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 Whereas information and fact may become outdated, and challenged and replaced by new knowledge, the discovery process and research methods that nonfiction models are what sparks “young minds to think, and to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.


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.

Notes from a Summer Traveler in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi

When summer travel is so restricted, this post that Minjie Chen wrote about her adventures with children’s books abroad in August 2016 is a wonderful way to vicariously experience the joys of going someplace new for the first time, as well as being back home after a longish absence.   Enjoy!

Part II: Children’s Books and Reading: A Photo Album

Part II of my travel notes annotates photos of my delightful encounters with children’s materials, reading, and entertainment outside the USA. I stayed in Shanghai for several weeks between two children’s literature symposiums that I attended in June and July. (The subtropical city oscillated between relentless, all-day rains and sweltering blaze. Unless part of your goal is to lose weight by taking long walks in what feels like free sauna offered by nature, I do not recommend these months as the best time for visiting Shanghai.) Thanks to the itinerary that was kindly arranged for me by the University of Leeds, I had the unexpected luck of spending a few eye-opening hours at Abu Dhabi International Airport during my connecting flight from Shanghai to Britain.

Shanghai, China

The Bund, Shanghai

A night view from the Bund, Shanghai (June 2016).

Shanghai is historically the center of the publishing industry in China. Except for the disruption of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Shanghai dominated the publishing of Chinese comic books and books for youth during the twentieth century.

Shanghai Library

Shanghai Library, Confucius

View from the lobby of the Shanghai Library through large windows into a peaceful back garden, where a statue of Confucius stands as a symbol of great learning.

Shanghai Library, Disney

An exhibition on the impact of the earliest Disney films on popular culture in Shanghai. Photo taken at the Shanghai Library, June 13, 2016.

The first Disney theme park in mainland China was opened in Shanghai on June 16, 2016, causing plenty of sensation among the locals. Drawing on its rich Republic of China collection, the Shanghai Library offered a timely exhibition on the history of how Disney animated films swept over Shanghai as early as the 1930s and became an integrated part of Chinese popular culture.

Shanghai Book City

Shanghai Book City

Shanghai Book CityShanghai Book City, as its boastful name promises, is the largest bookstore in Shanghai and takes up seven massive floors. The sixth floor is dedicated to children’s materials, offering books, toys, as well as game areas, programming space, and a newly opened fee-based subscription library of picture books. The most prominent format on display is large, colorful picture books, spreading over half of the entire floor. Text-oriented books for older readers and teens are tucked away on the side. The layout has reversed what it was like a decade ago, reflecting major growth in the translation, publishing, and consumption of picture books for preschoolers in China since 2000. Chinese children’s books used to target young independent readers mainly. Should a parent bring a toddler to the store ten years ago, they would have had to choose from only a couple rows of picture books shelved in a tight corner.

The Former Residence of Comic Artist Zhang Leping

Zhang Leping, Sanmao

Right: The Wanderings of Sanmao the Vagrant (三毛流浪记) by Zhang Leping. Shanghai: Min li shu dian, 1950. (Cotsen 91127876 Vol. 4)

Numerous Chinese authors and artists who wrote and illustrated children’s literature were based in Shanghai. Among them was Zhang Leping (1910-1992), arguably the most successful Chinese comic artist during the twentieth century. His former residence has been made into a modest museum free to the public. Adorning the yard of his house is a sculpture of Sanmao, the three-haired protagonist of Zhang’s nearly wordless comics series. The sculpture is based on a panel from The Wanderings of Sanmao the Vagrant, in which the orphaned and homeless boy is constantly in search for food, clothing, and shelter while trying to survive in a postwar Shanghai. He unknowingly joins a gang of thieves and receives an over-sized gown to cover his naked body. In the most economical visual language of comics, Zhang exaggerates the length of time it takes a scrawny Sanmao to finish buttoning the large garment. The boy’s visible awkwardness in putting on the gang member’s clothing, as the story unfolds, foreshadows how his kindness and empathy would make him an “incorrigible” misfit in the criminal group.

Zhang LepingThis is the study where the late comic artist Zhang Leping, dubbed “Father of Sanmao,” worked and received visitors after 1950. Interestingly, the two most important works of Zhang, Sanmao Joins the Army (三毛从军记, 1946) and The Wanderings of Sanmao the Vagrant (1947) were both created before he moved into this seemingly spacious and comfortable house. Not that the house was at fault, but perhaps more of an indication that even an enviable material condition for creative work could not mitigate the post-1949 constraints on intellectual and artistic freedom in China.

