Literature for Children and Young Adults
April 2016 marked the award of the hugely prestigious Hans Christian Andersen prize to Cao Wenxuan, the first Chinese recipient. Cao is a prolific writer of children’s books, already a celebrity in China, and now, with Helen Wang’s wonderfully moving translations, is making something of a splash in the English-speaking world. Bronze and Sunflower made me cry, and I’m a cynical lecturer in my 40s, so presumably should be beyond that.
The Writing Chinese project has concentrated mainly on writings for adults and their various journeys from Chinese to English-speaking settings. However, if we are to truly attempt to evaluate the ability of literature to pass from one cultural milieu to another, perhaps the litmus test is whether or not a story written for children in one country ‘works’ for children in another. But how on earth do we persuade kids, parents and teachers, from a nation not exactly renowned for embracing foreign languages, to take this step into the unknown? One part of the answer may lie in the dramatic changes currently taking place in UK school curricula. Chinese teaching in UK schools has just received a significant boost, with the announcement in 2016 of a major investment by the UK government in a Mandarin Excellence Programme providing intensive teaching of Chinese to 5,000 school pupils across England and Wales. As this programme develops, it is anticipated that the study of Chinese language and culture will be embedded across the curriculum in schools throughout the UK. At the same time as this increasing presence of Chinese in the UK school curriculum, the nature of what is taught is also shifting away from ‘textbook’ dialogues to more literary texts.
In recognition of these changes and the challenges they pose, and also in honour of the HCA award, on Saturday July 2nd 2016 the Writing Chinese project held a symposium on Chinese children’s literature in Leeds. We were delighted to have presentations by Chen Minjie, from the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University, Helen Wang, translator of stories by Cao and Shen Shixi (not to mention many other Chinese writers), and Anna Gustafsson Chen, translator of the Jimmy Liao series (although probably best known as Swedish translator of Nobel laureate Mo Yan). We gained an overview of the rich abundance of literature written for children in the world’s largest nation, and many fascinating insights into the agonies and ecstasies of rendering it into western languages.
A highlight of the afternoon was a video recording from a book club set up at St Gregory’s school in Bath, with two year 10 students giving very impressive reviews and observations of some of the books they have read. One of these pupils, Jenny, who is a keen reader and is studying for a GCSE in Mandarin, has kindly written up her review for us here. The books she is reviewing are Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, translated by Helen Wang (Walker Books, 2015), Shen Shixi’s Jackal and Wolf, also translated by Helen Wang, (Egmont, 2012) and Ying Chang Compestine’s Revolution is Not a Dinner Party (Square Fish, 2009).
Notes from a School Book Club in Bath: Books from China
Last year I had the joy of being part of my school’s Reading China book club. We read three books from China and they were all brilliant. The books we read were Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi and Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine.
The books themselves were very interesting, however one of the first things we noticed was the covers. The cover of the book can tell you a lot about the story, but both the covers of Jackal and Wolf and Bronze and Sunflower were very minimalistic and seemed almost as if they were aimed at young children. This is a great contrast to the stories within them which were quite mature and often covered difficult subjects such as poverty, or the wild animal instincts of a jackal. Revolution is Not a Dinner Party contrasted to this with a somewhat chaotic cover which showed fairly well the chaos the main character feels about her.
The book I can most easily compare to an English one is Jackal and Wolf, which reminded me in many ways of the book Warhorse by Michael Morpurgo. Both books are told from the point of view of animals and at some point show their relationship with humans. However Jackal and Wolf was brilliant in the fact that it avoided humanising the animals as much as possible, which struck me as something apart from most English stories which tell you the character is an animal such as a rabbit, but then proceed to describe that character as a human; cooking, cleaning and doing chores. A key difference I found between the books we read from China and other, similar ones from England is the Chinese ones had a perspective much closer to that of real life. Injuries causing hunger and poor health instead of a happy reunion and a new life.
Bronze and Sunflower was a good book to read first as it showed you a lot about what life is like in rural China, the good and the bad, in a way seldom shown by a non-fiction book, which is through the eyes of someone experiencing these things. One of the most interesting parts for me was when a plague of locusts destroyed the village because often when these types of things are written about the consequences of that does not come into focus. The way in which the story is told is very much in the manner of a young child telling you things yet not really understanding what is going on.
Revolution is Not a Dinner Party was different to the first two in the fact that it was written from the author’s own experiences. This meant that little details you don’t usually find in a story such as the joy of a simple meal or the love of one’s family were expressed in accurate and heartfelt ways that represented reality instead of some idyllic fantasy.
I plan to continue reading more books from China and hope to encourage more to do the same, as no matter what the topic they are always interesting to read.
The enthusiasm and insights exhibited by Jenny and her fellow Y10 pupils have helped inspire Writing Chinese to establish a new strand in our book club reviewers network (run in collaboration with publishers), aimed specifically at school book clubs. So thank you, St Gregory’s!