99. Interview with Shih-Wen Sue Chen

Shih-Wen Sue Chen teaches children’s literature at Deakin University, Australia, one of a very small number of universities which offers a major in children’s literature in the BA program. In her “Children’s Literature Around the World” unit, she introduces Chinese children’s literature in translation to her students. She has an impressive list of publications – see her staff page at Deakin University, where she is Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature. Her most recent book is Children’s Literature and Transnational Knowledge in Modern China – Education, Religion, and Childhood, published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. We are delighted that Shih-Wen Sue agreed to an interview with Amy Matthewson, who shares a common research interest in race relations and the representation of China and Chinese people in English-language popular publications. Thank you both very much for this interview!

Shih-Wen Sue Chen

Children’s Literature and Transnational Knowledge in Modern China, by Shih-Wen Sue Chen, 2019 (Image source: Palgrave Macmillan 

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

SC: I was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and moved to the US when I was six years old. My love of literature was developed from a young age, since both of my parents were English professors. At home, there were books everywhere! Our bookshelves were custom-made ones that lined an entire wall and reached up to the ceiling. When I first returned to Taiwan, it was hard for me to adapt to school since my Chinese was only at a third-grader’s level when I was supposed to be in sixth grade. With a lot of private tutoring, I was able to catch up. After completing a BA at National Taiwan University in Foreign Languages and Literature, I won a scholarship to pursue my MA in English at the University of British Columbia, Canada. I received my PhD in Literature, Screen and Theatre Studies from the Australian National University. I have extensive experience in teaching literary studies to university students from diverse language and cultural backgrounds, having taught in the Australian National University, National Tsing Hua University, Tamkang University, and the University of British Columbia. I am currently a Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University, where I teach children’s literature at the undergraduate and postgraduate level.

AM: What books did you use to read as a child?

SC: My mother used to read bedtime stories to me and some of my favorites came from Zhongguo tonghua 《漢聲中國童話全集》(Chinese fairy tales), a 12-volume set published by Taiwanese publisher Han Sheng. There are 365 beautifully illustrated stories in the series and one that left an impression on me was a humorous story called “Mai Xiangpi” 《賣香屁》(Selling fragrant farts). I don’t remember the plot now, but I liked it so much as a kid that I retold it to my grandmother in Taiwanese dialect (because she did not understand Mandarin). I recall that I couldn’t stop laughing as I told her the story. Researchers have shown that children do love fart jokes!

ccs

Zhongguo tonghua 《漢聲中國童話全集》(Chinese fairy tales), a 12-volume set published by Taiwanese publisher Han Sheng (image source: Han Sheng gifts)

Because I spent many childhood years in the United States, most of the books I read were American or British texts. I liked reading stories about horses, especially the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley and the classic Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Another animal story I loved was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. The book taught me about the powerful effect that words can have on people’s perceptions of others. I think one of the reasons I decided to focus my research on Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature was because I enjoyed reading The Secret GardenAnne of Green Gables, and Little Women as a child.

AM: Did any of the characters in your childhood books shape and/or influence your understanding of race and race relations as a child?​ Did any book in particular influence your current research interests? 

SC: When I was in the US, I read books about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, and The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox. My understanding of race relations was mostly framed in the context of the history of slavery in the US and these books made me see how evil slavery was. My elementary school in Michigan was special because in my classes, the majority of students were from international backgrounds. I think I only had four or five white American classmates each year, so I did not feel like an ethnic minority. At home, I remember my mother reading another story from Zhongguo tonghua about a Mongolian boy and his horse, which explains the origins of the horse-head fiddle 《蒙古少年的碼頭琴》. This led to a discussion with my mother about Mongolians and Han Chinese.

horse-head-fiddle
Horse-head fiddle – in Chinese matouqin 马头琴, in Mongolian Morin khuur (image source: Coplans in China)

My current research interests were not influenced by any particular book I read as a child, but rather from accidentally discovering old copies of The Boy’s Own Paper (1879-1967) at the University of British Columbia’s library and becoming fascinated by the caricatures of Chinese people within its crumbling pages. I found there were many stories about China and the Chinese published in the pages of this periodical and decided to write my Masters’ thesis on the topic. I also analyse some of the materials I found in The Boy’s Own Paper in my book Representations of China in British Children’s Fiction, 1851-1911 (Routledge, 2013).

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Shih-Wen Chen, Representations of China in British Children’s Fiction, 1851-1911, Routledge, 2013. (Image source: Routledge)

AM: What do you think of children’s books today? Can you see any positive (or negative) changes?

