Part I: Children’s Literature Symposiums
At the invitation of Ocean University of China, I traveled to Qingdao, Shandong Province and attended an international children’s literature symposium held in June 4-5, 2016. The trip kicked off a refreshing journey of witnessing a global engagement with children’s books and materials. In Part I of “Notes from a Summer Traveler,” I will share my experiences at two children’s literature meetings held in China and UK; In Part II, I will present a photo album of my delightful encounters with children’s materials in China and elsewhere.
The International Symposium for Children’s Literature grew out of a biennial “China-U.S. Children’s Literature Symposium” that began in Qingdao four years ago. It has yielded two conference proceedings, Representing Children in Chinese and U.S. Children’s Literature (Ashgate, 2014) in English and The Image of the Child in Chinese and American Children’s Literature (China Social Sciences Press, 2015) in Chinese. The 2016 symposium attracted children’s literature scholars as well as Chinese educators from teachers colleges and K-12 schools. (Chinese children’s librarians were regretfully not involved, a reflection of the situation that Chinese library schools generally do not provide professional training in youth services at this point.) Presenters included Cao Wenxuan, He Weiqing, Li Xuebin, Nie Zhenzhao, Tan Fengxia, Tang Sulan, Wang Lijun, Xu Yan, and Zhu Ziqiang (China); You Peiyun (Taiwan); Okiko Miyake (Japan); John Stephens (Australia); Claudia Nelson, Eric L. Tribunella, Joe Sutliff Sanders, Karen Coats, Marilynn Olson, Mark I. West (USA); and myself. Their papers addressed the theme of the symposium, “Children’s Literature: Theory and Practice,” from multiple perspectives; reviewed the history and latest development of publishing for children in China; investigated the relationship between children’s literature and education; ventured into the intersection between children’s literature and sexuality; and put nursery rhymes, poetry, picture books, fiction, nonfiction, and family films under the critical lens of feminist studies, reader response theory, cognitive science, cross-cultural studies and other theories.
The most popular speaker at the symposium was Cao Wenxuan, both a children’s author and a professor from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Peking University. Cao won the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award in April, making him the first Chinese winner of the prestigious international children’s literature award since it was first given sixty years ago in 1956. (Not a minute passed without a young starstruck graduate student of Ocean University requested to have a photo taken with the professor.) Cao is a fascinating writer who has articulated unusual and intriguing ideas about the mission of children’s literature. He does not think children’s literature should necessarily amuse young readers, but it should cultivate aesthetic sensibilities in them, shape their characters, and strengthen their resilience. Parents and educators are not obligated to hand over happiness to children; instead young people should be taught grits to endure suffering and setbacks in a graceful manner. In his novels he dares to adopt a slow pace, write dialogs sparingly, and describe nature and environment at length–all the features that would have seemed to be the enemy of children’s attention span. In a world that is full of distractions flashing from screens of every which size, Cao creates a calming literary space that invites meditation from those readers who are able to stay with his subtle narratives.
Claudia Nelson gave an insightful feminist reading of The House of Sixty Fathers written by Meindert DeJong and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. (Incidentally, DeJong and Sendak were the first American winners of Hans Christian Andersen Award for writing and illustration respectively.) First published in 1956, the Newbery Honor title is still in print but has received sporadic critical attention. The story is set in wartime China. A Chinese boy is separated from his family and, as he desperately tries to flee from the Japanese-occupied territory, meets an injured American fighter pilot. Nelson analyzed how male and female characters in DeJong’s book do not conform to gender stereotypes. Instead, regardless of their age and gender, each transitions fluidly among different roles–savior, protector, caregiver, adult, and child. The House of Sixty Fathers thus deviates from those American children’s texts of the 1950s that model “appropriate” gender roles. The book is an anomaly in another dimension. DeJong based the story on his experience of serving in China during World War II as historian for the American Composite Wing of the Fourteenth Air Force. Among the limited number of American juvenile novels that are set against the backdrop of the Sino-Japanese conflict, this is a rare title that was released during the Cold War, when US and Japan were close allies against Red China.
A photo taken during American sex educator Margaret Sanger’s visit to China in April 1922, when she was invited to give lectures on birth control. Her writings on how parents should teach children about sex were highly influential during the Republic of China. Accompanying her in the photo were Dr. Hu Shi (left) and Dr. Zhang Jingsheng (right), a pioneer Chinese sex educator.
My presentation was titled “Theory and Practice of Sex Education for Youth during the Republic of China (1911-1949).” Using primary materials housed at the Cotsen Children’s Library and digitized texts that were increasingly available, I traced China’s sex education movement that began in earnest during the 1920s. The driving inquiry of this project was how theories and ideas in sex education were (or failed to be) translated into information sources targeting youth.
Threatened by Japan’s escalating aggression toward China in the 1890s and after, Chinese elite intellectuals pleaded for drastic social changes in order to strengthen national defense. The need for producing healthy babies and physically strong citizens became the fundamental drive in the sex education movement of the Republic of China. Theoretical literature on sex education imported a vast amount of Western and Japanese learning on the topic, and agreed upon an agenda that was deeply concerned with the physiology and hygiene of reproductive systems, control of sexual impulse, and ethical sexual behavior. My study of children’s textbooks, magazines, and books, however, found that numerous finer points present in theoretical discussions were lost in practice. Though far from being satisfactory, juvenile literature proved to be a nimbler carrier for sex education information than curriculum materials, responding to the earliest appeal and providing richer, more accurate and engaging health information than a child would learn in school.
At the invitation of the University of Leeds, I attended Children’s Literature Day, a symposium hosted by the White Rose East Asia Centre, and gave a keynote speech on the past and present of Chinese children’s literature based on much of Cotsen collection materials. It was an inspiring meeting with a vibrant community of people who were dedicated to teaching and translating Chinese fiction. The British national curriculum has promoted the use of “authentic sources” in language and literature classes, raising interests in foreign language texts and their English translations. One goal of the meeting was to generate a list of recommended works of Chinese children’s literature for general interest, for translation, and for teaching. The symposium was organized also partly in the wake of the Hans Christian Anderson Award for Cao Wenxuan.
Among the speakers was Dr. Helen Wang. When she was not curating East Asian money for the British Museum and busy writing about it, Wang translated Chinese children’s books into beautiful English text so that young readers from around the world could enjoy the same story. Wang is translator of Bronze and Sunflower, a major work by Cao Wenxuan.
Speaker Anna Gustafsson Chen is a Swedish translator of Chinese literature, best known for having translated Nobel Laureate Mo Yan’s fiction. She is also a former librarian who worked with the international library section of the Stockholm Public Library. Chen’s talk was a rare opportunity to learn about publishing and translation of children’s literature in Sweden.
How can one walk on the street of Britain without chancing upon anything relating to Harry Potter? While Helen, I, and an incoming doctoral student of Leeds took a walk we spotted this sign in front of a bookshop, which was well stocked with children’s books. Happy Release Day!