128. Interview with author Wally De Doncker about his collaboration with Chinese illustrators

Wally De Doncker is a Belgian author of children’s books – including two collaborations with Chinese illustrators – and a very active person in the world of children’s literature. Until recently he was the president of IBBY, the International Board on Books for Young Readers, 2014-2018. He very kindly agreed to an interview with us. Thank you, Wally!

Wally De Doncker 2021 © Michiel Devijver, of Iedereen Leest (please do not use this photograph without permission)

[We also interviewed Xiong Liang, who illustrated one of Wally’s books, and asked about his experience of the collaboration. You can read Minjie’s interview with Xiong Liang here]

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

Already as a young child, I wanted to change things. I organized an environmental group for kids from my neighbourhood so we could protect nature. In my late teens I started a campaign with a number of friends because at the time, the children in my village had nowhere to go to relax and have fun. When I was studying to be a teacher, I organized joint activities with the female students at the teacher-training institute for girls. At the time, Flanders was a conservative place, and something like this was not yet self-evident. As a teacher, I fought to give teachers a say in school policy, because at the time this was virtually unheard of. I was elected chairperson of our regional teachers’ association, and this put me in a position to make a great many changes. Together with my wife, I later campaigned for co-education. We fought long and hard for this. Looking back, it’s incredible that even in the Belgian education system of the 1990s, girls were not considered to be equal to boys.

I have continued this fight through my involvement with IBBY [International Board on Books for Young Readers]. Sadly, there are still countries that consider girls to be inferior. There are still countries where more than 90 per cent of girls and women are unable to read or write. I find it inconceivable that my children and grandchildren could be discriminated against based solely on their gender. As IBBY president (2014-2018) I couldn’t just sit back and watch when I heard that girls are not allowed to read. IBBY is a non-profit organization which represents an international network of people from all over the world who are committed to bringing books and children together. Promoting international understanding between people remains IBBY’s focus. Every child everywhere in the world must have access to books and the opportunity to become a reader in the fullest sense. IBBY sees this as a fundamental right and the doorway to empowerment for every child. It is also my personal goal. A person who has access to reading has the opportunity to learn, to enjoy and to shape his or her own future. Whatever, however and wherever people read, one thing is clear: the power that books hold within them can change the path of a life.

In 2003, Kim Reynolds invited me to go to the University of Roehampton to give a talk about my literary work to leading international authorities on children’s books. The philosophical and surrealistic nature of my picture books had already drawn the attention of a number of such experts. To this very day, the interest and encouragement I received there from literary scholars like Kim Reynolds, Lissa Paul, Rod McGillis, and Lynne Vallone continue to serve as an inspiration to me as a writer.

From 2003 to 2009 I was a member of the editorial board of the critical journal of children’s literature, The Lion and the Unicorn which is published in the USA.

International museums have also drawn attention to my books: the Labyrinth Children’s Museum (Berlin) has focused on Ahum and the Dutch Children’s Books Museum on Het begint ergens (“It Starts Somewhere”). Ik mis me (“I miss me”) has received attention in France at many national exhibitions and philosophy conferences. In 2013 and 2017 I was shortlisted (one of three writers) for the Belgian SABAM Awards for Children’s and Youth Literature.

As a song writer I work together with different Belgian composers.

The film Us Three / Nous Trois (2019, Blauwhuis productions, Ghent) was inspired by my book Ik Mis Me and was awarded Best Film at the Fic Autor Filmfestival in Mexico 2019 and the Bronze Award at the Queen Palm International Film Festival 2019 in Florida (USA).

You’ve partnered with two Chinese artists: Xu Kaiyun 徐开云 and Xiong Liang 熊亮.
Could you tell us how these projects came about and how they developed?

From the start I applauded the unique initiative of CCPPG in which authors and illustrators from different continents collaborate on universal themes. It is a big step to publish a Chinese artist who has illustrated a story by an author from a different culture, or to publish the works of Chinese authors with illustrations by artists from different continents.

My books were already known in China. In 2004 my picture book “I wish I were a doll” was published in Chinese. It caught the attention of the Chinese reader. I remember that the book was mentioned in a list of the top 100 books in Chinese education. A Chinese reviewer wrote: “This book allows children to consider a more complex view of life. It reminds them, for example, that they should care about lonely old people in society’s hidden corners… As a person, what is the most valuable thing in our lives? As months and years pass, what will remain in our hearts and minds as a ‘never disappearing’ memory?”

