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Children’s literature can help build empathy and cultural understanding. basheem

How children’s literature shapes attitudes to Asia

Australia’s relationship with Asia has always been a focus for heated debate and, often, misunderstanding. What role do books play in moulding this relationship?

A research project underway at the Queensland University of Technology seeks to answer that question by investigating the role of children’s literature in shaping young readers’ attitudes to Australia’s past, present and future relations with Asia.

Tony Abbott’s government has come under fire for its handling of diplomatic relations with our near neighbours in Asia – and for abandoning his predecessor’s Asian Century approach to foreign policy.

The Asian-Australian Children’s Literature and Publishing project seeks to document the different ways in which Australian children’s literature has dealt with Asia since multiculturalism became federal government policy in 1972. It includes a wide range of works that contain Asian-Australian content, characters, setting, cultures and experiences – as well as hundreds of works of Australian children’s literature that have been translated into Asian languages.

Children’s literature and intercultural understanding

Australian children’s literature has a long publishing history – it dates back to the early 19th century.

With the advent of multiculturalism under Gough Whitlam in Australia in the 1970s, the conservative views towards cultural difference that dominated early publishing began to give way to a more positive vision of cultural exchange and celebration.

Since the mid 1990s further shifts in the literature have reflected Australia’s changing and sometimes controversial policies regarding immigration, asylum seekers and refugees. Children’s literature has the potential to deepen intercultural understanding by offering young readers an empathetic viewpoint to human suffering, and by presenting different storytellers who reflect a diversity of cultural experience and history.

Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2006). AAP Image/ALMA, Shaun Tan

Through international scholarly organisations such as the Australasian Children’s Literature Association for Research and the International Research Society in Children’s Literature, Australian children’s literature is being discussed alongside other global literatures. These cultural exchanges inform the research and teaching of children’s literature in universities and schools.

A further means for disseminating information about Australian literature is through AustLit. Led by the University of Queensland, AustLit is a non-profit, research-driven collaboration between a network of researchers from Australian universities and the National Library of Australia.

The Asian-Australian Children’s Literature and Publishing (AACLAP) is a research project within AustLit that has been developed by Queensland University of Technology.

Attitudes to Asia

The AACLAP project is a strategic response to growing interest in Asian-Australian relations and the push for Asia literacy in Australian schools.

Asian-Australian Children’s Literature and Publishing project logo. Kathy Panton/AACLAP

One of the three cross-curriculum priorities of the Australian national curriculum is to incorporate “Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia” in educating young Australians about the region, its languages, cultures, and literature. The importance of access to a comprehensive dataset of Asian-Australian children’s texts is underscored by the requirements of this national curriculum.

This is especially so in English and History where students are expected to read contemporary world literature, including texts from and about Asia, and develop an enhanced intercultural understanding.

AACLAP attempts to capture the diversity of intercultural relations through a comprehensive bibliographic dataset of children’s literature published during a 43-year period from the beginning of official multiculturalism in Australia in 1970 up to the present time (2013).


The dataset currently contains 1,400 records that include autobiographical works, fiction, criticism, poetry, drama, short stories, film, manga, and picture books.

As Asia is a region of great diversity across languages, histories, and ethnic groups, AACLAP focuses on texts predominantly about South and East Asia (including a selection about the Middle East) that have been published in Australia, or written and/or illustrated by Australians, including writers of Asian heritage (such as Gabrielle Wang, Shaun Tan, Alice Pung and Chris Cheng).

It also includes Australian works that have been translated into at least one Asian language, with emphasis on Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Hindi.

The future of Asian-Australian children’s literature

The dataset has thrown up some surprises.

There are only a small number of Asian-Australian authors writing about Asia in children’s/young adult fiction and there are very few books where the first-person narrator or main character is Asian or Asian-Australian.

Also surprisingly, there are very few Australian works with Asian content that have been translated into an Asian language – translations are primarily made up of award-winning or well-known Australian authors (such as Pamela Allen and Mem Fox) and works that invoke iconic imagery of Australia such as the bush and the Anzac legend.

While anime and manga are growing in popularity globally, there are very few such works published in Australia or by Australian writers for children or young adults. Queenie Chan and Madeleine Rosca have written original English language manga, and Emily Rodda’s Deltora Quest has been adapted into both anime and manga, so it will be interesting to see what the future holds with respect to these issues.

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