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

The 2018 Asian Festival of Children’s Content just wrapped up (September 6-8) in Singapore, and Japanese-English translator Avery Fischer Udagawa was there:

Tell us about the annual Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC)! Who comes, what do they share, what do you learn there?

Avery Fischer Udagawa: AFCC gathers together creators, purveyors, and consumers of children’s content at the National Library in Singapore. Creators of content enjoy sessions about writing, illustration, and translation. Purveyors such as booksellers, publishers, educators, digital media providers, and literacy promoters exchange info and describe their efforts. Parents and children enjoy rich public programs, which this year ranged from picture book launches to kamishibai to multilingual reader’s theater.

How has the AFCC changed since you’ve started attending? 

Librarian R. Ramachandran speaks at the 50th anniversary celebration of the National Book Development Council of Singapore, now known as Singapore Book Council

AFU: AFCC is a young conference; next year, 2019, will be its tenth year. I first attended in 2011 and have come every one to two years since, sometimes as a speaker, sometimes as a delegate. In terms of changes, I have seen a few different festival directors, beginning with the legendarily warm and encouraging R. Ramachandran, former Director of Singapore’s National Library Board, Chairman of the National Book Development Council of Singapore, and Secretary General of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), now retired. Mr. Rama continues to grace AFCC with his presence and embodies devotion to the nurturing and dissemination of Asian stories, both for Asian children and the world’s children. Oodles of people working in this field have received a boost from him over the years, and his ethos has remained evident in the AFCC board and subsequent directors, Kenneth Quek and now William Phuan.

Another change is that the organization offering AFCC, the National Book Development Council of Singapore, celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and will henceforth be called the Singapore Book Council. Yet another change is that while the first AFCCs were held at The Arts House, formerly Singapore’s parliament, and in May or June, the conference is now held at the National Library and in September.

Illustrator David Liew of Singapore shows his notes & sketches about one of the keynote addresses, by Myra Garces-Bascal, manager of the website Gathering Books

But beyond these changes, AFCC and the book council are known for being solidly on the side of people working in Asian content. Those of us who live nearby are plain lucky that we can tap their support through AFCC.

What is unchanged is that AFCC provides a compact writer’s and illustrator’s conference, with publishing experts from Asia and elsewhere sharing expertise, giving critiques, and offering master classes. For people in Asia who want to feel part of the children’s book world, and spend time learning business and craft, with the occasional possibility of a new submission opportunity or helpful connection, AFCC is worth a try. It reminds me of the annual Los Angeles conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, but it is filled with people from, based in, or focused on Asia. It is also much smaller, so you get to know other attendees and, after coming a few times, feel like part of a family. The interwoven public programming keeps children—our ultimate audience—in view, and the annual Country of Focus programming lets us grow more informed about kidlit in this part of the world, one country at a time.

Can you tell us a little about translation between different Asian languages, and how that’s facilitated by the fest? 

Translators and a publisher discuss translation of kidlit for Singaporean readers, into and out of Tamil, Malay, Mandarin and English

AFU: Translation between Asian languages is immediately relevant in Singapore, which has four official languages—English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil—and where other Chinese varieties and Indian languages are used, with plentiful tourists and expatriates bringing in still more languages. Translation-specific programming at AFCC has expanded and contracted over time and has generally dealt with translation between Asian languages and English, because the festival itself is in English, but the multilingual environment serves as a kind of ostinato underlying much of what happens at the festival. This year AFCC had a session on “Singlish” (colloquial mixture of Singapore’s languages) in children’s literature, which I think is a fascinating topic that parallels discussion of translanguaging in the education world.

You’re at AFCC right now. What are people talking (arguing, gossiping) about?

Author Anupa Roy holds her YA novel THE GAME HUNTERS published by Balestier Press

AFU: The representation of Asia, in children’s content both consumed in Asia and dispersed to the world, has been a topic of conversation this year as ever. The conference featured Lucia Obi of the International Youth Library in Munich, who is an expert on and gatherer of children’s books from Asia for the IYL. She gave disheartening news on the scarcity of books by Asian authors in Europe, and the prevalence of certain stereotypes in books on Asia there—for example, the image of south Asian nations as impoverished places that need western help, rather that as diverse places with diverse narratives. We also heard from cartoonist Colin Goh, who co-authored with his spouse Yen Yen Woo the Dim Sum Warriors graphic novel series, which has also toured 25 Chinese cities as a stage musical. DSW grew out of the couple’s wish to convey two loves of their childhoods—dim sum outings and kung fu movies—to their daughter after she was born. Despite its reception in Asia, however, Goh has heard the work criticized in the US for perpetuating stereotypes.

The need for a plenitude of authentic representations came through in a speech by Singaporean author Suchen Christine Lim, who urged peers to create “stories of us.” It also came up in panels of local booksellers and regional publishers—who describe a postcolonial “west is best” mentality even in Asia, which makes Asian stories compete with Disney and Geronimo Stilton. Other issues include digital distractions and a focus in some countries on exam preparation.

This year’s AFCC focus is on Singapore. What have you learned about Singaporean kid lit?

Author-illustrator Satoshi Kitamura signs a copy of his picture book “Me and My Cat”

AFU: The lineup was international as ever, featuring everyone from Japanese picture book author/illustrator Satoshi Kitamura, to US-born and Australia-based author/illustrator Frané Lessac, to Sarah Odedina, an editor-at-large for Pushkin Children’s Books in the UK. Odedina helped launch a novel by Danish author Helle Norup, who while based in Singapore two years ago, pitched the book to Odedina at AFCC and ended up with a contract. So the reach of this festival goes beyond the Country of Focus.

I left this year, however, with many books to read and recommend by Singaporean authors. These were written in English and may be ordered around the world now: YA novel The Game Hunters by Anupa Roy, set in Ice Age Asia, published by Balestier Press; the bestselling MG series The Diary of Amos Lee, an Asian answer to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, published by Epigram Books; and titles from Scholastic Asia, which is based in Malaysia and publishes authors from Singapore and the region. (Not all of Scholastic Asia’s titles are available through Scholastic in the US, so check their website. While you’re online, also see Scholastic India.) These titles are sure bets for international school libraries in Asia, diversity-focused children’s collections throughout the world, and families and children hungry for delicious #worldkidlit.

What else should we know?

AFU: Two more entities to know: the biennial Scholastic Asian Book Award for unpublished children’s and YA novels, and the biennial Scholastic Picture Book Award for unpublished picture books. Both awards are co-offered by Scholastic Asia and the Singapore Book Council, and offer first prizes of 10,000 Singapore dollars. Eligible are Asian writers and illustrators from some 50 countries whose manuscripts tell Asian stories. The next closing date, for the 2019 picture book award competition, is December 14, 2018.

Find out more at www.scholasticbookaward.asia

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