We’ve been fortunate enough to make a short interview with the 2020 APALA Picture Book Award winner Teresa Robeson 何顥思, author of Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom. In this book, illustrated by Rebecca Huang, Robeson tells the fascinating story of Wu Chien Shiung 吴健雄, the Chinese physicist whose work on beta decay (the Wu experiment) was instrumental in the research on parity violation that led to a Nobel Prize in Physics for Lee Tsung-Dao 李政道 and Yang Chen-Ning 杨政宁 in 1957. In spite of this (and all her other contributions to physics) Wu is not well known among those outside of her field, so Queen of Physics is a welcome reminder of this remarkable woman. Robeson has also written Two Bicycles in Beijing, which is officially out April 1st of this year.
We asked her a few questions!
So far you’ve published two books: Queen of Physics and Two Bicycles in Beijing. They’re both fairly recent – in fact, I think the latter hasn’t been formally published yet. How come you decided to start writing for children?
I began writing for children back in the early 1990s. I’ve always loved to write, and my parents encouraged this interest. But I loved science more, so I didn’t study creative writing at university. When my husband was in graduate school and I was stuck at a very boring job, I decided to flex those writing muscles again. I took a course offered by The Institute of Children’s Literature around 1990. When I was finished with the course, I sent out one of the stories I’d written for an assignment to a couple of different magazines. Ladybug, a well-known and well-respected children’s literary magazine, wanted to buy it! I sold a number of other pieces to them and their sister publication, Babybug, for a few years but then raising kids took up much of my time. I let writing lapse until 2010 when I decided I needed to get back to it. And here we are…
Did you have to do a lot of research before writing Queen of Physics? Were you able to speak to people who had actually known Wu Chien Shiung?
I read everything I could find on, and also written by, C.S. Wu before I wrote the picture book. Unfortunately, I could not get anyone in her still surviving family to talk to me, but I was able to communicate with Sharon Burtsch McGrayne who had interviewed Wu personally.
I see from your website that you’re interested in Star Trek, the first moon landing and science. Can we look forward to more science fiction-type of stories by you in the future?
My science fiction works have mostly been for adults. Some of them were in anthologies published by the Minnows Literary Group where all the proceeds were donated to Doctors Without Borders. One of my sci-fi short stories for teens won second place in a contest sponsored by Children’s Writer Magazine, but I don’t have any kids sci-fi books published yet.
Could you tell us a bit more about Two Bicycles in Beijing? Why did you choose a Chinese setting, for instance?
Two Bicycles in Beijing was inspired by a family trip to China back in 2013. My parents really wanted to take my family — specifically my kids and husband who had never been — to visit my ancestral homeland. I last went to China in 1987 with my parents and sister. My husband is white American, and our children are of mixed-heritage. My parents wanted them to get to know more about their Chinese background. Sadly, my mom passed away in 2010 before she could go with us, but my dad was determined to take us. It was a wonderful trip and made me want to share the amazing sights of the capital city with the rest of the world.
What is your own relationship with books and reading? Did you read a lot as a child and could you perhaps tell us about some memorable books from that time?
In Hong Kong, where I was born and lived until I was 8 years old, we start kindergarten at the age of 4. That was when I learned to read. My parents bought me this wonderful magazine called 《兒童樂園》 (Children’s Playground) for years. I had my nose buried in those issues all the time. After we moved to Canada, I started reading books in English. You could never find me or my sister without a book or magazine. Whenever we had to attend any functions with our parents, we would bring a book to read. The first book I read after learning English was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. I still get waves of warm nostalgia when I see that book. Little Women was the first novel I read, so that one also holds a special place in my heart. I buy more books than I can possibly read these days. And I usually am in the middle of about 6-10 of them, juggling paper books with e-books and audiobooks.
Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom, text: Teresa Robeson, illustrations: Rebecca Huang. Sterling Children’s Books, 2019. ISBN: 9781454932208
Two Bicycles in Beijing, text: Teresa Robeson, illustrations: Junyi Wu. Albert Whitman & Co, 2020. ISBN: 9780807507643
by Minjie Chen, Jongsun Wee, David Jacobson, and Reiko Nakaigawa Lee
During 2005 and 2006, amidst a sharp deterioration of Japan’s relations with her Asian neighbors, four Japanese picture book authors and illustrators called on their colleagues in China and Korea to address their mutual lack of trust–with picture books. Their intent was to “document the past honestly, share today’s sorrow, and create a peaceful tomorrow together.” The result was the Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project, comprising eleven titles – four from Japan, three from China, and four from Korea – to be translated and published in all three countries. This post will introduce the three Chinese picture books and one Korean title from the series. For details on the background of the collaborative publishing project and for summaries of more of the Japanese and Korean titles in the series, check out the guest post “The Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project” at A Fuse #8 Production, a children’s literature review blog by Elizabeth Bird.