SC: Children have access to many wonderful, imaginative, and innovative books today. There are so many excellent authors that it is hard to keep up with all the good books coming out. I’m glad that my colleagues and I formed a YA book group where we discuss two books a month to keep abreast of the latest trends in YA publishing. We have mostly been choosing Australian novels, particularly works by indigenous authors. A recent book we all enjoyed was Catching Teller Crow by sister and brother authors Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina. It is a gripping mystery written in both verse and prose and explores colonialism, racism, and grief. I found the father-daughter relationship particularly touching. While there are more opportunities for POC authors to be published nowadays, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement highlights that there is still a lot of work to be done. I also think children in English-speaking countries would benefit from reading more translated books.

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Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Catching Teller Crow, A&U Children’s, 2018 (image source: Allen & Unwin)

AM: Have you considered writing a children’s book yourself? What would you write about and why? 

SC: A lot of friends have asked me this but I don’t have the urge to write a children’s book. If I were to write one, I would probably write a historical novel set in the 19th century.

Thanks again to Shih-Wen Sue Chen and Amy Matthewson

Shih-Wen Sue Chenhttps://www.deakin.edu.au/about-deakin/people/sue-chen  — twitter: @snoowayc

Amy Matthewson  —  https://amymatthewson.com/  —  twitter: @Visual_Cultures

98. Children’s Books in China, 2017-2020

Publisher’s Weekly produces an annual summary Children’s Books in China. We featured the 2017 and 2018 editions in an earlier blog (no. 66). Here are the editions for 2019 and 2020. These industry reports are researched and written by Teri Tan, who has an impressive list of publications with Publisher’s Weekly.

Children’s Books in China: Special Report 2019

Children's Books in China 2019 - front cover

Read the entire 2019 supplement on Scribd– or read the individual feature articles:

Profile of 8 Children’s Publishers in Alphabetical Order:

Children’s Books in China: Special Report 2020

Children's Books in China 2020 - front cover

97. I Want To Be Good! Nicky Harman tells us about Huang Beijia’s novel

Nicky Harman is one of the most versatile and enthusiastic translators of Chinese literature, and a few months ago we were delighted to hear that she had been commissioned to translate Huang Beijia‘s 黄蓓佳 much-loved novel I Want To Be Good! 《我要做好孩子》. Huang Beijia is a well-known author in China, with many books to her name, and was China’s nominated author for the Hans Christian Andersen Award this year. At long last, she is being translated into English! Thank you, Nicky, for agreeing to be interviewed!

Chinese edition of Huang Beijia’s novel I Want To Be Good, first published 1996; this edition Jiangsu Fenghuang Shaonian Ertong Chubanshe, 2016 [Image source: amazon.com]

Please tell us about yourself – what would you like our readers to know about you? Is I Want to be Good your first encounter with children’s books, and with children’s books from China?
Well, I suppose the first thing I’d like readers to know about me is that I’m passionate about translation because I want readers to have the same chances to read great stories from the other side of the world that I have. Translation is opening a window for them, and it’s a privilege to have the key to the window! I also happen to love the process of translating and I can’t exactly explain why. Perhaps because I love writing and playing with language, English and Chinese, but I have no desire to write my own stories. Up until now (and I started translating in the 1990s) I have focussed on literature for adults, partly because that was the work on offer. So I Want to be Good is my first excursion into children’s books.

I can’t wait to read your translation! It’s a much-loved children’s book in China. Please tell us what it’s about!
Here’s the blurb (I feel entitled to quote it, because I wrote it myself!):
Ling is an average sort of kid: cheerful, kind, brave when she needs to be, good at writing stories, but––no matter how hard she tries––hopeless at maths! In their last year of elementary school, Ling and her friends get ready for their middle school entrance exam, and the pressure piles on. I Want To Be Good is full of heart and humour. We share Ling’s adventures and misadventures, enjoy her small triumphs, and despair with her over her math scores. Then, just before the exams, something really special happens to Ling, something she is determined to keep a close secret…

As the school year comes to an end, Ling has learnt a lot about life, and herself, and is ready to face the next stage of growing up.

I’m curious to know how you feel about the title “I Want to be a Good Girl”. (I’ll admit that when I first came across this title, I found it off-putting and dismissed it. I’m happy to say I have changed my mind since!)
The title in Chinese is literally ‘I want to be a good child’ 《我要做好孩子》. I had no hesitation in telling the publishers that I thought translating it literally would not do the book justice. It was going to put people off even opening it, let alone reading it, just as it put you off. So I suggested, I Want To be Good. And that’s what it will be called. It works on various levels: she wants to make her parents happy (especially her mother), she wants to improve her maths, and last but not least, she wants to succeed on a personal level. She has ambitions, and resilience, she’ll go far, that girl!

