Cotsen Conference Report: The International Symposium for Children’s Literature & the Fourth US-China Symposium for Children’s Literature

by Minjie Chen and Qiuying Lydia Wang

The Second International Symposium for Children’s Literature & Fourth US-China Symposium for Children’s Literature was hosted by the Cotsen Children’s Library in June 14-16, 2018. The theme of this year’s symposium, “Border Crossing in Children’s Literature” attracted submissions from America, mainland China, Taiwan, Britain, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand, bringing together children’s writers, translators, reviewers, as well as scholars from the fields of literary criticism, East Asian studies, education, and library and information science.

Second- and fourth-graders from the YingHua International School joined the opening session. YingHua, a local Chinese language immersion school, takes pride in its diverse student body. Children recited Chinese rhyming riddles and performed “Country,” a song that reflects a century-old view of the relationship between nation and home in China.

Panel Sessions

The symposium was kicked off by a panel of powerhouse speakers that included nonfiction writer Marc Aronson, children’s book reviewers Betsy Bird and Deborah Stevenson (chair), and Chinese scholar Lifang Li. Aronson asked what makes for excellence in juvenile nonfiction. Whereas information and fact may become outdated, and challenged and replaced by new knowledge, the discovery process and research methods that nonfiction models are what sparks “young minds to think, and to believe that it is possible to change the world” (Aronson). Betsy Bird reviewed the history of gatekeeping for children’s literature in America, and discussed how the democratization of the online world both poses challenges and brings opportunities (Bird’s detailed observation of the symposium is published on her blog site, A Fuse #8 Production.) Lifang Li raised a series of ambitious research questions that interrogate the value system that undergirds the criticism of children’s literature.

A panel of powerhouse speakers: Deborah Stevenson, Betsy Bird, Lifang Li, and Marc Aronson.

The second panel featured paratextual readings of children’s literature and media. Frances Weightman studied the image of author Cao Wenxuan曹文轩as constructed by a surprisingly generous amount of paratextual materials that padded the text of his fiction. Xiru Du compared paratexts in the Chinese and American versions of The Secret of the Magic Gourd in Disney DVDs, and suggested that paratextual elements provide valuable clues to textual production and meaning-making across literary, linguistic, media, and cultural borders. Natasha Heller examined how the concepts of mindfulness and meditation make a round-trip journey from Eastern Buddhism to American picture books and back to Chinese translations in Taiwan, undergoing mutations that are responsive to cultural and social contexts.

The third panel (Ziqiang Zhu, Limin Bai, Yan Xu, and Wei Zheng) focused on national children’s literature and border crossing. It investigated the image of the child in Chinese and Western traditions during the emergence of Chinese children’s literature; the Soviet influence on Chinese children’s literature in the early years of the People’s Republic of China until 1966; and the earliest Chinese translations of Aesop’s Fables and Frederik van Eeden’s Little Johannes as China negotiated tradition and modernity.

Clockwise from top left: Sue Chen, Natasha Heller, Frances Weightman, and Angela Sorby.

Clockwise from top left: Helen Wang, Dong Zan (reading Derong Xu and Yawen Fan’s paper), Shiming Chen, and Chia-Hui Hsing.

In the fourth panel, “Translation, Transformation, and Cultural Brokers,” Helen Wang talked about her work as a translator. Her award-winning translation of Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower was the subject of critique in the paper by Derong Xu and Yawen Fan, who disagreed with some of the choices and decisions found in Wang’s text. Wang and Xu happen to be translators of different genders. How the gender of the translators plays an invisible yet significant role in translated works is the fascinating topic of Chia-Hui Hsing’s paper. Like Heller, Camila Zorrila Tessler was equally interested in stories that make round trips between cultures, and studied Japanese animé adaptions of Howl’s Moving Castle and The Borrowers by Studio Ghibli before they were translated back to English.

