By Elizabeth Oladoyin, Elizabeth Guess, Kathryn Smith and Leyla Mehmet
We interviewed Eva Wong Nava, the author of the YA historical fiction novel, The House of Little Sisters. Eva is known for her picture books which help children explore who they are, where they're from and what they can do to be movers and shakers in their world. She also has forthcoming picture books to be discovered. Eva writes for Words & Pictures, the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) British Isles e-zine. She can be found in the Land of Albion and is represented by Lydia Silver of Darley Anderson.
1. Could you tell us a bit about your mentoring platform, Picture Book Matters?
I co-founded Picture Book Matters (PBM) in 2018 with my business partner, graphic artist and illustrator Debasmita Dasgupta (Smita), to provide a mentoring platform for picture book creators based in Asia. Both Smita and I were living and working in Singapore then, and we saw a gap in the publishing scene there in terms of learning and mentoring platforms for emerging picture book writers and illustrators. We wanted to contribute to the creative ecosystem in South and Southeast Asia, and felt that we could use our experiences, expertise and empathy to help creators like us (BAME or BIPOC) living and working in Asia to better understand children's book creation and publication. Now that we're both based in the UK, we are opening PBM to picture book creators from BAME or BIPOC backgrounds in the UK, US and Europe. Smita and I are strategic about this because we feel that it is important for PBM to continue the work we started in Singapore, to provide writers-of-colour with a safe space to learn and be part of a growing and supportive community of authors and illustrators who identify as East, Southeast Asian, Black and/or Asian (Desi communities).
2. What was the inspiration for you beginning to write?
I've always written for my children prior to being published – so, they are my inspiration. They wanted more stories after the last of their bedtime books came to an end, and to lull them to sleep, I would retell stories from my childhood about the Monkey God, the Moon Goddess and other folk and fairy tales from East and Southeast Asia. Later when my children grew older, I wrote these stories down as I was no longer a tired mother snatching minutes from the day to rest. During my daughters' childhood, I also made-up stories peppered with characters from Latin America, namely Peru, and Scotland. I cannot explain why these two countries, but it is possible these were the characters that I came across in books as a child and adult.
I write for my children's children. Books tend to have a longer life than their authors. I hope that my grandchildren will be able to read the books I'd written for their mothers long after I return to being fairy dust.
3. Why is authentic representation and different types of diversity so important, particularly in children’s books, and are mainstream publishers doing enough to include meaningful representation?
Any sort of representation ought to be meaningful and authentic, and yes, particularly in children's books. Young minds are impressionable, and children learn about who they are, their purpose, what they are capable of, and can do, through books. It is in stories that children find alternatives, possibilities and develop compassion and empathy because they see themselves in the pages of the books they read. Children root for the main character and other characters in the stories they identify with when they are immersed in the story world. Somehow, this rooting for the main character is inevitable, and literary theory (Reader Response Theory, especially) shows this to be true.
It is important for every child reading to see themselves within the pages of books. As a writer-of-colour in the UK, I find this even more important, because I grew up on a diet of books that did not have people like me. I never questioned this as a child because I was interested in the story; stories were and are gateways to other worlds for me. But I did start to feel invisible, unaccounted for, as I grew older, when I realised that the heroes and heroines I was rooting for were based predominantly on white people's experiences and lives, and they also looked nothing like me. When I became a mother, this invisibility bothered me greatly. I wanted to see more of me represented in books, more of half of who my daughters are in the books they were reading.
My children are of dual-heritage. They are very comfortable in their skins and live with hyphenated identities: British-Chinese-Caucasian/White-European-East/Southeast Asian. For them, these are their possibilities, but they also grew up with very little representation of who they are in books. I can see that this eats away at them because each time there is a book published or film screened that are peopled with diverse characters (other than white diverse characters: there is also diversity in Anglo-European identities), they are very excited and can't wait to read the book or watch the film.
When we speak of representation, we must ask ourselves, “But how is that character depicted?” (to paraphrase author of The Night of Legends, Leslie W). An East Asian character, along with dragons and peonies, on a book cover can be considered a form or representation. Certain representations can be stereotyped and clichéd. Many are reductionist and pejoratives of the culture and people being represented. Representation is broader than racial or ethnic representation. It is important for children to see other kinds of characters in books; characters that reflect real people in the world that we live in.
In the Anglo-European world, mainstream publishing is mainly a privileged industry, populated by white men and women with public-school, or private school education historically. It somehow still remains so, although the scene is changing to be more inclusive and representative. We are starting to see in some publishers the intention to and advocacy for diversifying their workforce and in the books they publish. The industry, in response to data from surveys and studies, is sincerely trying to course correct. But I do feel that more can be done, and I hope that this move towards more inclusion and representation of diversity is not merely a trend. Although the space has now been created to include more BAME stories or for writers-of-colour (WOC) to be traditionally published, there is still an expectation that WOC can only write "cultural" stuff, or own-voices stories. There is room for WOC to write about other things, like (Anglo-European) art history, for example, or retellings of Anglo-European fairy tales. I hope that, eventually, this pigeon-holing will give way to embracing WOC as writers who can write anything.
In terms of promotion, I am not seeing enough diversity when it comes to promoting and marketing under-represented authors and illustrators. In the UK, there seems to be this obsession with platform authors, so Emma Thompson is now writing picture books (which is fine). It would be wonderful to see Gemma Chan being commissioned to write a children's picture book or two, as well. I would love to see more representation of under-represented authors writing in English who are not based in the UK, and for major UK bookstores to stock more books that are not just published by the big-four traditional publishers in the UK, EU and USA, but also by independent presses that often publish diverse books and authors who need the mainstream bookstores to support them.
4. What are some of your all-time favourite picture books, and why?
There are too many to choose from, but I'll pick three.
To start with, I would have to say The Gruffalo, as my daughters loved this tale, which Julia Donaldson had once said was inspired by a Chinese folk tale. I love how the tale is retold in rhyme and how someone weak and little can outwit someone strong and big. It’s a multi-layered story because it also shows us that strength lies in critical thinking and imagination, which reading helps children develop. Again, from Julia Donaldson is The Magic Paintbrush, illustrated by Joel Stewart. I was so excited to see a Chinese girl on the cover that I had to buy it for my children. I also love how a child (thought to be little and weak) overcomes an emperor (thought to be strong and powerful). Donaldson gets my vote because these two stories champion the underdog.
I am aware that the two books by Donaldson mentioned here may seem ironic choices, since I am an advocate for more representation of under-represented authors in mainstream publishing. But in all fairness, Donaldson spins a good yarn and that is the importance of storytelling. These two books were written in a different climate when the debate around cultural appreciation vs appropriation was non-existent.
My third favourite to mention is Baroness Floella Benjamin's Coming to England, which I thought is an important book, not just for the Windrush generation and children, it’s also important for any child who is emigrating to England, or emigrating in general. This picture book is about dreaming big, working hard and being determined. It's a story filled with love and most of all, finding a new home and fitting in. I love the illustrations by Diane Ewan as well. As a child of the Chinese diaspora and an emigrant to England in my young adulthood, the Baroness's story resonated with me.
5. Are there any 2022 book releases that you’re excited about?
On the middle-grade front: I am excited about Maisie Chan's Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu and I also can't wait to read Call Me Lion by Camilla Chester. On the picture book front: I am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang, illustrated by Natelle Quek, Friends Are Friends Forever by Dane Liu, illustrated by Lynn Scurfield.