81. Justine Laismith and Secrets of the Great Fire Tree

Justine Laismith is a UK-based scientist and author of her children’s books. Her new book Secrets of the Great Fire Tree will be published in May this year. We are delighted she agreed to an interview with us!

JustineLaismith portrait

Hi Justine, please tell us about yourself!
I grew up in Singapore and studied Chemistry in London. After I completed my PhD, I worked in the pharmaceuticals industry. Since then I have also worked in the chemicals and education sectors. I’ve always enjoyed writing. When I was in industry, I wrote scientific papers. While I did write fiction occasionally, it really only took off around the time when I returned to Singapore in 2010. There I entered a local writing competition. As a winner, my children’s book The Magic Mixer was published. It’s a chapter book about two women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). By that time, I was already in the midst of writing my second book. This was the encouragement I needed to keep going.

When I’m not writing, I enjoy taking pictures of nature and buildings. They help me crystallise my thoughts on the setting in my stories. For example, my debut middle-grade book Secrets of the Great Fire Tree was penned after a trip to China.  It will be published by Aurelia Leo in May 2019.

Secrets of the Great FIre Tree 600 by 960

We are looking forward to seeing your new book Secrets of the Great Fire Tree this year. Can you tell us more about the book and how it came about?

I returned to Singapore after living in UK for twenty years. Even though I had left UK in the summer, it struck me how, in Singapore, the place is teaming with life. Not because it is a bustling city, but because there is growth everywhere I look: the tall trees with buttress roots, the thick waxy leaves, the climbers that form green veils and the ferns that live on other trees. The long absence from Singapore meant I saw this tropical country with a new set of eyes. Instead of taking my surroundings for granted, I appreciated their uniqueness, in particular, the many magnificent tropical trees in Singapore. While I have read books set in tropical forests, they tended to be about survival in the wilderness. I wanted to highlight some of the unique trees instead. So the Great Fire Tree was born.

As for the main characters, the story came to me over the dinner table during Chinese New Year. I was told this story:

A group of charity workers had found a little boy living on his own. He had a pig. His parents had gone away to work and his sole responsibility was to look after the pig until his parents’ return to celebrate Chinese New Year. He lived in a mountainous area, and his house was the only one in the area. They reckoned he was about six years old.

It wasn’t a first-hand account, and I never verified the story’s details. But it moved me. To leave behind a six-year old and let him fend for himself for an entire year, the conditions at home had to be desperate.When I delved deeper, I learnt about left-behind children. I wanted to share this knowledge with the world. This was how I starting weaving a plot around the Great Fire Tree.

Would you tell us about your childhood reading – what you read, what you liked, where you found the books?

I used the library a lot. I borrowed books on Chinese folklore because I wanted to know more about my heritage. These books were usually bilingual, but I preferred to read the English translations because I am a faster reader in English. Other than that, I read a lot of the Mr Men series and Enid Blyton’s books. I loved her Magic Faraway Tree series as well as her boarding school series. Funnily enough, despite her popularity, there were very few Enid Blyton books in the libraries. So I had to use my pocket money to buy them even though books were very expensive in Singapore. When I outgrew Enid Blyton, I went on to classics such as those by Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott as teachers always encouraged us to read them.

In my teens, I fell in love with the writings of a local Chinese author Liang Wenfu (Liang Wern Fook 梁文福). He published his debut book Once (曾经) when he was in his late teens. It was a heart-felt collection of his prose. His musings were about down-to-earth things like school life, friendships, and career choices. What blew me away was his ability with words. They were ethereal, both in style and content. He could take the most mundane activity or conversation and tease out a value from it; be it contentment or love, he made me see how beautiful our world is, and how transient these things are. I could relate to the situations he described, because, I too had been to that place or done that same old routine task many times. Through his poetic words I saw things in a different light. I felt his joy and appreciated those moments the way he did.