The fifth panel (Angela Sorby, Aiping Nie, Claudia Nelson) presented three intriguing comparisons of texts that are linguistically or culturally distant: children’s poetry by Shel Silverstein and Ren Rongrong任溶溶; the undead characters in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series and Tang Tang’s汤汤 Ghost Series; and mid-century novels about gang members in Israel, postwar Germany, and wartime Shanghai. In particular, Angela Sorby and Ning Yang’s collaborative paper on children’s poetry exemplified how researchers with distinct language backgrounds can combine their strength and fuse their perspectives, yielding scholarship that was larger than the sum of two single minds.

The sixth panel (Shih-Wen Sue Chen, Sin Wen Lau, Anne Morey, and Chengcheng You) engaged with literature in which girl protagonists make new homes or lose them. Some of them, like Kimberly Chang in Girl in Translation and the eponymous character in Sue in Tibet, have to negotiate independently traditional standards for the conduct of girls to ensure the survival of herself and her family in the new and hostile world. If Kimberly and Sue are able to enjoy agency and freedom partly due to weak or absent parents, contemporary Chinese fiction about children who lack adult supervision depict a sobering picture of children’s vulnerability.

A final panel (Cristina Aliagas, Tongwei Qi, Junnan Zhou, Shiming Chen, and Deborah Stevenson) brought attention to visual materials, very young readers, and their agency. Subjects of inquiry included children’s interaction with storybook apps, preschoolers’ responses to subversive gender roles in picture books, theatre in education, and youth as creators of computer Apps.

A full list of the paper titles can be found on the symposium homepage.

Activities

Participants visited the Bookscape Gallery of the Cotsen Children’s Library, where families and young people up to age seventeen attend literacy enrichment programs. Catering to China’s rising interest and widening practice in reading promotion activities, Cotsen’s experts gave presentations on how professionals cultivate a love of literature and reading in children. In “Hands-On, Minds-On,” Dr. Dana Sheridan, Cotsen’s Education and Outreach Coordinator, invited grown-ups to join her craft time, making the Cheshire Cat’s toothy smile and cannons that “fire” pom-poms (Treasure Island connection). The audience was impressed by the variety of programs that Sheridan designed to promote learning in reading, creative writing, and STEM curriculum in highly engaging, creative, and artistic ways. All for free to the community too.

Making crafts that tie to children’s literature is nothing new to American parents who frequent public libraries with young children. For Chinese professors, even children’s literature researchers, Sheridan’s program brought out playfulness in these grown-ups.

Dr. Tara McGowan wowed the audience with her mesmerizing kamishibai (paper theatre) performance. McGowan catalogs Cotsen’s Japanese collection and is a world-famous kamishibai expert as well as a literacy scholar. Using the picture book version and kamishbai version of the same Japanese folktale retold by one artist Eigoro Futamata二俣英五郎as an illuminating example, she helped the audience appreciate the different affordance of the two formats. She explained the cinematic characteristics of a kamishibai show, and pointed out how educators can use the format to help children understand narrative structure.

A third symposium activity was a show-and-tell of some of Cotsen’s prized collection of Chinese materials, the bulk of which date from the late 1890s after China was defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War. The incident gave impetus to improve Chinese children’s education through age-appropriate and engaging text and images. Among the interesting titles we displayed were two books from the late 1950s: a miniature accordion picture book, sold at six cents; and an over-size picture book about Chairman Mao Zedong, at an astronomically high price of one yuan (anywhere between one and five days’ earning by a manual laborer at the time). The latter was written by Sheng Ye圣野, a famous children’s poet, and lavishly illustrated by Cheng Shifa程十发, a renowned painter.

Professor Ziqiang Zhu looked at Chinese treasures in the collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library.

Dr. Cristina Aliagas, who presented her research on children’s interaction with storybook Apps, seemed to have found a new format of interest.

The audience was as marveled by the collection as by the library policy. After washing their hands they were told that they could handle the pages with care and take photos without flash. Participants mentioned that Chinese libraries tend to enforce undue usage restrictions on rare materials, to the dismay of researchers.

