by AVERY FISCHER UDAGAWA
As Curator of East Asian Money at the British Museum, Helen Wang might seem an unlikely activist for global children’s literature. But September 2021 found her tweeting daily for World Kid Lit Month (@WorldKidLit), an initiative to promote picture books through young adult novels in English translation.
Seemingly indefatigable, the London-based sinologist also collaborates with the China Fiction Book Club, Paper Republic, Translated World, the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and the Bai Megui Translation Competition, and she co-founded the blog Chinese Books for Young Readers.
She has translated picture books, graphic novels, and novels for children from Chinese, including the acclaimed novels Bronze and Sunflower and Dragonfly Eyes by Cao Wenxuan, who in 2016 became China’s first winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing—often dubbed the Nobel Prize for children’s literature.
And for being a “tireless champion” of children’s literature, she was named Special Contributor of the Year at the 2017 Chen Bochui International Children’s Literature Awards.
Why does a museum curator with a PhD in archaeology focus on translated books for children?
“The world is a much more diverse and contemporary place than most English-language bookshops and libraries suggest,” she explained to me simply. “I translate children’s books in the hope that it makes a difference, and also because I enjoy it!”
Since children read at a formative age, she hopes that children’s books by the world’s living authors, deftly translated, can be made readily available. She was already in the habit of scanning the shelves and tables in children’s bookstores in the UK for books translated from Asian languages and with Asian content, and on trips to Asia between 2017 and 2019 dropped into a number of bookstores to see what was available there. When I asked her for a reflection for KJ on the occasion of Dragonfly Eyes being published in the UK—its US edition will appear in August 2022—she chose to reflect on what she had seen in China, India, and Singapore.
Amid the pandemic, Helen Wang’s reflection reads almost like a travel piece for bibliophiles. It points, however, to an issue that should concern everyone: books that help children travel the world, which they will steward soon, are mainly accessible to people who are already traveling.
How can books by the world’s living authors come to meet children in their stomping grounds—their schools, their local libraries and stores? Part of the answer surely lies with consumers, who can “invite” global titles by requesting, ordering, buying, and gifting them. As you travel with Helen Wang, kindly give it some thought. Can you assist her project?
Avery Fischer Udagawa
AVERY FISCHER UDAGAWA is a translator of children’s literature from Japanese, including the novels J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani and Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, illustrated by Miho Satake, which won the 2022 Mildred L. Batchelder Award.
This article was published in KJ102 (Encounters / Transitions), summer 2022.