Opinion
International Opinion

How to Find Authentic Books About Asia, From Asia

By David Jacobson — November 20, 2018 6 min read

Editor’s Intro: It’s often difficult to find authentic international literature, so in this piece, David Jacobson, the author of “Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko” and a board member of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI), suggests ways to find books about Asia that are appropriate for students, written locally by Asians, and available in English. He also spearheaded the GLLI’s effort to create a database of children’s literature in translation, which so far includes works originally published in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German, and Polish.

So you want to assign (or recommend) a book to your students about Asia—written by an Asian? Let me guess: You are having a hard time finding one, right? Rest assured, however, that finding “own voices” from Asia is not impossible, and the gleanings are well worth the effort.

Why “Own Voices” Are so Hard to Find

Why is it so difficult to find books for children about Asia? For one thing, the United States doesn’t publish very many translations in English. The conventional wisdom is that translations amount to about 3 percent of the total books published every year. And when you are looking for children’s books translated from non-European languages, the pickings are even slimmer. According to a survey I conducted that includes tabulation of data from the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), nearly 55 percent of all translations published between 2003 and 2016 come from three languages—French (27 percent), German (19 percent), and Spanish (8 percent). By contrast, those from Japanese amounted to only 5 percent; Korean, just under 4 percent; and Chinese, fewer than 1 percent.

Source: CCBC translation logs, as reported in “Survey of Translations of Children’s and YA Literature from Chinese, Japanese and Korean

This doesn’t mean that “own voices” from Asia are not available. Rather, it reflects the fact that we don’t do a good job identifying them. The CCBC, I suspect, misses a lot of titles because most translations are published by small U.S. publishers, or by publishers abroad, which don’t submit them (the CCBC’s data are based on voluntary submission by publishers). Prominent reviewers of children’s works, such as the Horn Book, don’t review titles published outside the United States. What’s more, the most prestigious prizes, such as the Caldecott and Newbery Medals, which flag the best-regarded books, don’t even consider works by non-American citizens or residents.

Follow the Translators

So what is a well-meaning (but time-strapped) teacher to do? Let me give you a few general and a few country-specific strategies for finding translations from Asia.

My first suggestion is to follow the translators. Translators probably know more about what’s available in translation from a particular language than anyone else. Moreover, since translation of children’s literature remains a publishing backwater, there are relatively few translators who specialize in kid literature in each language. If you’re interested in a particular country, find the handful of translators that specialize in it and read their work.

Take Chinese, for instance. I learned of Helen Wang after reading her wonderful translation of Bronze and Sunflower (by Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Cao Wenxuan). She has translated at least 11 other picture books and YA novels from Chinese, which you can find listed at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative database. Along with Minjie Chen and Anna Gustafsson Chen, she is the co-editor of the blog “Chinese Books for Young Readers,” which is a font of information about Chinese children’s literature. If you want to see a free sample of Helen’s work, check out her translation of Cao’s short story, “A Very Special Pigeon.”

In Japanese children’s literature, Cathy Hirano plays a similar role as Helen Wang. She has translated 14 novels and picture books, most notably two series of fantasy titles by Hans Christian Andersen winner Nahoko Uehashi, and three books by Batchelder Award winner Kazumi Yumoto. Another Japanese translator to watch is Avery Fischer Udagawa, who edits the “Ihatov” blog of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Japan Translation Group. The blog publishes reviews of books you might never find in the English-language press (such as this new book by Uehashi) and pieces about authors (such as recent Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Eiko Kadono) who are rarely profiled despite their prominence abroad. Avery also posts widely about Japanese and world kid lit in English translation (for instance, this list of 100 translated children’s books from around the world).

Small Publishers Are Responsible for Most Translations

Another strategy would be to identify the few specialized publishers whose releases match your interests. There is a small group of publishers based in different countries that specialize in translated children’s literature. They include the U.K.'s Pushkin Children’s, New Zealand’s Gecko Press, and Canada’s Groundwood Books. In the United States, check out Elsewhere Editions, the Yonder imprint of Restless Books, and Enchanted Lion Books. Note, however, that Elsewhere Editions and Yonder have so far only published one title each from Asia: Elsewhere has published a new picture book by Cao Wenxuan, and Yonder has released a beautifully illustrated version of the Ramayana.

If your interest is China, you have it easy, in a way. Nearly 60 percent of the 64 Chinese children’s books I identified in the survey linked to above come from just three publishers: Balestier Press in the United Kingdom, Starfish Bay Publishing in Australia, and Candied Plums in the United States. So a glance at their respective websites will give you an overview of what’s available in English translation from China. But that does point out just how few translations are available.

Japanese children’s books, by contrast, have been published by a broader array of publishers, so there is no similar shortcut. However, there is a small number of publishers that have specialized in works about Japan in English—Tuttle, Stone Bridge Press, Kodansha, and Vertical Inc.—that have all published works for kids, some in translation and some not.

On the other hand, India, which itself is the second largest market for English-language children’s books, has its own set of specialized children’s publishers, a number of which have made a splash abroad. They include Tara Books (known for its handprinted illustrations), Duckbill Books (co-founded by “India’s Dr. Seuss” Anushka Ravishankar), and long-standing Tulika Books and Karadi Tales.

New Prizes Will Highlight Standouts

Thanks to the growing recognition that our children are not getting exposed to enough writing from around the world, a number of new prizes have been established to highlight translated literature. Just recently, the National Book Foundation, which administers the National Book Awards, announced the finalists in a new category honoring translated literature. None was works for children, though several translations from Asian languages were named.

The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative is similarly planning to award YA books in translation, in hopes of bringing attention to the noticeable gap in translations of world literature for young adults. The first winners will be announced at the American Library Association’s midwinter conference in January 2019.

Starting in 2016, the National Consortium for the Teaching About Asia initiated the Freeman Book Awards, which recognize “quality” children’s and young-adult books about East and Southeast Asia. Similarly, the South Asia Book Award has been recognizing top-flight books since 2012. Neither prize, of course, is limited to “own voices” or translated literature.

You should also peruse the winners of the ALA’s long-standing Batchelder Prize and the annual USBBY Outstanding International Books list.

There is also a plethora of country-specific book lists that will help your search, as well as worthy sources from abroad. But naming all of them would require another column. In the meantime, happy searching!

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Chart created by and used with permission of the author.

Image created on Pablo.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Education Funding Webinar
From Crisis to Opportunity: How Districts Rebuild to Improve Student Well-Being
K-12 leaders discuss the impact of federal funding, prioritizing holistic student support, and how technology can help.
Content provided by Salesforce.org

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

International Global Test Finds Digital Divide Reflected in Math, Science Scores
New data from the 2019 Trends in International Math and Science Study show teachers and students lack digital access and support.
3 min read
Image of data.
iStock/Getty
International Pre-COVID Learning Inequities Were Already Large Around the World
A new international benchmarking highlights gaps in training for digital learning and other supports that could deepen the challenge for low-income schools during the pandemic.
4 min read
International Part of Global Trend, 1 in 3 U.S. High Schoolers Felt Disconnected From School Before Pandemic
UNESCO's annual report on global education progress finds countries need to make more effort to include marginalized students, particularly in the United States.
4 min read
International How Schools in Other Countries Have Reopened
Ideas from Australia, Denmark, and Taiwan can help American district and school leaders as they shape their reopening plans.
11 min read
Students at the Taipei American School in Taipei, Taiwan, perform The Little Mermaid in full costume and masks.
Students at the Taipei American School in Taipei, Taiwan, perform The Little Mermaid in full costume and masks.
Photo courtesy of Dustin Rhoades/Taipei American School