Blogger Ellen Riordan

ONE OF OUR OWN

On my trip to Beijing to attend the Chinese Library Association, I was struck by how different everything was from America. Perhaps this seems to go without saying but I had never been as immersed in a culture and a language that had no foothold for me. There to speak about our Caldecott Award, my only point of reference was the familiar illustrations from much beloved books though I couldn’t recognize a word of text.

One of our hosts, Mr. Wang, is head of the National Children’s Library. He is an energetic, brisk man who dresses very formally in a blue suit. Despite his habit of looking to our translators when he needed to make a point and wanted to talk fast, Mr. Wang understood English very well. I could tell by the way he would nod his head vigorously in agreement when we spoke about our work: its ability to build communication between parents and children, the elusive quality of “excellence,” the fact that every book, even excellent ones, is not good for every child. I sensed that Mr. Wang was truly one of us.

On our last day, over lunch, Mr. Wang and I found ourselves next to each other. It seemed as if there was an unspoken desire on his part to see if he could talk to me on his own. I was only too glad to try. I asked Mr. Wang if the conference and our participation in it was what he had hoped for. I didn’t look at my translator, seated nearby, but waited patiently to see what he would say.

“Oh yes.” He said in English. “We had a good discussion and a good time.”

I was glad about that. The Chinese Library Association Annual Conference is an important event, the premier professional event of librarians, and is filled with much pomp and circumstance: awards, speeches and an elaborate closing ceremony that was to take place that afternoon. I asked Mr. Wang if he were going to attend the closing ceremony.

“No.” he said emphatically, again in English, “I will not be there.”

I was surprised by his answer. Mr. Wang had been a careful, studious host who had presided over our talks, meetings and library visits with care and professionalism. That he would miss the official ceremony of the conference was not in keeping with his bureaucratic demeanor. I was careful not to ask why.

He looked at his watch. “I am telling stories to children at two o’clock today.”

I smiled.

“Yes, I tell stories to children in schools. I do this to show the staff, my staff, that we all must go out. It is a way to bring the children into the libraries.”

I nodded.

“Through stories then they will come back to us. “

I couldn’t have expressed our purpose more meaningfully in any language. Sometimes no translation is necessary.

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