Context of the US-China Symposium for Children’s Literature

Chinese families underwent a sea change in their perception of children’s literature and leisure reading during the 21st century. Picture books used to be a hard sell to most parents in China. “Such an expensive book, with so few words on each page—how much is my child going to learn from a thin book like that?” was the rationale of Chinese parents who distrusted picture-heavy reading materials. (Many Chinese parents believed children should be challenged with difficult materials for the best learning outcome, a view with its own merits.) Thanks to the combined efforts of literacy evangelizers, private story houses, early adopters of youth reading programs, China has become the most coveted market for children’s books. It celebrated the first Chinese winner (author Cao Wenxuan) of the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2016. Along with growing appreciation of all formats of children’s literature, colleges have paid steadily increasing attention to them as a subject of scholarly inquiry. The year 2012 saw the inauguration of the China-US Symposium for Children’s Literature at the Ocean University of China, because the founding organizers were shrewdly aware how much faster scholarship could flourish with cross-cultural fertilization. By 2016, symposium participants had expanded far beyond Chinese and American scholars and the event was renamed the International Symposium for Children’s Literature.

To Have Friends Come from Afar–Isn’t That a Joy?

Behind-the-Scene Stories and Special Thanks

As part of the Rare Books and Special Collections, Cotsen supports teaching, learning, and research on the campus and serves patrons worldwide who visit Princeton. The donor Lloyd E. Cotsen collected East Asian materials for children in the 1990s and 2000s in order to ensure continuing access to that region’s cultural heritage and succeeded in putting together the finest group of these materials outside of China and Japan. The East Asian treasures are becoming more widely known to researchers, as the library continues to devote resources in acquisition and metadata work.

The Cotsen Children’s Library was invited to host the 2018 International Symposium for Children’s Literature by Professors Claudia Nelson and Ziqiang Zhu. “Border Crossing in Children’s Literature” benefited hugely from Nelson’s input of ideas and suggestions at the beginning of its planning process. The inclusion of non-English papers and offering of translation service were made possible by organizational and coordinating work done by Zhu’s colleagues at the Ocean University of China. Sponsorship from Ocean and Oklahoma State University helped Princeton fund simultaneous interpretation equipment and translation service for the symposium.

In the first row: Mingquan Wang, University Librarian of the Ocean University of China; Professor Claudia Nelson; Professor Hong Susan Liang, translator; Professor Ziqiang Zhu; Professor Qiuying Lydia Wang, Dr. Minjie Chen, Ian Dooley, and Dr. Andrea Immel, organizers and the Cotsen staff.

Intense simultaneous interpretation work in the media control room: Professor Hong Susan Liang, PhD Candidate Yuzhou Bai, and Mr. Hao Charles Jiang.

Among the unsung heroes who worked tirelessly for the symposium was Professor Derong David Xu of the Ocean University of China. Xu was the main coordinator of participants from Chinese-speaking areas, one of the paper authors himself, and, on top of that, a senior simultaneous interpreter who was scheduled to translate for the symposium. An untimely sports injury forced him to cancel his trip, but Xu continued the planning work with high spirit and good humor from his hospital bed, almost the moment he woke up from anesthesia with a hint of grogginess in his voice. Also barely visible during the symposium was our heroine, Darlene A. Dreyer, Assistant to the Associate University Librarian of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Dreyer worked tenaciously behind the scene as a resourceful problem solver for months, going beyond the call of duty to rescue us from more than one emergency. We owe both Xu and Dreyer a standing ovation.

A longer list of people and organizations that contributed to the successful organizational work of the symposium can be found on the Acknowledgments page of the event website. With deep appreciation we want to give a loud shout-out of “Thank You!” to every one of them for dedicating their time, energy, and expertise to the project!

Last but the most important, we thank every speaker, presenter, and participant who joined the symposium, delivering inspiring presentations, asking stimulating questions, and engaging in an exchange of ideas that cross national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries.

The Third International Symposium for Children’s Literature & Fifth US-China Symposium for Children’s Literature will be held at the Ocean University of China in 2020.

Minjie Chen and Qiuying Lydia Wang were co-organizers of the symposium. Wang is a literacy professor at Oklahoma State University.

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