It was a very adult literary festival in Beijing where attendees listened to authors while sipping single-malt Scotch and cigarette smoking wasn’t prohibited. So it came as a distinct surprise when in a discussion of Orientalism versus reality in contemporary fiction, the subject shifted to children’s literature.
Born in 1965, author Liu Hong‘s childhood took place during the Cultural Revolution. As a teenager, after the death of Mao, she began to study English. The first book she read in English was Snow White, which she thought was beautiful, with its colored pictures printed on heavy paper; it was, she said, voluptuous and it turned her into a passionate reader of English literature.
English became her other world, her secret language. She kept a diary in English because her family couldn’t read it, and this became the currency of her thoughts and feelings. She moved on from Snow White to Wuthering Heights and years later was disappointed that in Yorkshire she did not get lost in the moors.
Liu Hong is now a best-selling author of four novels, all of which she wrote in English.
Who can predict what the effect of a beautiful, well-written children’s book can be? Although she didn’t specify which edition of Snow White made her a reader–and eventually a writer, Liu Hong could well have been influenced by Randall Jarrell and Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s Caldecott Honor award winner, which was published in 1973.
Who knows, when we donate to organizations– like Room to Read or Books for Laos– that make children’s books in English available overseas, what best-selling author of the future will be caught by the experience of reading in English and will go on to enrich other readers in years to come?