My Chinese Words: Part 1
I wrote this book:
I wrote it—but I can’t read it. What I can read is the book it is a translation of:
Seeing this new translation gave me a lot to think about.
First, about covers: the one that the University of Georgia Press provided for this book about picture books for children when it was published back in 1988 is mostly text on a monochromatic teal background interrupted only by one tiny black-and-white picture. Someone unable to read English would have a hard time guessing that the book inside this solemn cover might have something to do with pictures, or children, or children’s picture books. But while the Chinese cover makes a subtle reference to the original’s monochromatic teal, it actually looks like what’s inside could be lively and interesting; and it does that by more clearly suggesting the nature of the book’s contents.
What suggests that is, of course, is the pictures. Georgia’s one black and white illustration has been replaced by not one, not two, not even three or four or five, but by six—count ‘em, six!— images in colour. Three of those images are illustrations from well-known picture books by Maurice Sendak, and there are also illustrations by three other celebrated picture book artists: Raymond Briggs, Virginia Lee Burton, and Marcia Brown; and the back cover replaces Georgia’s display of nothing but yet more text with four more illustrations from widely read picture books, including another by Sendak, one by William Steig, and two by Pat Hutchins.
The visual feast continues inside. There are actually twenty-three pages in full colour that offer eighty images from picture books—often multiple images from the same picture book. There are also black and white images at the start of each chapter. The original book contained just twenty-one images, all printed in black and white. Unlike the original version, this Chinese Words looks like a book about analyzing pictures in picture books ought to look.
So why, then, didn’t the original book look like that? The answer can be summed up in one word: money.
There are only twenty-one black and white images in the original Words because the University of Georgia Press couldn’t afford to reproduce colour illustrations in an academic book with a limited audience, and because I myself couldn’t afford to pay the permission fees for more than twenty-one black and white ones. Not surprisingly, furthermore, the one image Georgia chose to use on the cover is the one from the small selection I did include by Randolph Caldecott, a nineteenth century illustrator who work was, even thirty years ago, safely out of copyright—and they reduced Caldecott’s colour image to black and white outlines. Just as happens now, most publishers of academic books back in 1988 simply assumed that getting permission to reproduce specific images and paying for that permission were the responsibility of authors—i.e., relatively poor academics. Back in the mid-eighties when I was working on Words about Pictures, my quickly growing children tended to need a roof over their head and the occasional meal and new pairs of shoes. Paying for permissions for more pictures was not a priority.
So why, then, so many pictures in the Chinese version? The answer remains the same: money. The Chinese publishers could afford to use as many pictures as they wanted because, I suspect, they didn’t pay anything for them, but simply went ahead and reproduced them without asking for permission to do so from their original publishers in Europe and North America. The Chinese seem to be relatively new to concepts like copyright and intellectual property as they exist in Canada, the US, and Europe; as Dennis C. Blair and Keith Alexander suggest in a New York Times op ed piece in 2017, “Chinese companies, with the encouragement of official Chinese policy and often the active participation of government personnel, have been pillaging the intellectual property of American companies.” While that seems be changing under pressure from governments and businesses elsewhere, many Chinese publishers still happily publish Chinese language versions of books in other languages without acquiring the rights to do so.
Dandelion Children’s Book House, the Beijiing publishers of the Chinese Words, is an especially significant contributor to the emergence of a picture-book market in China. An article in Publishers Weekly in 2017 suggests that “Beijing Dandelion Children’s Book House grew from three full-time staff (counting founder and editor-in-chief Sally Yan) in 2007 to eight within a year. It now has sales exceeding CNY 80 million ($11.6 million) and a catalogue of 600 titles, of which 70% are translations” (Tan 2017). More recently, another article in Publisher’s Weekly extols Dandelion’s “mix of carefully selected translations and originals” and reports that each year its translation of the Magic School Bus series “sells upward of 500,000 copies, and it has remained the number one children’s series in China since its launch in 2010” (Tan 2019). I have to feel privileged to have my book represented by this enterprising firm.