I believe the title Once (like Once upon a time) was chosen because the book was a record of his teenage life in Singapore. It’s a romantic title itself, showing how much he treasured those carefree days. He went on to publish several more books. Today he is a highly respected Chinese professor and renowned song-writer.

Could you say a few words about the world of children’s books in Singapore today?

Books remain expensive in Singapore. But we are very fortunate to have an excellent library system. There is a plethora of children’s books to borrow from all over the world and available in our four official languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil). It is no wonder that the libraries are always busy even though they open seven days a week and close at 9pm every night.

As I mentioned earlier, we were encouraged to read the works of many famous authors. The problem was that they were all set in the West talking about places I didn’t know about. As Singapore is a tiny, bustling tropical city, it was hard to appreciate the changing seasons or the vast distances in America or England or even dark and dreary winter nights. There was always a disconnect with what I read and what I knew. However, with the efforts of local publishers like Epigram Books, there are now more local authors, like Adeline Foo and A. J. Low, writing stories that local children can appreciate.

You are a professional chemist who also writes for children, though not necessarily about chemistry. Recently there have been complaints as to how scientists and professors are depicted in children’s books – typically male and a bit eccentric, shown in the lab and away from the rest of the world. Would you like to comment on this?

I agree. When I first came up with The Magic Mixer, I wanted first and foremost to remove this stereotype of scientists. What I had not realised was how few children’s books featured women in STEM. Nevertheless, there is now a huge movement to encourage girls into STEM, and more books are being published each day to address this imbalance. The Miscalculation of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty and Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy are two examples of intelligent females in STEM who are neither eccentric nor reclusive. Nor do they wear thick glasses, wear a white lab coat and have crazy hair. Even in the Roger Hargreaves series, they have brought out Little Miss Inventor. With this awareness, I am confident that more will be published in the future.

The Magic Mixer Book cover1

Many thanks for sharing your time with us, Justine! 

Read more about Justine Laismith on her blog.


80. Translator Dong Haiya studies children’s literature at Reading

Dr Dong Haiya 董海雅 of Shanghai International Studies University 上海外国语大学 has recently been in the UK on a Chinese-government funded scholarship to research children’s literature. She generously spared some of her time to meet, and kindly answered some questions about her life and work.

haiya in reading

Dong Haiya at the University of Reading

Please tell us about yourself!

I graduated with a PhD degree in translation studies from Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) in 2007, and have been teaching translation at SISU for 17 years. My research interests have always been audiovisual translation and translation of children’s literature, which derive from my passion for movies and children’s books when I was young. I feel lucky to be involved in these two burgeoning areas of research. Currently I’m doing a research project on the dissemination and translation of Chinese children’s literature in the English-speaking countries. I applied for the scholarship from the China Scholarship Council (CSC) and came to the University of Reading in early 2018 as a visiting fellow.


Eloise, by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight, translated by Dong Haiya (image source: Jingdong)

More translations by Dong Haiya – Green Ship by Quentin Blake, Say it! by Charlotte Zolotow, Imagine by Norman Messenger (image sources: Jingdong)

During the past decade, I’ve worked with several publishers in China and translated more than 30 children’s books into Chinese in my spare time, including Eloise (by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight), Green Ship (by Quentin Blake), Say it!/Sleepy Book(by Charlotte Zolotow), Classic Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Imagine/The Land of Neverbelieve (by Norman Messenger), Challenger Deep (by Neal Shusterman). I also translated several illustrators’ interviews from the book Show Me a Story!Why Picture Books Matter by Leonard S. Marcus. It is very fulfilling to see the books I translate being published and read by young readers and their parents despite the various challenges I’ve encountered during the translating process. To me, every book offers a good learning opportunity to reflect upon childhood and how to translate for children.

I’m also a mother of a 10-year-old boy. While he brings a lot of joy into my life, I  often struggle to be a patient mom and find a balance between work and family. As a translator-mom, I should also give my son some credit in helping with my translation. When I translate a picture book, I usually read my first draft to him to check whether he understands certain words or how he likes the tone of a sentence. I value his response as a child and make some revisions accordingly.