If you are as hapless a tourist as I was and will visit the museum in the unwelcoming hot season, I have a gentle reminder for you: arm yourself with mosquito repellent before entering the vicinity. The blood-suckers outside Zhang’s residence were so ferocious that the security guard had a free bottle of spray ready for visitors. The staff warmly told me to help myself with the chemical, because this was “on taxpayers.” The experience increased my admiration for Zhang Leping even more, as I imagined the artist might have had to endure the same attacks every long summer.

Folk Art

A Chinese shadow theatre at the Qibao Shadow Play Art Gallery, Shanghai. (photo courtesy of Dr. Yeojoo Lim)

A Chinese shadow theatre at the Qibao Shadow Play Art Gallery, Shanghai. (photo courtesy of Dr. Yeojoo Lim)

A small shadow play museum is located in Qibao Old Town, a tourist attraction in a suburban district of Shanghai. A spider web of metro system that has been continuously expanded over the past two decades makes the old town, once a remote part of Shanghai, easy to reach. The shadow play museum displays shadow figures and related artworks that were an important part of folk life in rural Qibao between the late Qing dynasty and the Republic of China. (Princeton University has held an exhibition of Chinese shadow figures and maintains a database of digitized shadow figures images.)

shadow figure, Monkey King

Shadow figure Monkey King from Journey to the West, exhibited at the Qibao Shadow Play Art Gallery.

dough figurine Monkey KingI could not resist another opportunity to document the prevalence of Monkey King in Chinese folk culture. This was an edible dough figurine of Monkey, freshly kneaded, shaped, and sold at a shop in Qibao. The dough should taste sweet, but I would not dream of gobbling up the trickster. He is famous for turning into a tiny mischievous bug and making you regret and consent to whatever unpleasant demand he shouts out gleefully from inside your belly–to surrender your magic heirloom fire-extinguishing fan, or to give him the password of your smart phone, for example.

Kids Still Read Today

young readers in a Shanghai district public libraryYes, they do. I spied on them in the children’s reading room of a district public library in Shanghai on a hot, hypnotizing Saturday afternoon in June. Children and teens read, took notes, did homework, and some of them also couldn’t stop checking their smart phones. The plastic chairs were hard; the reading tables were plain; and the seating was a bit crowded. A quiet afternoon in the cool public library, however, was still a pleasant escape for those lucky children who happened to live close by. Many Chinese families, even if they own air-conditioning at home, reserve the machine for the most unbearable heat waves. Free air-conditioning alone makes a trip to the public library worthwhile.

Children’s clay art displayed in the Minhang District Library, Shanghai.

young readers in the subway, ShanghaiThese two young school girls, engrossed in children’s books on paper in the subway, were in the minority among an army of adult passengers who were equally engrossed in (or possessed by) their smart phones.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Abu Dhabi was the first city where I stopped (at its international airport anyway) during my 30-hour, door-to-door journey from Shanghai, China to the University of Leeds campus. I didn’t expect to walk off the jet bridge into a library, newly opened in April 2016.

“Enjoy your favourite book at Abu Dhabi Airport Library.”

reading area, Abu Dhabi International Airport“This area is for reading only.”–A signage erected in the prime seating area of the airport, granting readers the privilege of enjoying comfortable chairs, shelves of books, and natural light.

board book in ArabicLet’s see what books we have got here. A board book features a Muslim woman on the page, and the Arabic text goes, “Mama said, ‘Tomorrow will be Eid.'”*

picture book in ArabicThe picture book might have been a translated work. (Forgive me for being illiterate in Arabic. Please share in the comment box what you know about the two books above.)

Read and RiseArabic-English bilingual slogan “Read and Rise” on a column. In the Arabic parallel text, “naqraʼ li-nartaqī,” there is alliteration at the beginning of each verb, and the roots of the verbs have similar sounds: qaraʼa and raqiya. Kudos to whoever designed the slogan for achieving alliteration in two distinct languages simultaneously. The literal meaning of the Arabic passage is “let’s read so that we may rise.”

quote from Sheikh ZayedA quote that puts great value in education, from the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was the driving forces behind the formation of the United Arab Emirates and its first president, 1971-2004.

quote of Sheikh ZayedAnother quote of Sheikh Zayed, “The education of our people as a goal in itself is a great wealth in which we take pride, for knowledge is the wealth on which we are building our future.”

magic lampDue to a mistake I will not relate here, I failed to bring back a genie when the golden opportunity presented itself.

camelsI was also unable to bring back any of these desert friends, cheerful or aloof, as a reminder of my summer travel. Regardless, next time I see a chance to rate libraries, I will not forget to vote Abu Dhabi as the most hospitable airport library.


My heartfelt thanks to Dr. Denise L. Soufi, a Middle Eastern expert, for graciously deciphering and explaining the Arabic text for me in preparation for this photo essay. All errors are mine.