Celebrating Asian Culture
Guest post by Mari Boyle, Tokyo, Japan
I love a good festival with music, dance and food. I also love a good children’s book, so needless to say, I was looking forward to learning more about the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) at a recent SCBWI Japan event.
Claire Chiang, Chairperson of the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS) and Chairperson of the AFCC Board of Advisors, led a delegation of twelve members of the AFCC Board of Advisors and the NBDCS, which organizes the AFCC. Claire enthusiastically championed its aims, which are “to nurture and support the community of children’s writers and illustrators in Asia and expose their work both to local and international audiences." As such, the grand vision is to develop the AFCC into the “Bologna Book Fair of the East.”
The festival seems to have achieved this, in part, by offering children's writers and illustrators opportunities to connect with the business of writing through conferences and workshops. This year also included a four-day writers’ retreat, during which master classes and workshops were run by seasoned children’s writers, illustrators, agents and publishers from around the world. A second retreat is planned for 2016, and hopefully Holly Thompson, SCBWI Japan Co-Regional Advisor, will be one of the retreat leaders. Claire Chiang told us how the workshops and master classes are designed to encourage aspiring Asian writers and illustrators to “learn the art of reaching out to the hearts and minds of our children.”
This is especially important, as the tradition of writing specifically for children is undervalued in many Asian countries.
Most children's books in Asia are still imported from the United States and the United Kingdom. Asian stories by Asian writers and Asian illustrators are few and far between on both Asian and Western bookshelves. This means that many of the billion and a half children in Asia rarely see stories that reflect their experiences.
In response, Asian authors are encouraged to launch their books at the festival. There are awards and competitions, and the AFCC has embarked on a publishing program to promote cross-country collaboration.
Translation work is also a key feature at the AFCC through an initiative spearheaded by Avery Udagawa. The aim is to have books translated simultaneously into two or more Asian languages, in addition to English. Ken Spillman, a prolific Australian children’s writer and one of the AFCC panel speakers, reminded us of the potential for creative industries in Asia, as well as the need and desire to engage with Asian content, both within the region and worldwide.
It really is startling to discover that many children in the region do not have access to stories in their own languages. Andrea Pasion-Flores, one of the few literary agents in Asia who represents children’s writers and illustrators, told us that in the Philippines alone there some 19 native languages and over 170 regional dialects. The AFCC promotes the transliteration of traditional tales unique to Asia. Recording these stories on paper is a powerful way of legitimizing a dialect or native language while connecting the past with the present and future.
Illustrations, too, impact authenticity within stories. It’s not enough to vary the ethnicity of faces. Colors, textures and unique cultural motifs of each Asian country are as integral to a story as the words.
Nellie Sunny, president of the Brunei Darussalam Library Association, talked of how in a region where so many stories are shared through an oral tradition, many children’s book illustrators are mainly self-taught. The AFCC provides platforms for the myriad of talented Asian artists to work with picture book illustrators through workshops, in addition to exhibiting their work at BIG (Book Illustrators Gallery).
In 2016, Japan will be the Country of Focus. Yuko Takesako, Vice Director of the Chihiro Art Museum, indicated the exciting opportunities this will provide for Japanese authors and illustrators, including Mariko Nagai and Naomi Kojima, SCBWI Japan's Co-Regional Advisor and Illustrator Coordinator, respectively. Ms. Takesako stressed the importance of sharing Japanese expertise in children’s literature, especially considering the global success Japan has enjoyed. She acknowledged that Japanese writers and illustrators also have much to learn from Asian neighbors. By connecting through stories and intertwined histories, we deepen mutual understanding and strengthen relationships.
The AFCC is an opportunity to showcase the diverse cultures of Asia. The events create possibilities to collaborate with people from cultures as diverse as Kyrgyzstan, Korea, Australia and India, and they support interaction between teachers, librarians, parents and, of course, children. As Asia opens itself up to global economic investment, culture, too, needs investment. Where better to begin than investing in the pages of a children’s picture book?
Mari Boyle is a preschool teacher and educational researcher with a love of picture books.