How did you become interested in children’s books?

In my childhood, I was always fascinated by fairy tales and folklore. So, in 2002 when an editor offered me an opportunity to select a few famous fairy tales from around the world for a book intended for advanced English learners and translate them into Chinese, I accepted it without hesitation. Then, in 2005, I was commissioned by Shanghai Translation Publishing House to translate a book titled Kids’ Letters to Harry Potter. Before I set about translating, I read the Chinese translations of all the Harry Potter books then available in the market within a short period of time to familiarize myself with the storyline and the magic spells. Reading and translating the passionate letters from kids all over the world to Harry Potter, a fictional character, I came to realize how much influence children’s books can have on the minds of children. After my son was born in 2008 my interest in children’s books was further fueled. When he was still a baby, I started to look for good picture books from online stores and fora of young mothers. At that time, there were not many – I remember there were only a few translated picture books from Japan, Germany, America and the UK. But the children’s book market has grown very rapidly since then with numerous titles abroad translated into Chinese. Thanks to the market boom, young parents like me now have wider choices. While reading to my son the fabulous works by world famous writers and illustrators – like John Burningham, Anthony Browne, Julia Donaldson, Kevin Henkes, William Steig – I felt a whole new world was unfolding before me, with amazing creativity and refreshing child-oriented perspectives. With strong curiosity, I keep track of my favorite writers and illustrators and try to collect all their works. The more I read with my son, the more eagerly I want to be involved in the translation of children’s books. Thanks to the recommendation of A Jia 阿甲, a friend and pioneer in promoting early reading for children in China, I’ve gradually had opportunities to translate children’s books for very good publishers. My research in translation of children’s literature has grown out of my own experience of translation. It’s amazing that my childhood interest in children’s literature and the birth of my son could lead me further than I expected on the career path.

What has your experience at Reading been like?

My host institution at the University of Reading is the Graduate Center for International Research in Childhood: Literature, Culture, Media (CIRCL). Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, the director of CIRCL, is a world-leading scholar in critical theory and childhood studies. She’s been very generous in sharing her expertise with me. As a visiting fellow, I’m allowed to sit in the MA seminars, which involve the study of a wide range of Children’s Literature, such as Nineteenth Century Children’s Literature, Myth and Folktale in Children’s Literature, Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Children’s Literature (focusing on English-language literature, but also addressing international works).

Therefore, I’m able to observe how children’s literature is taught at graduate level here. The teaching is nothing like what I’ve experienced in China before. The teachers here put a great emphasis on developing critical thinking and analytical abilities. They expect the students to have engaged closely with the texts before class, and during contact time ask hard questions and encourage the students to view the given text from a new perspective, reconsidering their own initial readings, rather than taking the widely-held concepts in children’s literature for granted. I found this approach quite challenging, but on the whole I’ve benefited a lot from my one-year visit. Through the seminars, I have come to know more about 19th and early 20th century British children’s authors and their works that I was previously not very familiar with: for instance, Mrs Sherwood, Catherine Sinclair, George Macdonald etc. One thing I particularly love about the University of Reading is its rich collection of children’s books both in the main library and Children’s Collection Section in Special Collections.

You mentioned that since your son was born you’ve bought about 1000 picture books for him! Could you tell us more about this?  (I have so many questions about this… How did you go about this? How did you choose them? Where did you source them?  How did you pay for them? How did you read them with him? Have you kept them all? Did your friends do the same? I’ve read about other young parents creating a home library – how rare/normal is this?)

