There I was looking through Google Images at spider after spider—and I an arachnophobe since early childhood. I was searching for an eight-legged creature that might plausibly be found in the rice paddies of Guangdong, China. In my academic writings on the history of agricultural science, I just note the significance of spiders for controlling insect pests and move on. But now the illustrator of the book I had written for children wanted to know what the spider in our story should look like. The hours I spent looking for a suitable spider served as a kind of exposure therapy. I’m less afraid of them now than I ever remember being. I’m also more aware of just how many things I don’t know in my area of expertise: the history of agricultural science in socialist China.
In fact, “exposure” makes a good overarching theme for my journey in writing Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong’s Work for Sustainable Farming. The title itself—its absurd length and characteristic format—marks me inescapably as an academic. My name on the cover and photo on the back flap has also exposed something deep that my colleagues avoid discussing but many other people want to know: how does a white woman with a German last name, born and raised in the US, claim to speak about the experiences of Chinese people? Academics rarely question one another’s authority to speak on “our” subjects. Suddenly I have to confront just how much I depend on those three letters (Ph.D.) and how little they can mean outside academic circles.
In children’s book publishing, if the author does not have ethnic credibility, the illustrator needs to make up for it. (This is standard in the industry; my publisher did not make it up!) So the editor found and hired a talented new illustrator named Melanie Chan. As it turned out, Melanie was not Chinese either—her husband’s family was. Another exposure, this time of American assumptions about race and authenticity: Melanie’s authority exceeded mine by just one letter (C-h-a-n to my P-h-D).
And yet, Melanie is connected to China in ways that enriched the book tremendously, and her name was the clue to that connection. Her husband’s ancestral village is in a part of Guangdong not that far from where our story takes place, which meant she could draw on the knowledge of her in-laws and on her own visits to the area. Less tangibly, Melanie’s aesthetic sensibility appears satisfyingly “Chinese” not just to Americans, but to people in China as well. Academics might see this as evidence undermining essentialist views of culture: despite our different social positions and relations to political power, we each inherit a cultural heritage far more diverse than usually recognized. My non-academic Chinese friends would more likely point to yuanfen—the cosmic connection that brings people together, often against the odds. It’s what they often generously use to underscore the rightness of my being in China; maybe it’s also what brought Melanie and me together in this picture book on insect control in Guangdong.
One of my goals in the book is to share with children an example of Chinese people working for environmental sustainability, in contrast to the images of Chinese polluters that dominate Western media. I am also excited to introduce a way of thinking about scientific knowledge—as produced by scientists and farmers working together—that was characteristic of socialist-era China. But within the worlds of publishing and education, the most fundamental purpose of such a book is to “expose” young readers to China. To accomplish such exposure, the book has to look immediately and recognizably “Chinese,” which means clearly different from the worlds inhabited by the target audience.
But what “looks Chinese”? The line between iconic and stereotypic proves troubling. Peasants in conical hats scream “China” to American audiences, but that is a stereotype—perhaps deriving from the history of the US war in Vietnam. The hats of farmers in Guangdong are too similar to our own straw hats to “look Chinese,” so we needed to find other visual cues for the cover. Meanwhile the design concept that Melanie originally chose for the borders (intricate, polished wood carvings) “looked Chinese” and reached the bar of cultural authenticity in a broad sense, but I felt the carvings represented too elite an aesthetic for 1970s rural China. In the end Melanie found a perfect alternative: the art of paper cutting is recognizably Chinese, “traditional,” and yet folksy enough that it was affordable for Chinese rural people and easily accommodated within revolutionary politics.
In truth, few picture book authors are allowed as much contact with illustrators as I had. An important part of the editor’s job is to prevent pushy authors from squashing the artist’s creativity. Contrary to what many people assume, picture book illustrators are not there to draw what the author dictates; they are full partners in the creative process. In our case, Melanie brought a whole new angle to the depiction of history: she conceived of the narrator actively curating his memories by painting pictures, tearing pages from his field notebooks, cutting out photographs, and assembling all of these, along with the paper cuttings, into a scrap book memorializing his mentor, Pu Zhelong. My respect for the contributions of both the illustrator and the editor grew every day we worked together, and I very much hope I succeeded in my efforts not to overstep my authority. That kind of restraint was something of a new experience for me in publishing. Whether or not we deserve it, academic publishers treat scholars with a deference we’re unlikely to find if we venture into the world of children’s literature. The exposure, in all senses, is worth it.