What struck me about this novel is the relationship between mother and daughter. Although the blurb doesn’t mention her, the mother is an important figure, and I felt almost as much for her as I did for her put-upon daughter. Mum is complicated. She has the task of pushing Ling through her school exams and she applies the pressure relentlessly. But she is uncomfortably aware that she is at times making her daughter’s childhood fairly miserable. She doesn’t want to be a tiger mother, but she is forced to be. The father is much more laid-back, but that’s because he knows his wife will do the dirty work for him.

Could you tell us about Huang Beijia’s writing/style?
Huang Beijia writes effortlessly. There’s laugh-out-loud humour, often when you least expect it, and there are moments that make you go ‘Ouch!’ Here’s one passage:

Nana [Ling’s grandmother] did have one big regret in life: she couldn’t ride a bike. After she retired, Nana liked to shop, go sightseeing, and drop in on old friends. She and Gramps lived comfortably on their combined pensions, but calling a taxi every time she went out would cost far too much. Their pensions would soon be swallowed up. Then, when Ling’s uncle came on a visit from Shenzhen, he had a brainwave: he went out and bought them a tandem bicycle. Gramps sat on the front seat and steered, and Nana sat on the back seat and pedaled for all she was worth. They were a perfect pair. After this, they could go wherever the fancy took them, to the market, shopping, or the park. Wherever they went, they attracted quite a bit of attention.

Ling was actually quite jealous of her grandparents’ leisurely lifestyle. She told Mom a few times, “I wish I was sixty and retired. I wouldn’t have to study, and I could ride my bike every day. I could go wherever I wanted.”

Mom’s reaction was, “Well, that’s a real shame. You want to go from being a child to being old? You’d miss out all the good bits in between, your youth, your best years. Your life wouldn’t have any meaning, would it?”
“I don’t need meaning,” Ling said. “I just want to be happy. I’m not happy going to school and studying all the time. I hate all these endless tests. I’d be better off dead.”

Mom was appalled. She went pale and grabbed hold of Ling, as if afraid she was going to disappear from this world right then and there. “Don’t say dumb things like that! You wish you were retired like Nana and Gramps, but you have no idea, they’re even more envious of you cos you’re young. If you don’t believe me, go ask them. If they had a choice, they’d much rather be you any day!”

“Whatever. I just don’t like school,” Ling muttered.

I’ve underlined the ‘Ouch!’ moment. It’s just dropped into the conversation and it takes a moment to realize that Ling, the girl who bounces back smiling from every setback, is really feeling the strain deep down.

But of course, the novel is not all sad. There are a lot of hilarious incidents, and some uplifting moments too. I particularly loved the old lady roaring up on a motorbike at the end. But you’ll have to read the book to find out who she is…

I Want To Be Good is coming out, or is already out, in French (Editions Philippe Picquier), German (Baobab Books), Korean (Grimm-Young publishers Inc.), and Vietnamese (Le Chi Culture and Communications Co.,Ltd). So far, in English, the only edition is GBD Books, which distributes in India. Phoenix, the Chinese publishers, are actively looking for a UK or USA publisher.

I hear you are translating another novel by Huang Beijia – any chance you could give us a glimpse of what this story is about?
It’s about a girl growing up in Chengdu during the Anti-Japanese War — her father’s university has evacuated teachers and students from Nanjing, which the Japanese are bombing, to a safer location in West China. More than that I can’t tell you because I’ve done what I sometimes do and started the translation without reading the book. You can argue that either way, as a translator. If you don’t read the whole novel in advance, the narrative unfolds just as it does for the reader, and that can be quite fresh and interesting. I’m loving it, by the way.

Any more children’s books in the pipeline? Or is this a temporary diversion from the more adult subject matter you translate?
I do hope to get more of Huang’s novels to translate. I love them and I think young readers will too.

Further reading

Huang Beijia was author of the month at the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing in Dec 2019/Jan 2020, and included her short story 《心声》”From The Heart”, translated by Helen Wang.

