Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2018 in Singapore

Two Perspectives on AFCC: September 6-8, 2018

by Andrew Wong and Avery Fischer Udagawa

1. Reflections on AFCC 2018

Post by Andrew Wong

On a cloudy Thursday morning in Singapore, the Asian Festival of Children’s Content opened its ninth edition with three keynote speeches that set the stage for two themes—inclusion and diversity—running through the conference. Singapore was this year’s annual Country of Focus.

Dr. Myra Garces-Bacsal, a founder of the Gathering Books website, started the ball rolling by bringing up the idea of reading as a window to other worlds and a mirror into one’s own. US-based Singaporean cartoonist Colin Goh followed up with his take on challenging Asian stereotypes in Dim Sum Warriors and how he took on board negative feedback from the Asian-American community. With this perfect lead-in, Lucia Obi from the International Youth Library in Munich showed the crowd stereotyped images of Asia found in the European market, to illustrate her desire for more diverse works from this side of the world, including translations.

Familiar titles at the festival bookstore, including Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, translated from Chinese by SCBWI member Helen Wang. Also visible: bicultural verse novels Up From the Sea by Leza Lowitz and Somewhere Among by Annie Donwerth Chikamatsu, both of SCBWI Japan.

If reading sparks our imagination of other worlds, then when award-winning writer Suchen Christine Lim boldly remarked in her stirring evening speech that one may not be able to imagine oneself until being represented in the written word, she also warned listeners of the dangers of “a single story”—how failing to read diversely clouds images of the self and the “other.” In doing so, she invited the creation and embrace of multiple perspectives of Singapore’s history and culture. If we were to expand her idea beyond the island state, then we can surely see the importance of literature reflecting the diversity of the world’s peoples.

With the windows ajar, I recall wandering into Tonia Whyte Potter-Mӓl’s “Empowering Learners” session searching for hints on brightening up that image in the mirror. From her selection of picture books, she chose to recite Katrina Goldsaito’s The Sound of Silence, giving a first-hand experience of listening to the story of a boy’s search for silence in Tokyo’s relentless barrage of sound. As she shared frameworks to think about different aspects of pictures and representations, I found myself learning about helping others become more aware of their perceptions and their own voice.

SCBWI member Katrina Goldsaito’s The Sound of Silence on the shelf at the festival bookstore

Turning to inclusion, the less prominent close cousin of diversity, three creators shared their journeys of bringing stories on autism, inspiring women, and difference to publication. The level of engagement with their subject matter varied from personal to highly collaborative. In producing I’m a Girl. See what I can be! Eunice Olsen’s team reached out to the special needs artist community for artwork and gathered input on book design and feedback from mothers and their children. Eva Wong Nava described Open: A Boy’s Wayang Adventure as an attempt to dive into the thoughts of an autistic boy that was fleshed out partly from her experiences with autism, reiterating the fact that there is an autism spectrum and that no two individuals are the same. Echoing that sentiment, illustrator Marie Toh’s The Boy in the Whale Suit told a story of just being different.

This year’s spotlight!

The variety of content on offer brewed questions about access, or how the books containing those stories travel. Sessions with indie bookstores and publishers served up some answers, tackling topics ranging from selecting titles for school visits, competing with established top sellers, picture books vying for shelf space, challenging reader bias toward English works from the West, and selling rights, which conveniently links to the topic of translation. Imagine my excitement at finding the final slot of the 3-day conference reserved just for that!

Sharing translation episodes

At that final session, I heard how “astronauts” were translated into “space heroes” in the Tamil language to convey an idea that did not exist in its vocabulary and how five-member band One Direction magically transformed into Taiwanese band Mayday (五月天) in Chinese to match some mischief with numbers in an English-language original. Along with recognizing different expressions when translating into similar languages and fine-tuning to linguistic ability, I noted the many decisions made to adapt the text for the target audience, a careful process that calls for balance between creativity and faithfulness to the original, and of course, solid communication with the powers that be.

These takeaways from the conference will not be forgotten in a hurry, especially with SCBWI Japan Translation Day 2018 just around the corner, where we will surely hear more about the craft of creating stories and sharing them with others.