But since the property theft Blair and Alexander report continues, I also have to suspect that Dandelion did not get permission from the publishers of the many picture books they provide images from in their version of Words to use those images. I even have to wonder if Dandelion actually bothered to acquire the rights to a Chinese translation of Words from U of Georgia Press. I wouldn’t be surprised if they hadn’t—and in the light of ongoing Chinese attitudes to copyright, there’s really no point in me asking Georgia about it. An unauthorized Chinese translation might be illegal in my part of the world, but Chinese publishers and government officials remain unlikely to respond to an objection to it. According to Blair and Alexander, “Driving down intellectual-property theft by China and other countries is vital for America’s economic well-being and national security.” But since the financial proceeds from the rights to a Chinese translation of Words are not vital to Nodelman’s economic well-being and household security, I remain more pleased by its existence than I am worried about its possible legality.
Still, though, the presence of all those images in the Chinese Words does raise the question of permissions—and for me, the question of permissions raises the question of the effect of permission fees on children’s picture-book scholarship. Years of experience have taught me that being a picture-book scholar is not without its practical difficulties. In earlier days, I often found myself lugging carousels of slides of picture books to conferences—and then arriving only to find my particular model of carousel didn’t fit the projector I was to use, requiring the hasty transferring of the slides from one tray to another and almost inevitably getting them backwards or upside down while doing it. More recently, the slides have been replaced by PowerPoints and, therefore, by all the usual problems of computer compatibility, as well as getting what’s clearly visible on the computer screen to connect with the bigger and all too often much blanker screen and then figuring out how to operate a myriad of different control devices in different conference venues in the process of actually doing it. But the biggest problem has always been permissions.
Unless you have an uncanny ability to find the words to describe pictures, making people aware of the visual features of a picture you’re talking about pretty well means that you want them to take a look at the picture—as does, then, happen in conference presentations. But permissions fees have always meant that picture book scholars could only include a small portion of the pictures they discuss in their published work. I chose the title Words about Pictures with some sense of the irony it might convey: the book is, in fact, mainly words. Lots and lots of words about pictures and far too few pictures.
More recently, furthermore, children’s book publishers with the intensified concern for the bottom line required by the ever-monetizing international corporations that now own most of them have come to see the granting of permissions to use images as a significant profit-making activity, and accordingly raised the fees for granting the permissions. What once might have cost $50 is now at least $500, and ever rising. I can only begin to imagine the vast sums that the publishers of all those Sendak illustrations on the cover of the Chinese Words might have demanded from an English-language publisher who felt obliged to ask for permission to include them. The cost of permissions is making academic work on picture books increasingly untenable.
The visual richness of the Chinese Words then strikes me mostly as a wonderful dream of utopian abundance—the kind of dream whose utopian aspects mostly just reinforce the less attractive nature of English language publishing realities. I can dream of being able to write about and publish picture book criticism in English that is so lavish with the visual imagery it offers; but I am all too aware that it is only a dream.
Blair, Dennis C, and Keith Alexander. “China’s Intellectual Property Theft Must Stop.” New York Times, 15 Aug. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/opinion/china-us-intellectual-property-trump.html.
Nodelman, Perry. Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. U of Georgia P, 1988.
Tan, Teri. “Children's Books in China 2017: Beijing Dandelion Children’s Book House.” Publishers Weekly, Mar 17, 2017. <https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/international/international-book-news/article/73086-children-s-books-in-china-2017-beijing-dandelion-children-s-book-house.html>
Tan, Teri. “Children’s Books in China 2019: Beijing Dandelion Children’s Book House.” Publishers Weekly, Mar 15, 2019. <https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/international/international-book-news/article/79549-beijing-dandelion-children-s-book-house.html
In addition to Words About Pictures: the Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books, Perry Nodelman is the author of three other books about children's literature: The Pleasures of Children Literature (3d edition in collaboration with Mavis Reimer), The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature, and Alternating Narratives in Fiction for Young Readers: Twice Upon a Time, as well as about 150 essays and chapters in books about children's literature and a number of novels for young people. A Professor Emeritus at the University of Winnipeg, he occupies his time in retirement as a doting grandfather and volunteer guide and docent at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, Canada.