96. Frogs and Tadpoles

Bibbit Jumps, written and illustrated by Bei Lynn 林小杯, will be published in English by Gecko Press later this year. It’s a delightful book about Bibbit, a frog who loves to jump, and his little sister, who’s quite a lot braver than him. Of course, both of them were once tadpoles, and then grew into frogs. Continue reading

91. Our first 90 posts!

  1. Chinese books for young readers (Sep 12, 2016)
  2. Gerelchimeg Blackcrane (Sep 13, 2016)
  3. Chinese children’s literature and the UK National Curriculum (Sep 14, 2016)
  4. Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! (Sep 15, 2016)
  5. The Reason for Being Late (Sep 16, 2016)
  6. Why Translations? Don’t We ‘Already Have Chinese Stories in English’? (Sep 27, 2016)
  7. A Brief History of Chinese Literature for Children, What Sells Now, and More (Oct 1, 2016)
  8. The “Warring States” world of picture books … in a big Hangzhou bookshop (Oct 2, 2016)
  9. Poems for Children – selected by Bei Dao (Oct 7, 2016)
  10. Happy Double Ninth (Chongyang) Festival! (Oct 9, 2016)
  11. Literature: Another Form of Housebuilding – Cao Wenxuan’s acceptance speech
    (Oct 14, 2016)
  12. Crossing Cultures: Belle Yang, A Story of Immigration (Oct 16, 2016)
  13. I am a tiger! (Oct 20, 2016)
  14. Bronze and Sunflower shortlisted for the Marsh Award (Oct 24, 2016)
  15. Nami Island International Picture Book Illustration Concours 2017 – shortlist (Nov 2, 2016)
  16. Zhang Xinxin and Little People’s Books (Nov 3, 2016)
  17. Calling them Asian-American books isn’t sufficient… (Nov 8, 2016)
  18. Made in China: 10 picture books you can’t miss (Nov 13, 2016)
  19. A picture’s worth a thousand words… (Nov 14, 2016)
  20. Reflecting Teenagers on a Sichuanese Mirror: Yan Ge and her stories from Pingle Township (Nov 19, 2016)
  21. Context and contradiction in translating Aroma’s Little Garden, by Qin Wenjun (Nov 30, 2016)
  22. Jin Jin (1915-1989) (Dec 27, 2016)
  23. Bing Xin and The Little Orange Lantern (Dec 29, 2016)
  24. Tyrus Wong (1910-2016) and Bambi (Jan 3, 2017)
  25. Yu Rong’s paper cuttings (Jan 11, 2017)
  26. The Good Things That Come out of Collisions (Jan 15, 2017)
  27. Helen Wang Wins the 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation (Jan 30, 2017)
  28. The Ventriloquist’s Daughter: Between Fantasy and Reality – by Lin Man-chiu (Feb 23, 2017)
  29. One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Social Experiment – by Mei Fong (Feb 24, 2017)
  30. St Gregory’s School ‘Reading China’ book group – by Theresa Munford (Feb 25, 2017)
  31. The Story of Ink and Water – by Chun Zhang (Feb 26, 2017)
  32. Sister – by Peng Xuejun (Mar 5, 2017)
  33. I Am Mulan (Mar 13, 2017)
  34. Bronze and Sunflower – now available in the USA and Canada! (Mar 21, 2017)
  35. The King of Hide-and-Seek (Apr 8, 2017)
  36. Bilingual books from Candied Plums (Apr 17, 2017)
  37. Chinese literature festival in London, 12-14 May (May 5, 2017)
  38. The Ventriloquist’s Daughter – now available! (May 25, 2017)
  39. A Tree (Jun 9, 2017)
  40. Stephanie Gou on how Bronze and Sunflower opened a door to her memories (Jun 13, 2017)
  41. Who is Wenzheng Fu? (Jun 18, 2017)
  42. Author-illustrator Lipei Huang (Jun 25, 2017)
  43. Starfish Bay Children’s Books (Jul 10, 2017)
  44. “Plums” for Your Tongue: Chinese Children’s Literature for Language Learners (Jul 21, 2017)
  45. The 10th National Outstanding Children’s Literature Awards, 2017 (Aug 6, 2017)
  46. The Only Child, by Guojing (Aug 11, 2017)
  47. CFP: Asian Festival of Children’s Content (Aug 30, 2017)
  48. Little Soldier Zhang Ga (Sep 30, 2017)
  49. Happy Mid-Autumn Festival 2017 (Oct 4, 2017)
  50. 12 Books for the Holidays (Oct 5, 2017)
  51. David Jacobson’s survey of translations of children’s and YA Literature translated from Chinese, Japanese and Korean (Oct 16, 2017)
  52. List of Chinese-Themed Books for Kids and Teens – by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre (Oct 19, 2017)
  53. A Cross-Cultural Conversation Between Two Master Storytellers at the 2017 USBBY Conference (Oct 27, 2017)
  54. Chinese children’s and YA books, in English, 2017 (Dec 11, 2017)
  55. The 2017 Bai Meigui Translation Competition is now open! (Dec 12, 2017)
  56. What’s the difference between children’s books in China and the US? (Jan 7, 2018)
  57. Dong Yanan’s picture books (Jan 18, 2018)
  58. China Welfare Institute Publishing House: Picture Books from China, with Love & Beauty (Jan 22, 2018)
  59. Interview with Chloe Garcia Roberts, translator of the picture book “Feather” by Cao Wenxuan and Roger Mello (Jan 25, 2018)
  60. Getting to Know Rural Young Chinese Readers and Their World(s) (Jan 29, 2018)
  61. Our first 60 posts! (Feb 4, 2018)
  62. The NCTA Freeman Book Awards (Feb 6, 2018)
  63. Witness China’s New Love: the Changing Landscape of Chinese Children’s Literature (Feb 14, 2018)
  64. Books from Taiwan (Mar 1, 2018)
  65. The Tortoise Family goes to the Sea, and Blind Little Red Riding Hood (Mar 12, 2018)
  66. Children’s Books in China 2018 (and 2017) (Apr 6, 2018)
  67. Chinese Dinosaurs in an English Village (May 20, 2018)
  68. The Cao Wenxuan Children’s Literature Award (Jun 10, 2018)
  69. Teardrops of the Christmas Tree: A Memorable Childhood Reading Experience (Jul 10, 2018)
  70. Vikki Zhang, illustrator with a love of textiles and fashion (Aug 14, 2018)
  71. Let’s Talk to Kids about Sex… in Chinese, Q&A with Minjie Chen (Sep 3, 2018)
  72. People Reading in Chinese Art (Sep 15, 2018)
  73. Our First 72 Posts! (22 Oct 2018)
  74. Theresa Mumford, Chinese Teacher (1 Nov 2018)
  75. Jennie Liu’s Childhood Reading in the USA, 1970s-80s (8 Nov 2018)
  76. Children’s Literature from Hong Kong in English (6 Dec 2018)
  77. Science Fiction for Children – Selected by Liu Cixin and Han Song (10 Dec 2018)
  78. Childhood in a Courtyard House (14 Dec 2018)
  79. Asian Children’s Literature, Film and Animation (special issue of SARE 2018) (3 Jan 2019)
  80. Translator Dong Haiya Studies Children’s Literature at Reading (14 Jan 2019)
  81. Justine Laismith and the Secrets of the Great Fire Tree (31 Mar 2019)
  82. White Horse by Yan Ge (29 Apr 2019)
  83. Interview with Yangsze Choo, author of “The Ghost Bride” (14 May 2019)
  84. Exams, Handwriting and School Stories (20 May 2019)
  85. The Moose of Ewenki (27 Aug 2019)
  86. International Research on Chinese Children’s Literature (IRSCL 2019) (12 Sep 2019)
  87. The 10th Asian Festival of Children’s Content – Sparking New Ideas (15 Sep 2019)
  88. Two Temples, and Two Approaches to Depicting Religions to Children (30 Oct 2018)
  89. “My Favourite Children’s Books” – children in China vote for their Top 30 books of 2019 (3 Nov 2019)
  90. Christmas in China (5 Jan 2019)