Told in the format of illustrated story books (连环画), these Sino-Japanese War stories were immensely popular in China until the mid-1980s.
The three Chinese titles from the “China-Japan-Korea Picture Books for Peace” publishing project share distinct features. First, they join a growing body of Chinese children’s literature that moves away from idealizing heroic military combat in favor of depicting the civilian experience during World War II. Guerrilla warfare and combat stories used to dominate Chinese popular culture and juvenile literature about the Sino-Japanese War. With such telling titles as Little Soldier Chang Ka-tse and The Railway Guerrillas, these exciting stories suggested how Communist Party members—valiant, resilient, selfless, and typically male—seemingly single-handedly led Chinese people in defeating the Japanese invaders. Consequently, a whole generation of Chinese readers grew up with a cursory understanding of the impact of the war on civilians and everyday life. The years between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s saw initial endeavors to address the thematic gap in children’s reading materials. Notable among them were illustrated stories, graphic novels, and juvenile nonfiction about the challenging topics of the Nanjing Massacre, “comfort women,” and Japan’s biological warfare, as well as other wartime atrocities.
Second, all three picture books resulted from multigenerational story sharing and collaboration. All the authors and illustrators were of the postwar generation, but they drew heavily upon their own family oral/written narratives to reimagine wartime life. A Fan of Peking Opera, written and illustrated by Yao Hong, is a fictional story set shortly before the fall of Nanjing–then China’s capital city–based on interviews with the author’s mother and the latter’s essay memoirs. The Blazing City: 1938 is about the destruction of Changsha, Hunan Province by fire during the war. The book is written by Cai Gao, a native of Changsha, who blended her grandfather, uncle, and aunt’s accounts of the tragic fire with her own childhood memory of the city, and teamed up with her daughter Cai Aozi to illustrate the book. A Story About Two Old Photos, written and illustrated by Cen Long, is a fictional account based on the life of his father Cen Jiawu (岑家梧, 1912-1966), a pioneer Chinese anthropologist.
It is worth pointing out that the vast majority of canonical Chinese works about the Sino-Japanese War are by male writers. Of the three picture books, two are the fruition of mother-daughter collaborations. Both feature a girl narrator, again a welcome break from the dominance of male protagonists in the canon.
A Fan of Peking Opera [迷戏], written and illustrated by Yao Hong姚红. Nanjing, China: Yilin Press, 2010. ISBN: 9787544715706 (Also available in Japanese and Korean translations)
The full title of the book is A Fan of Peking Opera: Qinhuai River, 1937. A nine-year-old girl is staying at her grandmother’s house next to the Qinhuai River in central Nanjing when a stranger moves into one of the spare rooms. Uncle Xiao, as the unnamed girl addresses him, is a Peking Opera star and is scheduled to perform for two months in the city. The little girl is dazzled by his show. On the stage Uncle Xiao transforms into beautiful women, playing a lonely consort in one song, a legendary woman warrior in the next, and a graceful dancing goddess in another. (Cross-dressing is a standard feature of traditional Chinese opera.) Even his vocal exercises by the river in the mornings attract a big crowd. This is the eve of the fall of Nanjing. The approaching enemy will rob the surreal beauty from the little girl’s life—but not from her tender memory.
Blazing City: 1938 [火城：一九三八], written by Cai Gao蔡皋, illustrated by Cai Gao and Aozi翱子. Nanjing, China: Yilin Press, 2013. ISBN: 9787544737227 (Also available in Japanese and Korean translations)
The year is 1938. Chinese cities have fallen one by one into the grip of the Japanese army. Residents in Changsha are packing and getting ready to evacuate. However, in the dead of night, fire tears through the city, blazing for days before reducing it to a vast expanse of scorched ruins. The story is narrated by a little girl who yearns to reunite with her soldier father but relishes her life in the bustling city. In accordance with the young narrator’s limited knowledge, the book does not delve into the cause of the tragic fire (The Chinese army planned the fire itself in a desperate attempt to minimize resources that might be seized by the advancing army, but apparently lost control in execution). Dark brown charcoal drawings present the city in busy panoramic views, capturing the comforting warmth of life before the disaster, the escalating chaos, and the nightmarish, unrecognizable ruin in the aftermath.
A Story About Two Old Photos [两张老照片的故事], written and illustrated by Cen Long岑龙. Nanjing, China: Yilin Press, 2015. ISBN: 9787544754804 (Also available in Japanese and Korean translations)
A Story About Two Old Photos is narrated by the son of the protagonist, Cen. While seeking education in Japan, Cen has befriended Yamamoto, a fellow Japanese classmate. Both are brought up by their widowed mothers and they bond like a family. When the Sino-Japanese War breaks out and Cen decides to return to China, he leaves Yamamoto with a treasured photo of himself and his mother (the narrator’s grandmother). After the fall of Guangzhou, Cen’s family makes its escape and they become refugees. When an air raid attacks the weary civilians, the grandma shields the toddler with her body. The boy is unscathed, but the grandma never wakes up from the pool of blood. After the end of the war, Cen receives a letter from Yamamoto’s mother, who tells him that her son had been drafted into the army and killed on the battlefield. She encloses Cen’s photo as well as gives one of herself and Yamamoto for keepsake.