Probably I was exaggerating a little bit when I said that. But I’m sure it’s over 800 if I count all the children’s books I’ve bought so far, including more than 50 English titles I bought recently in the UK. I don’t earn a lot as a college teacher, but I’ve never hesitated when buying books for me or for my son. There is a community library near my home in Hongkou District, Shanghai, which has a floor of children’s books, and I sometimes borrow books from there. But as the new titles are hard to get, I decided to create a home library for my son.  I usually buy a whole bunch of books online when they are on discount during holidays. I come to know about newly published children’s books from various sources, like browsing the webpage of online booksellers regularly, subscription to several famous publishers via Wechat, talking with my colleagues and friends. Sometimes I also ask my friends abroad to buy children’s books of a particular author or illustrator and bring them to me when they come to Shanghai on business trips. I seldom look at the list of best sellers on the online book stores, and prefer to make my own judgment based on the cover, the author, the illustrator and the overall style. Of course, I need to consider my son’s interests as well. When he was little, he was very much into the books about geography, stories with a tint of humor, and books of the illustrators whose style he’s already familiar with, for example, John Burningham, Quentin Blake, Anthony Browne, Keiko Kasza. So I would feed him a lot of books like that. I remember one evening when he was six, I put all my collection of Anthony Browne’s picture books on the red couch and read them to him again. After listening to the last picture book Willy the Dreamer, he suddenly remarked, “I love Uncle Anthony Browne so much. If I get a chance to see him, I’ll give him the most delicious snack because his illustration is so good.” I was thrilled to find that my son was as big a fan of Anthony Browne as his mom!

I will always remember the sweet moments of holding my son in my arms and reading to him for an hour every evening and at weekends. Most of the time, I read the words exactly as they are in the book – if they are in Chinese, I’ll read in Chinese, and if they’re in English, I’ll read in English – I don’t break the story to check if he is understanding, I just let him enjoy the pictures as much as he could while I read the words.

Not that he’s growing up, his interest in books is changing, and the problem of how to dispose of the old books and buy new ones is a big one for me because we live in a rather small flat in Shanghai and there isn’t so much space to store so many books. I’ve decided to keep my favorite ones and the classic ones indispensible to my research, and give away those that no longer suit his age. From time to time, I give some to friends and colleagues who have little children, and donate some to local public libraries or book charity organizations.

Like me, my sister and most of my close friends buy books very often for their children, although they are not as crazy as me. Their book shelves at home are also stacked with hundreds of children’s books. Probably it’s quite normal in big cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen where more and more well-educated parents understand the important roles that excellent picture books play in the early reading of childhood. While being proud of having a large collection of children’s books at home, I sometimes feel it is also a waste to purchase so many books only for one child. One of the solutions, I suppose, would be more financial support from the government for public libraries on different levels.

Has your son become a reader? What are his favourite books now, and what is it that he likes about them?

My son has always loved books, but he didn’t become an independent reader until he was 8 years old – probably because he was so used to my reading aloud to him that he was reluctant to read on his own. His favorite books include Roald Dahl’s story books, Dominic (by William Steig), Journey to the West《西游记》, and the Mi Xiaoquan Goes to School series《米小圈上学记》written by Bei Mao 北猫 . Like his classmates, he was mesmerized by Mi Xiaoquan books when he was in Year-2 (age 8-9 years) and couldn’t wait for the next book to come out. It was the first time that I saw him so engrossed in a set of books that he would read the books again and again, and always chuckling while turning the pages. This aroused my curiosity. I finally understand why these books are popular with Chinese pupils – the stories reflect their own experiences of school life and there are amusing comic pictures going with the words. They can relate to Mi Xiaoquan, a naughty Chinese boy in a public primary school who has similar troubles and happiness to their own. The Mi Xiaoquan books are like The Diary of Wimpy Kid series in many ways – the stories are told in diary from, there is a good combination of words and pictures, they are easy to read and humorous, but the main difference is that the Mi Xiaoquan books truthfully portray the daily life of a Chinese pupil, to which most Chinese children immediately feel a connection. They feel Mi Xiaoquan is one of their classmates.

mi xiaoquan

The Mi Xiaoquan series, by Bei Mao  (image sourceJ: Jingdong)

Currently my son is in Year-4. He has become a huge fan of Harry Potter since reading the Chinese translations of all the Harry Potter books in late 2018.