89. “My Favourite Children’s Books” – children in China vote for their Top 30 books of 2019

The  “My Favourite Children’s Books” (我最喜爱的童书) titles of 2019 have just been announced. The winning books are selected by children (the first award of its kind in China). [The awards are similar to the annual Children’s Book Awards in the UK – if you’d like to compare, the UK list starts with 50, is shortlisted to 10 – here’s the 2019 list, which has 3 winners and 7 runners-up.] Continue reading

88. Two Temples, and Two Approaches to Depicting Religions for Children

Natasha Heller is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, and studies Chinese Buddhism—past and present—in the context of cultural and intellectual history. She’s currently completing a book tentatively titled  Raising Bodhisattvas: Picture Books and Parenting in Modern Taiwan, which looks at children’s literature published by Buddhist organizations in Taiwan in the context of global parenting. We’re delighted that she agreed to share some of her work with us here; you can also follow her on Twitter: @nheller  Continue reading

87. The 10th Asian Festival of Children’s Content – sparking new ideas

I’ve just returned from the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, in Singapore. It was the 10th AFCC, and my 1st time to the AFCC or Singapore. I’m so grateful to the Singapore Book Council – in particular William Phuan, Caroline Wan and Chloe Tong and their team – for inviting me (I gave a keynote, was on a panel, gave a lecture, and a masterclass). Continue reading