By Anna Cavallo
In creating K-12 nonfiction, we’re always trying to balance the big picture with the details—taking care with the little stuff without losing track of the big stuff. It’s the details that sometimes need careful fact-checking, and I think the details will often stick with a reader—a “fun fact” that piques an interest, an image that leaves an impression, a rich diagram or graphic that helps a student connect information.
Sometimes getting the details right is more involved than a simple fact-check or photo choice. In Millbrook’s Life in Ancient Civilizations series, illustrator Samuel Hiti researched each civilization to bring ancient peoples to life with thorough accuracy. Then the last chapter of each book gave a kind of update on the fall of the civilization, its legacy, and the modern civilization of the area. For The Chinese: Life in China’s Golden Age, it seemed appropriate to include an illustration of a bustling modern Chinese city scene, dense with commercial stores, billboards, and signs. However, although reference photos of downtown Hong Kong or Shanghai are pretty easy to find, there was one complicating factor in that brilliant plan: neither the illustrator nor any of us editors knew how to read or write Chinese characters, which would need to appear on store signs, billboards, etc.
So. What to do? There wasn’t exactly time to learn to write Chinese. And there’s no faking Chinese characters—we wouldn’t be able to use the equivalent of illegible squiggles. Hmm. Scrap the idea? No, no… it seemed worth doing and worth doing right.
Here’s where we happily exploit the connections our colleagues have! I found out that a Chinese author who had been working with another editor could graciously help us out. Within days I had a list of words/phrases that might appear on store signs, and the characters for each—in both traditional and simplified Chinese (each used commonly in different parts of China). Talk about details! This was exactly what we were hoping for. The list went straight to Samuel Hiti, who used it in the gorgeous city scene he created:
(Click on image to enlarge.) In the end we were confident that the characters Sam carefully copied out added a lot to the art. Maybe a child who knows Chinese will be excited to recognize the writing; maybe a reader will be fascinated by how different Chinese writing looks from English writing and will want to learn more about Chinese. It’s these possibilities that keep us attuned to the details in each book.
And for the curious, among the list of translations were characters for: Bank, Blue Sun Toys, bus stop, Fashion, Finest Silk, Golden Phoenix Restaurant, Jade Mall, Shopping Paradise, Singing Swallow Travel Agency, and more!
Photo credit: Agnieszka Bojczuk, 2003, Wikimedia Commons