By Dr. Elizabeth “e” Dulemba
I recently attended the Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair to talk to creators about our new year-round MFA in Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating program at Hollins University. This program opens doors for international students to acquire visas to attend our graduate programs. As the only university to offer this combined writing and illustrating degree in the USA, I traveled to China to spread the word. Ironically, the APEC Summit was taking place in San Francisco. President Xi and President Biden discussed agreements to foster more international student exchanges between the USA and China—my timing was perfect!
The Shanghai Book Fair was organized in part by the same people who put on the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy, so there were many similarities, such as the “Illustrators’ Survival Corner (ISC)”—a destination to help budding illustrators be discovered and support them with their craft. The ISC includes targeted lectures, workshops, and portfolio reviews. Budding illustrators attend for the ISC and to receive portfolio reviews at their favorite publishing houses in the hopes of being discovered.
While Bologna draws creators primarily from Europe, the Shanghai Book Fair is an opportunity for illustrators from Asia. It’s rare to find such a high concentration of children’s book illustrators, so off I flew to the other side of the world—alone. Thankfully, I had help. During my MFA and PhD in Scotland, I made friends from all over the world, including China. I reached out to them about my trip and soon, my calendar was full of engagements that went far beyond the initial objectives of my trip!
Yaxi Wang invited me to speak to the Art and Communications undergraduate students at China Jiliang University in Hangzhou. It was her diligence securing an invitation from the Dean that got me the necessary VISA to visit China in the first place. Jiliang rolled out the red carpet for me, and I gave a talk on the keys to understanding how picture books work. The Dean, several faculty members, and about 300 students attended. Pictures were taken and the Dean gave me a handmade piece of calligraphy. So lovely!
Shushu Li arranged a date to tour Storyland, an after-school enrichment program for early readers. They interviewed me in 2022 for my novel A Bird on Water Street, which was translated into Chinese, so I was excited to meet them in person and tour their facility. We spent a wonderful time talking about children’s books and activities.
Of course, the main purpose for the visit was the Book Fair itself. It occupied an enormous conference hall divided into two sections. The larger section hosted booths for various Asian publishers there to represent their houses, but also to sell books to an excited public. Many attendees arrived with rolling suitcases oftentimes with a built-in seat for their child. Beyond a checkpoint were more publisher booths, but these were for international publishers to make rights deals, attend industry talks (with translator devices for non-Chinese speakers), or for illustrators to share portfolios at the ISC.
I attended the first day on my own and ended up speaking to several budding illustrators. A highlight was having lunch with Tomi Ungerer’s (creator of the classic picture book The Three Robbers) daughter Aria, who handles his estate. Yaxi joined me the following two days and initiated conversations in Chinese with all 100 of the Fair’s featured illustrators. These artists took their education very seriously and many already had MFAs from prestigious universities around the world. We had great conversations. By the end of day three, I was offered several more potential lecturing opportunities if I return next year, which I may well do!
Meanwhile, Shanghai is extremely crowded and sprawls further than most American cities. People zip around on scooters and bicycles. There is a subway system, but the language difference is considerable, so I mostly took taxis. Planters that line the highways overflow with blooming bougainvillea, while vines climb the highway pillars.
Shushu took me to Yu Gardens inside an historic Chinese village with tourist shops and a delicious dumpling restaurant at its center. As a Western woman with long grey hair, children often pointed at me and giggled—I always smiled back. Most vendors do not accept credit cards in China, but rather, take cash or payment via WeChat. This was tricky the two days I was on my own, which required new levels of bravery to simply navigate Shanghai; but a translation app made it doable. Meanwhile, I ordered a custom-made dress, purchased souvenirs, visited the Long Museum, and walked along the quay that ran beside the Huangpu River. I was okay on my own, but friends made everything so much easier.
The FOOD in China is amazing. I tasted flavors I won’t be able to duplicate in the states; so, I ate a lot! Favorites were a marinated tofu, century eggs, and radish pastries. Yaxi and I also indulged in a decadent celebratory lunch at a teahouse near her university surrounded by a traditional Chinese garden.
It constantly amazes me how the pursuit and creation of children’s books has opened so many incredible opportunities in my life. I never could have imagined my passion for children’s books would lead me to the other side of the world; but it did, and I found like-minded lovers of children’s books in China too, which confirmed my belief that children’s books, no matter the language, bring us together and make our world a better place.