Billie’s Factory is an autobiographical story. My father owned a small contracting firm. He spent a lot of his free time in his hangar.. If you were looking for him, you were certain to find him there. Many years after he died, the hangar burnt down. I witnessed it. Within the flames, I saw the memories of my childhood. The building was burnt to ashes but the stories of my father live on through this book. Xu Kaiyun’s illustrations show perfectly how a collaboration between artists from different cultures can be enriching. He asked me for pictures about old factories and familiarized himself with street scenes in Belgium to create mental images of the setting. He used a lot of warm colors to make the artwork child-friendly and to illustrate the heart-warming effects of nostalgia.

The book attracted the attention of many Chinese magazines. It has become an international success. After the original Chinese version it has been (or will be) translated into English, Dutch, Arabic and Indonesian.

Following the success of Billie’s Factory, CCPPG asked me to deliver a new manuscript, this time inspired by a traditional Chinese story. This was a challenge. I read many different classic Chinese stories and eventually I chose to work on the story of Nian.

While reading the story of Nian in different Chinese versions, I was faced with some difficult questions and thoughts. In my previous books (6 of them were published in Chinese by Shandong Publishing House in 2018) I was always looking for the why of things. My picture book “I Miss Me” is about a boy who looks at himself in the mirror. He asks himself what the world would be like if he had not been born. What would his mother be like? What would the house be like? His cuddle? Would the walls miss him? The film version of the book (“Nous Trois”, Blauwhuis Productions, Gent, Belgium, 2018) follows the same track and shows how we all influence each other just by our existence. It indicates which traces we leave in our life and the life of others. My book Ik ben heel veel liefde (“I am lots of love”, Davidsfonds/ Infodok, Antwerpen (Belgium), 2017) indicates the traces of love our ancestors have given us over thousands of years. The awareness of being a product of all the people before you is therefore also a very hopeful message. The book was the theme of different Belgian literature festivals.

I tried to explain the why of things in “Nian and the Boy”. It was something I did not find in the traditional versions of Nian. I also tried to empathize with the emotions of Nian. Why is the Nian monster so vindictive? How would I feel if my living space was taken away from my parents and me? How would I react to that? How do certain traumas extend into a life? Why does Nian want to destroy the villages in a bloodthirsty way?

In the traditional Nian story the old man emerges as a Deus Ex Machina. How does the old man know that the monster is afraid of the three elements: fire, noise and the red color? This knowledge must come from somewhere. Why is the old man in solidarity with the monster that destroys villages? There must be a deeper cause for this.

Everything happens for a reason. Everything has a ground. Sometimes it’s easy to explain or to find out. Sometimes we have to go back to our deepest selves: to our unconscious. I tried to search for the answer within myself. I think that the old man and the monster had met before. There was a certain unspoken connection between them. I found the explanation in the shared childhood of the old man and the Nian monster.

The book got a lot of attention. It has been reviewed and praised by many reviewers, including in my own country.

Could you tell us about the reception of these books in China, in Belgium, and elsewhere?

I have been lucky enough to observe how Chinese schools (in Shanghai) work with my books. For me personally it is heartening to see how my readers on the other side of the world love my stories. Billie’s Factory, for example, is an autobiographical story about myself
as a child. The kid I was then could never have imagined this book might fascinate children in China. It’s almost a philosophical thought.

During a seminar about my books at the Beijing Book Fair in August 2016, I had the opportunity to talk to a large audience of readers about the origin and meaning of the manuscript “Nian and the boy”. The enthusiasm of the audience towards my version of Nian was quite striking. The moderator, from a university in Beijing, even tried to come up with a scientific meaning behind my book. The audience was very curious about how I had come up with my interpretation. Questions like these may be the ultimate proof of how different cultures are able to enrich one another. Also, in Bologna, everyone who had read it praised the manuscript. My Chinese publishers, editors and literary agent have a very professional
approach, which I appreciate.

In 2020 “Nian and the Boy” was nominated for different awards and the book received an “Outstanding Work” award by the Chinese Institute for Picture Book Research and the Fu Lanya Picture Book Museum.

During a lecture tour in Belgium earlier this year, I read Billie’s Factory in my own language whilst projecting the illustrations on a big screen. By doing so, I could experience how my Flemish readers reacted to this cultural teamwork. The surprising illustrations by Xu Kaiyun were welcomed with open arms. Although in Belgium, our young readers are confronted with many different styles of illustrations, this book was different for them. The biggest difference was the way in which the Chinese characters were depicted. The murals of the tortoise and the cat on the facades of the houses in Brussels differed from anything they had seen before. Some of the faces of the employees looked East Asian to them. Most of the reactions to the book were positive.