What’s your translation plan for 2019?

At the end of 2018, l learned that I’ll have the opportunity to co-translate Anthony Browne’s autobiography with A Jia, to be published in 2019. It’s like a dream coming true. After I return to Shanghai this month, I’ll put my heart into the translation of this book as a tribute to a master who is very good at playing the shape game and who has opened up a different world for me and my family.


75. Jennie Liu’s childhood reading in the USA, 1970s-80s

Jennie Liu’s book Girls on the Line was published earlier this month. With a target audience aged 14-18 years, it tackles some tough issues:

It is 2009 in the city of Gujiao, China: 16-year-old Luli and 17-year-old Yun, best friends, have aged out of their orphanage and are now enjoying the exhilarating independence of factory work. … Told in the first person from the two girls’ alternating points of view, readers will be drawn into their emotional lives through sharing both their quiet, day-to-day routines and the moments of high drama, all of which are direct results of policies that trapped ordinary citizens and forced them into making terrible decisions. (Kirkus Review)


Girls on the Line, by Jennie Liu (21st Century, 2018) (Image source: Amazon)

We asked Jennie about her childhood reading, and are delighted she agreed to write for us. Continue reading

74. Theresa Munford, Chinese teacher

Dr Theresa Munford, probably the most experienced teacher of Chinese to secondary school students in the UK, retired this summer. Her 8-lesson blog on teaching Chinese literature in the classroom – “Teaching The Ventriloquist’s Daughter” – has just been published by The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing. We’re delighted she agreed to an interview with us.

Theresa Munford

Theresa Munford

Continue reading

69. Teardrops of the Christmas Tree: A Memorable Childhood Reading Experience

Professor Qiuying Lydia Wang is an accomplished scholar in literacy studies. Born and raised in northern China, she now teaches at the Oklahoma State University. We collaborated for more than a year organizing the “Border Crossing in Children’s Literature” Symposium and brought dozens of researchers to the Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University last month to exchange their latest scholarship on international, multicultural, and translated children’s literature. We were able to steal a little time after the intense work to relax in a café with Helen. As we were chatting, Lydia told us about her childhood reading and related the story that had touched her the most. We were spellbound by both her retelling and her personal story, and asked if she would write it up for us. We are delighted to share it here. Continue reading

67. Chinese dinosaurs in an English village

The Linton Children’s Book Festival takes place this weekend, in the beautiful English village of Linton, not far from Cambridge.  I was invited to introduce DONG Yanan’s book Express Delivery from Dinosaur World yesterday, and the event was fully booked! 32 young readers (some as young as two years old) came along with their parents. Continue reading

62. The NCTA Freeman Book Awards

The 2017 NCTA Freeman Book Awards have just been announced. I’m delighted that Bronze and Sunflower has won the young adult/middle school literature award, and that An’s Seed received an honourable mention. I didn’t really know what the Freeman awards were about. Who better to ask than David Jacobson, whose book Are You an Echo? received an honourable mention last year to tell us about the prize, and what winning meant to him.  Continue reading

59. Interview with Chloe Garcia Roberts, translator of the picture book “Feather” by Cao Wenxuan and Roger Mello

2017 saw the publication of Feather, the stunning picture book collaboration between author Cao Wenxuan and illustrator Roger Mello [you can read Minjie Chen and David Jacobson’s post about Cao and Mello at the USBBY conference in Seattle here].  I was delighted to discover that the translator was Chloe Garcia Roberts, poet (The Reveal, 2015), translator and managing editor of the Harvard Review. I know her better for her translations of poetry by the Tang dynasty poet LI Shangyin 李商隱 (813-858), and was keen to learn more about Chloe’s work, and how she came to translate Feather. She very kindly agreed to an interview.  Continue reading