Serendipity 2012 Year of the Dragon

Origami cranes in the foyer of the Neville Scarfe Building.

Waking up at 6:30 on a very windy Saturday is only worth it once a year–for the Serendipity Children’s Literature Conference, organized by the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable. Held at the Neville Scarfe Education Building, this year’s theme was the Year of the Dragon, exploring Asian children’s literature. One thousand beautiful paper cranes flew from the ceiling of the hall, Vancouver Kidsbooks was on hand with all the authors’ books, and beautiful silent auction goodies, from original artwork to bundles of books, were on display as well.

The morning started off with an autographing session with the this year’s authors–Paul Yee, Lisa Yee, and Allen Say. We all gathered in the auditorium and were guided through the day’s events by the always charming, witty Shannon Ozirny, graced with a fascinator of a dragon made by origami artist Joseph Wu.

Tanya Lloyd Kyi explains her motivation for writing a book about fire for young readers.

First off was the winner of the information book award, Tanya Lloyd Kyi, who was honoured for her work 50 Burning Questions: A Sizzling History of Fire.  Kyi’s entertaining presentation on “Pump up the Facts,” discussed her approach to making facts palatable and interesting enough to pique the curiosity of eleven-year old readers, or at least, the eleven year old in all of us. It also helped that she donned a pair of underpants over her trousers, in honour of her newest book on facts about underwear.

Paul Yee gives a thought-provoking talk.

Paul Yee followed, with his impassioned presentation that was both a retrospective of his own journey as a writer, as well as an exploration of the socio-historical forces that shaped the choices he made and continues to make. Tracing his early activism in promoting Chinese culture in Vancouver’s Chinatown, to his exploration of the Chinese Canadian immigrant experience, to tapping back to the roots of immigrant experience, in China proper, Yee shows that he asks difficult questions of himself and his audience.  Particularly moving was his own journey of choosing to be openly gay in his adulthood. He is never satisfied or complacent about where he is in his writing life,  and ended with the question that he will challenge himself in the future: “How can I be even more inclusive?”

Marjorie Coughlan and Corrine Robson, co-editors of presented on their award-winning website that honours children’s books around the world, particularly in the Pacific Rim.  Packed with interviews, visual portfolios of artists, and book reviews, the website also has a blog and details the various kinds of outreach initiatives of PaperTigers, such as their books and water program, that provides drinking water and quenches the intellectual and creative thirst of young readers in communities around the world as well.

Allen Say recalls his artistic process in creating Kamishibai Man.

Distinguished artist and writer Allen Say gave a more intimate and informal talk, where images he shared onscreen prompted him to bring to light a story or memory of his artistic journey  (it felt almost like experiencing memories from a Pensieve). We were given glimpses into his studio, his creative process of painting, and the personal element of the lives he touched through his work. For example, he shared about how his own idea for Erika-san, a book detailing the experiences of a westerner living in Japan, came into fruition when he ran into a young woman who used to teach in Japan, and missed being there. We also learned of his forthcoming book, called The Favourite Daughter.  A most poignant came from sharing about a dear friend and fellow art apprentice with whom he’d lost touch, and how he sent a photograph of that friend to him in Japan. The day that friend received the photo was also the day he passed on, and his widow’s heartfelt letter to Say left not a dry eye or untouched heart in the audience.

During lunch, conference attendees had a chance to ply their paper-art skills, and learned to make a dragon from origami master Joseph Wu. You can find more information about his amazing paper creations at his website. To dispel any post-lunch napping tendencies, Serendipity’s afternoon session started off with the colourful and beguiling Shiamak’s Bollywood jazz dancers, who followed their own mesmerizing routine by pulling audience members onstage and teaching the entire auditorium a fun routine.

Lisa Yee talks about Millicent Min, Girl Genius.

The amazing Lisa Yee gave the last talk of the day, with her usual humour, candour, and energy. She shared about how she became more aware of her cultural background when it was challenged–such as when a company who wanted to make a TV show about Millicent Min, Girl Genius, proposed that it be done only on condition the protagonist was changed to a white character. Yee talked about how people have challenged her for not fully exploring her characters’ Asian ethnicity, and stands by her vision of capturing the stories of characters who happen to be Asian, but whose ethnicity isn’t the centre of the story. Lisa also shared about the inspiration for her writing her newest book, about the invisible and bullied Marley Sandelski, in Warp Speed: a boy who never spoke in class asked in one of her school visits that he ‘needed’ to know what happened to Marley, that he would be okay after being betrayed by Stanford Wong in one of her earlier books. Lisa wrote Warp Speed in response to that, to find Marley’s story, and ended with a stirring reading of a critical moment in the book.

The panel of speakers answering audience questions at the end of the day.

All in all, another Serendipity that challenged, entertained, and inspired. While united by the theme of Asian children’s literature, it was never limited by that scope, but celebrated the artistic integrity and vision of each presenter, as well as charging the audience to carry some of their spirit in our work to promote children’s books wherever we go. Kudos to all who brought this year’s Serendipity about, and many many thanks to the wonderful presenters! We are already excited for what 2013 will hold for Serendipity.

For more pictures and a video of the Shiamak Bollywood dance routine (not to mention Shannon Ozirny’s dragon fascinator!), check out the Flickr account for the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable!

Thank you to Kay Weisman and Ellen Wu (author) at CLASC for sharing this article.