The three books repeat the same message: that war is senseless; it destroys lives and damages what makes lives worth living–beauty, joy, and relationships. In these stories the heroes are not Communist fighters, but survivors who not only live to tell the stories, but also refuse to let war take away their capacity for appreciating beauty, experiencing joy, and choosing love over hate. One thing to be aware of regarding publishing practices in China is that children’s literature does not necessarily offer clear paratextual and publication information to distinguish fact from fiction. All three books are loosely based upon or inspired by the real wartime experience of the authors’ family members, but blend in enough personal information to be mistaken as works of nonfiction.
Corn [강냉이], written by Kwon Jung-seang권정생 and illustrated by Kim Hwan-young김환영. Paju, Korea: Sakyejul, 2018. ISBN: 9791160943610 (Also available in Japanese translation)
Corn, one of the Korean titles of the series, is an extended poem written from a young boy’s perspective about his experiences of war. On an ordinary day, the boy plants corn seeds with his mother and brother. He is so excited to see the corn grow. Having come from a family with very few material possessions, this is a great source of joy for the boy. Before he can harvest it, however, war breaks out. The boy and his family rush to escape. When the boy’s mother and father think about the hometown they left, the boy thinks about the corn–and happiness–he leaves behind.
Author Kwon Jung-saeng was born in Tokyo in 1937. He moved to Korea right after its liberation from Japan and was thirteen at the outbreak of the Korean War. One of Korea’s most beloved children’s authors, he wrote the poems in Corn when he was in elementary school. Despite his fame, Kwon suffered from poverty and ill health all his life. In his novels, he depicts children from marginalized groups, touching readers’ hearts.
Illustrator Kim Hwan-young amplifies the emotions in Kwon’s poetry with intense colors, rendered in thick brush strokes of oil paint. He depicts the horrific situation of the war with bright yellow and red flames, the boy’s sadness when he was forced to leave his home in melancholy blues and greens. The thick textures, rough brush strokes, and saturated color tones match well with the strong emotions the boy experiences in wartime.
Summaries of additional titles in the Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project, including Kwon Yoon-duck’s Flower Grandma (Korea), Seizo Tashima’s Can You Hear My Voice? (Japan), and Keiko Hamada’s What Is Peace? (Japan), can be found at A Fuse #8 Production.
Flower Grandma [꽃할머니], written and illustrated by Kwon Yoon-duck권윤덕. Paju, Korea: Sakyejul, 2010. ISBN: 9788958289098 Originally in Korean and also available in Chinese and Japanese translations.
When Spring Comes to the DMZ [비무장지대에 봄이 오면], by Yi Ŏk-pae 이억배. Paju, Korea: Sakyejul, 2010. ISBN: 9788958284918 Originally in Korean and also available in Chinese and Japanese translations.
Can You Hear My Voice? [ぼくのこえがきこえますか?], written and illustrated by Seizo Tashima. Tokyo: Doshinsha, 2011. ISBN: 9784494019670 Originally in Japanese and also available in Chinese and Korean translations.
What Is Peace? [へいわってどんななこと？], written and illustrated by Keiko Hamada浜田桂子. Tokyo: Doshinsha, 2011. ISBN: 9784494019649 Originally in Japanese and also available in Chinese and Korean translations.
The Shoes That Go [くつがいく], by Wakayama Shizuko和歌山静子. Tokyo: Doshinsha, 2013. ISBN: 9784494019694 Originally in Japanese and also available in Chinese and Korean translations.
“The Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project” by David Jacobson, Minjie Chen, Reiko Nakaigawa Lee, and Jongsun Wee, at A Fuse #8 Production.
Publisher Doshinsha’s listing of the Japanese edition [URL]
Publisher Sakyejul’s listing of the Korean edition [URL]
Jongsun Wee is associate professor of elementary and early childhood education at Winona State University in Winona, MN. In the summer of 2019, she studied picture books about war as a fellow at the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany.
David Jacobson is a writer, Japanese translator, and author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. A board member of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, he is currently researching the biographies of Beate Sirota Gordon and Jella Lepman.
Reiko Nakaigawa Lee specializes in translating children’s literature from English to Japanese. She co-translated Newbery Medal honor recipient Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow as well as titles in the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Wonder series. Now living in Hong Kong, she assisted with the 2019 translation and re-publication of Keiko Hamada’s What Is Peace? in Chinese.
Edited by Helen Wang. Thanks go to Faye Di for procuring copies of the Chinese titles reviewed in this post.