Critic Interview: Irene Ying-Yu Chen

Sunday, December 13, 2009
The spotlight is on Taiwan today! :o) To introduce us to children's and young adult literature in Taiwan is Irene Ying-Yu Chen. Irene is a children's literature critic in Taiwan. She is also the assistant regional advisor of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Taiwan. Her academic works are published in Taiwan and abroad and her most recent publication is “Monkey King's Journey to the West: Transmission of a Chinese Folktale to Anglophone Children” in the January 2009 issue of Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's Literature.

Irene kindly sent me a copy of her latest publication and I found it a fascinating introduction to and discussion of "Monkey King." "Monkey King" is retold in English literature as a signifier of Chinese culture, but it can also bridge cultural gaps and stimulate cross-cultural literature for children. One of the "Monkey King" versions Irene analyzes is Gene Luen Yang's young adult graphic novel American Born Chinese. If you have access to Bookbird or Project Muse, I recommend you read Irene's work.

And now I present my conversation with Irene about children's and young adult literature in Taiwan. Thank you very much for answering my questions, Irene!

How would you define Taiwanese children's literature and young adult literature?

It is not easy to answer this question. I can only say what Taiwanese children used to read was mostly translated works from English and Japanese texts as we are a minority culture/market. But we are making more home-made publications as we are more and more aware of stories around us. Many authors and illustrators are creating exciting works for children in and out of Taiwan to know more about Taiwan, from picture books, fictions, to dramas, animations, and films. If I dare to define Taiwanese children's and YA literature, I would say it is at present a creative process to explore Taiwan, and to define ourselves.

That is so beautiful!

What are the current trends in children's and young adult publishing in Taiwan?


Recent popular genres would include various ways creators try to show the world and Taiwan via abridged biographical works. PBs about ecological concerns are quite popular as well.

For younger children, we encourage them to read good picture books. However, in the most recent decade, parents and teachers notice older children still prefer picture books to fictions as there are fewer words and less trouble to read. Therefore, publishers adapt western chapter books for children to upgrade to the next reading level. There will be a great many pictures, and with different reading levels, there will be a couple more hundreds of words per book. We in Taiwan call them bridging books -- a bridge for children to step from PB to fiction. These publications aim to encourage older children to read more literally than visually.

Bridging books sound interesting, Irene. What are the challenges and rewards of being a writer or illustrator for children and young adults in Taiwan?

The challenges are quite a few. In addition to publishers' general preference of translated works to local arts, the growing yet unstable market means a writer or an illustrator may need to find some other ways to support themselves financially, at least at an early stage.

However, many artists have worked hard and make their name and Taiwan shine on the global stage. I know some artists have a sense of responsibility to introduce Taiwan in their works, and I guess their success is the best reward. Many Taiwanese artists also have their advantages as the most known Chinese-language children's book creators. They broaden their markets to other Chinese-language markets such as Singapore, China, Malaysia, etc.

What children's and young adult books, authors, and illustrators from Taiwan would you recommend?

I would first recommend Lai-ma and Chang You-ran [Click here and here to see some of Chang You-ran's work!!!]. They are illustrators whose dedication and care for children make their works among the best in Taiwan. Lai-ma's works are filled with childlike innocence and humor. Chang has amazing patience to work on one of his picture books for more than seven years. His works leave traces of his environmental concerns and his love of this land. I cannot love their works more.

As for YA fictions, I would recommend works by Lee Tong and Syaman Rapongan. Lee's works are more about country life in the 1980s. Syaman's works are not targeted to children, but children read them anyway. His works are set in Orchid Island where Tao people reside. The Tao people is one of Taiwanese aboriginal peoples, and they make their living by the ocean. As a result, Syaman's stories are ocean-oriented, and offers the readers a new reading experience. I strongly recommend his Black Wings, a story about four Tao boys and their dreams.


What is it like to be the assistant regional advisor of SCBWI Taiwan? What kind of work do you do for this role? Can you tell us about some of SCBWI Taiwan's activities this past year? What are some plans for next year?

As an ARA, I am working on hosting local events in Taipei and promoting Taiwanese artists on the global stage. Our illustrator coordinator Ariel Pang and I always try and keep people aware of how we may help. It's not easy, but I am proud to say the efforts are worthwhile as more people start to treat children's and YA creators as professionals in a positive perspective.

In 2009, we invited Serge Bloch to 2009 Taipei International Book Exhibit (TIBE) and held writers' and illustrators' critiques. Our RA Jessie Huang held a series of illustrator and editor panels in Yunlin (mid-western part of Taiwan) which had very nice feedback. We are going to have Davy Liu, an outstanding illustrator and animator in the USA, to Taiwan next week and share with us his expertise and passion. It's very exciting!

For next year, we will keep hosting events in TIBE. We are inviting Canadian children's artists to Taiwan and we are looking forward to it! We will consider increasing the critiques for writers and illustrators as requested. Also, as our SCBWI-Taiwan Facebook fan page has increasing participants from around Taiwan and abroad, we may try to hold a co-exhibit on-line. There are many things going on, and we're open to any possibilities.

Here are some pictures from SCBWI Taiwan's activities:

TIBE: Let SCBWI Introduce Your Works to the World - Experiences from Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. From left to right: Shuchiung Chang (Eslite Children's Bookstore general director), Kathleen Ahrens (former SCBWI Taiwan RA and present international regional advisor), Holly Thompson (SCBWI Tokyo RA), Mio Debnam (SCBWI Hong Kong RA), and interpreter Angela Lu.

"A Writer's Path": Donna Jo Napoli with members of SCBWI Taiwan

"Marketing Your Children's Book and Yourself": Karen Lynn Williams with members of SCBWI Taiwan

Thank you so much, Irene! It appears children's and young adult literature in Taiwan is blossoming quite nicely. I can't wait to explore the books!