2. AFCC 2018: Of Context and Colleagues

Post by Avery Fischer Udagawa

Kaya (coconut jam) at breakfast the first morning of AFCC 2018

An inherent difficulty in writing, illustrating, and translating children’s books is isolation. The bread-and-butter work (or should I say kaya-toast work?) happens when we sit alone with stories, working to bring them alive on the page. We get so used to the aloneness that a conference can even be intimidating! In fact, my first memory of AFCC 2018 is eating breakfast at my hotel alone, too nervous to say hi to a woman nearby, whom I suspected might be part of the conference. An hour later I learned that she was in fact a keynote speaker: Lucia Obi, the language specialist for Chinese and Korean children’s books at the International Youth Library in Munich!

Ms. Obi and two others gave a powerful opening address, which shook me out of my self-consciousness, and—I realized later—framed much of my learning at AFCC 2018:

Myra Garces-Bacsal, an assistant professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, voiced local children’s need to read for development of imagination and empathy, not just technical proficiency.

Lucia Obi, drawing on her extensive knowledge of Asian children’s books and currents in Europe, showed that representation of Asia in the west is rare and skewed.

Colin Goh, a Singaporean writer, cartoonist, and filmmaker now also based in New York, spoke of seeing comics that he developed with his wife from their childhood experiences, criticized for perpetuating stereotypes of Asia in the US.

Colin Goh, Myra Garces Bacsal, moderator Rosemarie Somaiah, and Lucia Obi after AFCC 2018 keynote

This trio keynote served as the first reminder that I, as a translator of kidlit from Japanese, am part of a larger project of getting Asian stories into the world—and this project faces serious barriers.

First, Asian children’s literature is difficult to nurture and sell even within Asia. A number of countries emphasize exam preparation, which can hinder childhood reading for pleasure and personal growth. Additionally, in countries that are former colonies, a lingering “west is best” mentality makes consumers reach for Geronimo Stilton or Dr. Seuss rather than local reads. And in a number of Asian countries, poverty still limits basic access to books.

Second, Asian children’s content is also difficult to market outside of Asia, for reasons that range from geography, to quality (or unquestioned western definitions of quality), stereotypes (or well-meaning but stifling reactions to stereotypes), industry traditions, digital distractions, and lack of information. Lucia Obi spoke of how, when it was announced at this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair that Eiko Kadono of Japan had won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing (“little Nobel”), onlookers asked, “Who?”

Over the course of the conference, I heard aspects of these issues probed by publishers and editors, booksellers, writers, illustrators, translators, and reading promoters. At the same time, I encountered in the festival bookstore and booths many books that made me want to shout, “Look what Asia has to offer!”

Author Maria Mahat with her bilingual English-Malay picture book There are Saga Seeds in Our Pockets

Author Anupa Roy with her YA novel The Game Hunters

Throughout the three days, I felt myself drawn out of isolation professionally, as I affirmed my Asian context and felt myself to be part of a larger mission. I felt renewed in my desire to translate stories into English faithfully, and to shine light on a diverse array of authentic representations of Asia.

Author/illustrator Satoshi Kitamura and translators Avery Fischer Udagawa and Andrew Wong

I also enjoyed constant face-to-face contact with colleagues, of a kind I normally only enjoy at my job in education. I met with fellow SCBWI member translators Andrew Wong (based in Tokyo) and Malavika Nataraj (also an author, based in Singapore); spoke with SCBWI Singapore Regional Advisor David Liew; and saw SCBWI International Regional Advisor Chairperson Kathleen Ahrens (based in Hong Kong). I queued up for an autograph from Japanese illustrator Satoshi Kitamura, shopped for books next to Malaysia-based Scholastic Asia editorial consultant Daphne Lee, heard news from the Philippines from former agent/now-publisher Andrea Pasion-Flores, watched multilingual reader’s theater by AFCC mover-and-shaker Evelyn Wong, and heard a speech by librarian R. Ramachandran, former festival director and encourager to us all.

And I enjoyed many conversations with Lucia Obi, who shared more insights on Europe and even recommended several Japanese children’s books I had not yet read.

Nothing vaporizes isolation quite like context and colleagues. Maybe those should be the two Cs in AFCC!

Further reading: 2018 Asian Festival of Children’s Content: Pushing Back against ‘West is Best,’ Creating ‘Stories of Us’