This is what Belgian reviewer Bart Medaer wrote about the Dutch version of “Nian and the Boy” ((Magazine Pluizer): “Breathtaking, beautiful, a pearl… Once there were mainly monsters and not so many human beings. Here, a family of monsters – a mom, a dad and their child Nian – live in nature. Nian loves cherries and when the cherries are ripe, daddy crawls into the tree and makes cherries rain. Daddy, Mom and Nian are then super cheerful and happy. One day the peace (and silence) is disturbed and a family of people comes to live nearby. They build a house and start breeding animals and plants. The peaceful family of monsters retreats to the mountains and they accept that people take up more and more space and that the cherry trees must also be shared. But will there be enough cherries for both families? What happens if more and more people come? How will they share the cherries?

“This is an incredible ‘outside the comfort zone’ book. The East Asian tinted drawings are powerful, expressive, rough and catchy. The first feeling is not comfortable. After the first few pages I thought it was breathtakingly beautiful. A pearl, art to really enjoy. The story itself is catchy and known. Who enters which world? The monstrous creatures interact with the equally “amorphous” human beings. The tension between the two clans results in aggression. The monster family is being repressed. The relationship with today is clear: more and more walls are being built, we no longer understand each other and people are increasingly excluded. Fortunately, there is the beautiful relationship between Nian and a human child. The lyrics are whimsical and do not follow a line. The story is a fluid succession of colors, figures, images and texts. The book reads smoothly and gives peace, despite the irregular design. This is an extraordinary, overwhelming and monstrous book.”

Do you have any advice to share with other writers who might wish to do a similar collaboration?

Wishing is not enough, of course. I don’t know if you can do something as a writer to attract interest from foreign publishers. Write good books and try to be authentic, I think. And try to be published by good publishers in your own country and work together with a good international literary agent. Be open-minded to the international children’s books world. Open your own borders. It is a process, you can’t force it. You also need a bit of luck to be selected by foreign publishers. Your book has to be different from other books.

During my reading tour in Japan, literature experts told me that my philosophical thinking is similar with eastern philosophy. I never heard this before, maybe this is the trigger. I don’t know.

Could you tell us about your own childhood reading?

As a child I read a lot of Flemish children’s comics. They were very popular in that time.
My favourite children’s book was The Voyage to the Moon by Jules Verne. As a child I read books everywhere: in my bedroom, living room, bathroom, on the veranda, even in the car… I still do! It hasn’t changed.

My passion for children’s and young adult literature emerged when I was still a very young child. Unfortunately until I was ten years old, my village didn’t have a library. Once in a while my mother would buy a children’s book from the newsagent’s. Or our schoolteacher would place a number of books on the steps and we would then be allowed to pick one out to take home with us. At the end of my fourth school year a tiny library finally opened up, and that’s when the world opened up for me too. From then on, I could read whatever I wanted. It might be an audacious assertion, but I would state that I have become who I am today by reading many books. Books have often broadened my perspective and opened up my world.

I remember one Chinese story that I read at different times during my childhood. On my tenth birthday my mother took me to a bookshop. I was delighted that I could choose my own book. It was so special that I can even remember it now, after so many years. The title of the book was ‘The Golden Book of the World’ – it was a book with different world stories: fiction and non-fiction. I read it many times. There was a Chinese story in the book: “The little dog of the Princess of Mu”. The dog lived a luxurious life in a rich palace. He bragged to the other animals that he was the princess’s dog. However, no one paid any attention to him. One day he fled the palace. He ended up in real life. He ran through busy streets. He ran from children who wanted to catch him. He was hungry. Other dogs wanted to cheat on him. He eventually wanted to go back to the palace, but he had learned that his previous status as a princess’s dog was no longer that important. His experiences, however, were more important than anything. A story with a lesson. It is strange that I still remember it.

Website: http://users.telenet.be/wally.de.doncker1/index.html
Twitter: @donckerwally
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/wally.dedoncker
Wikipedia: https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wally_De_Doncker
Chinabook international:
CCTSS China: http://www.cctss.org/article/headlines/1242

Read more by Wally De Doncker

1 thought on “128. Interview with author Wally De Doncker about his collaboration with Chinese illustrators

  1. Pingback: 129. Interview with author-illustrator Xiong Liang | Chinese books for young readers

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