books publishing professionals across all departments of a publishing house. I represented top-end books by beloved children’s book authors and illustrators, both British and international. And I got to know and become part of the passionate world of the international children’s books professionals. So when, at the beginning of 2021, the stars aligned for me to leap out of the Walker nest into the outside world, I felt I wanted to continue contributing to the rights book market with something just as unique and meaningful, but even more diverse. I knew that there were so many gems around the world that don’t get to travel as much as they deserve to, and that’s how the idea of my agency was born. I now represent books from China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Australia, Italy, France and Scandinavia, with a special focus on the Asian territories.

You run a rights agency, and offer international services. What does this involve? Could you give an example of the journey of a book, showing how it went from being published in China to being published in English?

The core of my agency is maximising foreign rights potential for the books of my clients. I am also a consultant and can help with building a foreign rights strategy for a title or for a whole list, I can provide pre-acquisition foreign potential assessments and focus market reports, and (in conjunction with other professionals), production and marketing fulfilment. For my Asian portfolio, I choose each and every book I include in my portfolio, so the first step is research, scouting and assessing PDFs and manuscripts. For Chinese books, I am very lucky to be working with some outstanding professionals at Bardon Chinese Media, who play a huge part in liaising with all of the local publishers, spotting high-potential titles, gathering material and facilitating communication. Once a book is in my portfolio, I’ll work on finding the right publisher for it, not only in English but in all Western languages. That involves putting a new hat on, as in my submissions I always take into account what each editor is looking to acquire for their catalogue, and which house or imprint would most nurture and support an author or illustrator. After the negotiation part is concluded, the foreign edition of the Chinese book will be sent to the proprietor for approval, and then it can be printed and distributed. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that I play a small part in giving a whole new audience to a book in which I believe.

Sometimes different countries do things differently. Are there any must-know things about working with Chinese publishers, agents, book people? 

Let me preface this by saying that while I have seen for many years the success Western imports can have in China (such as Guess How Much I Love You), I am still learning about sourcing Chinese literature for the West. As a bit of a generalisation, I see that some Chinese publishers are not used to exporting rights to their titles into Western languages. That’s where my work and that of my Chinese co-agent come into play and become valuable, as we facilitate communication between the Western and Chinese publishers. Agencies can play a great role in connecting publishers and bridging cultural distances between them, as well as ensuring the negotiation takes place at the best market standards.

We’re particularly interested in Chinese books for young readers. Could you tell us about the Chinese titles you have on your list. Do you have any favourites at the moment?

This is my favourite question! I have the pleasure and honour of working on some great Chinese authors and illustrators such as Mo Yan, Cao Wenxuan, Zhu Chengliang, Chinlun Lee, Yu Rong, Bei Lynn, Ahn Zhe, Min-I Yen and Yi-Ting Lee to name a few.

  • “Paw in the Surgery” Paw在醫院裡, by Chinlun Lee
  • Bubu Loves to Jump 步步很愛跳, by Bei Lynn 貝小林 (English: Bibbit Loves to Jump, tr. Helen Wang, Gecko Press)
  • Aho 阿河, by Ahn Zhe 安哲

It’s impossible to pick favourites – I am absolutely loving delving deeper into the vibrant Chinese children’s literature! Last Bologna (2021), my agency’s first book fair, was quite exciting as so many Chinese titles won awards and special mentions – and I had the honour to represent them! Home, by Lin Lian-En won the Fiction Award, Yulu’s Linen by Cao Wenxuan and Suzy Lee won the Special Mention in the Fiction category, Love Letter by Animo Chan won the Special Mention in the Poetry category (after another of Animo’s books, the stunning The Short Elegy, won the Bologna Ragazzi Award in the Comics/YA category in 2020). 

  • Home, by Lien-En Lin (English: Reycraft Books)
  • “Yulu’s linen” 雨露麻, by Cao Wenxuan 曹文轩, illus. Suzy Lee 苏西·李 (Chinese: Jieli chubanshe 接力出版社
  • Love Letter, by Animo Chen 阿尼默
  • The Short Elegy 小輓, by Animo Chen 阿尼默
“Yulu’s linen” 雨露麻, by Cao Wenxuan 曹文轩, illus. Suzy Lee 苏西·李
(Chinese: Jieli chubanshe 接力出版社)

Representing Yulu’s Linen, by Cao Wenxuan, illustrated by Korean artist Suzy Lee has been a highlight for me. The book is a unique synergy between stellar children’s book masters from two key countries for my agency. The poetic, polysemic story, enhanced by Suzy Lee’s accomplished illustrations, has won many international hearts and we have just now closed a high-profile auction for English rights!

“The Gale” 大风, by Mo Yan 莫言, illus. Zhu Chengliang 朱成梁
(21st Century Publishing 二十一世纪出版社) (see our post no. 148)

Another title I have been loving working on has been The Gale by Mo Yan, illustrated by Zhu Chengliang, which generated a lot of international interest and auctions for Spanish and English rights. Sharing this book, I could see how the passion and vision of translators and editors is truly pivotal to a book’s journey to foreign readers. In a few weeks I’ll be attending Bologna, my agency’s first in-person fair! I can’t wait to meet new and old friends from around the world and show beautiful picture books by creators such as Peng Xuejun, Qu Lan, Dong Hongyou, Meng-Yun Chiang and Kiko Yang. I’ll also be presenting a little collection of titles by Cao Wenxuan and British-Chinese illustrator Yu Rong, some of which you mention in one of your blog’s post (no. 142). As the interest in Asian graphic novels continues to grow, I’m particularly excited also to present to the Western world an action-packed best-selling middle-grade comic series the title of which I’m keeping under my hat for now. 

Would you tell us about your own childhood reading? Any favourite books? Do you associate your early reading with a particular person or place? 

What a lovely question! I always adored books, as far back as I can remember. Some of my favourite picture books from preschool times were Candy Pink by Adela Turin and Nella Bosnia, Alexander and The Wind-Up Mouse by Leo Lionni, Animal Nursery Tales by Richard Scarry and Brucoverde by Giovanna Mantegazza and Giorgio Vanetti. The first books I read by myself were Bandiera and Cipì by Mario Lodi, before falling in love with Telephone Tales by Italian children’s book literature giant Gianni Rodari. From there, I read each and every book by Roald Dahl, with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory holding a special place in my heart… that picture by Quentin Blake of the four grandparents, two on each side of the bed… . My mother got me in the habit of reading in bed before lights-out, which became a special time for me of comfort, warmth and independence. I am grateful to my kindergarten and primary school teachers who all played a big role in me falling in love with stories, and there has been no turning back from the joy of reading children’s literature.

Read more about Chiara Tognetti here:

147. I Want to Be Good, and The Worst Witch

Stephanie Gou (Gou Yao 勾尧) has reviewed several books for us before (nos 40, 126 and 130). Her reviews are always original, perceptive and interesting. We’re delighted to post her review of I Want to Be Good by Huang Beijia, translated by Nicky Harman (New Classic Press). Thank you, Stephanie!

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146. Ajia, the children’s book author, translator, researcher and promoter of reading – interviewed by Dong Haiya

Three years ago we interviewed Dr Dong Haiya 董海雅 of Shanghai International Studies University 上海外国语大学 (no. 80), while she was a visiting scholar at the University of Reading, in the UK. We have stayed in touch, and were delighted when she offered not only to interview Ajia for us, but to co-translate the interview with Helen as well. Thank you, Haiya!

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