English-language Asia-set Children’s and YA Fiction ~ by Holly Thompson
Part 2 of 3 (read Part 1 here)
Some years back as we settled into our bicultural family life with young children here in Japan, although we were surrounded by books in Japanese and took full advantage of Japan’s healthy picture book and middle-grade market, we discovered that finding English-language reading material to support our bilingual children was no easy task. Because our children attended Japanese schools, English education happened in our home, and we needed a steady supply of English-language books. But libraries in Japan stock few English-language books, and bookstores here carry very few and at hefty mark-ups, so whenever friends or family visited from the U.S. they brought books to us. Returning from a trip back to the States, our luggage was always heavy with books. We book-swapped with families in Japan, we ordered from Scholastic with our English-after school group, and we pounced on book sale tables at international school fairs. At last, Amazon Japan with free and quick delivery of affordable overseas books came to the rescue.
Always on the lookout for books relating to our lives while raising our bilingual children, we soon became aware of a lack of English-language children’s books that reflect Japan. English-language picture books set in Japan were rare, and those that existed, we discovered, tended toward folktales and nonfiction. Where were the day-to-day stories that reflected the landscapes and people and value systems surrounding us? Where was Japan?
We treasured our Allen Say books, especially Kamishibai Man and Grandfather’s Journey.
We read and reread the bilingual Grandpa’s Town by Takaaki Nomura. We enjoyed folktale retellings like The Seven Gods of Luck by David Kudler and Yoshi’s Feast by Kimiko Kajikawa. and biographical works like Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs by Matthew Gollub. All excellent, but we were discouraged that such English-language titles set in Japan were few and far between.
Searching for other Asian cultures in English-language picture books yielded similar results—folktales, nonfiction and concept books, but few fictional stories set in Asia.
As the children grew older, we came to realize that even less common than English-language picture books set in Asia were English-language middle-grade and YA novels set in Japan and Asia. What we found was mostly historical fiction. Of course we read and loved Korea-set historical novels by Linda Sue Park, Japan-set novels by Lensey Namioka such as Island of Ogres, Geraldine McCaughrean’s China-set The Kite Rider, and Minfong Ho’s Cambodia/Thailand-set The Clay Marble. We had our antennae out searching for Asia-set stories, and this 2009 blog post by librarian and children’s literature specialist Jenny Schwartzburg lists many of the titles we discovered.
But we wanted more. Contemporary realism in all its guises. Fantasy. Humor. Mysteries. Sci-Fi. The full spectrum. We wanted the ordinary everyday life of tweens and teens in Japan and Asia in English. Translations (to be addressed in Part 3 of this 3-part series) would seem to be the solution, but there are so few Japanese, and more broadly, so few Asian children’s and YA books translated into English that our choices were extremely limited.
At long last, though a bit late for our grown children, I think we are beginning to see an upswing. More English-language children’s and YA fiction titles set in Asia, are being published and winning awards. And these are being written not just by authors with limited, surface experience in Asia, but by those with solid footing in Asia such as Candy Gourlay (Tall Story), Mitali Perkins(Bamboo People), and Uma Krishnaswami (The Grand Plan to Fix Everything).
And in many parts of Asia there are laudable efforts in place to nurture English-language, as well as local-language, writers. There are now professional organizations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators providing networks and mentoring for English-language writers and illustrators in Asia. There are conferences such as Singapore’s Asian Festival of Children’s Content, the Japan Writers Conference, the Manila International Literary Festival, and Asia Pacific Writers, which will hold its third summit this year in Bangkok. We now have the Scholastic Asian Book Award and the new SingTel Asian Picture Book Award. There are creative writing MFA programs in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and AsiaWrites now announces residencies and opportunities. These are welcomed developments for the future of Asia-set and Asia-related books for children and young adults. Hurrah! An Asia-grown literature boom is long overdue.
Why is it so important to cultivate English-language writers in Asia? Because not only do the vast numbers of English-language readers in Asia need to find Asia in all its manifestations in the books they read, but English-language readers around the world need the opportunity to set foot in the different universes of Asia through literature.
When books are published these days, they travel the world. A book, like a website, goes abroad. A children’s or YA book in English does not only communicate with readers in the country in which it is published but it speaks to English-language readers wherever it may travel. Let’s hope that English-language publishers everywhere will come to realize that Asia, with its huge, diverse and growing population, deserves greater attention and more playing time through Asia-set fiction for children and teens.
Holly Thompson was raised in New England and is a longtime resident of Japan. Her verse novel Orchards(Delacorte/Random House) won the 2012 APALA Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and is a YALSA 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults title. She recently edited Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories (Stone Bridge Press), and her next verse novel The Language Inside (Delacorte/Random House) will be published in 2013. She teaches creative writing at Yokohama City University and serves as the regional advisor of the Tokyo chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Visit her website: www.hatbooks.com. Part 3 of her series will be posted here on the PaperTigers’s blog on May 30. Part 1 can be read here.