Fresh from China

In the last two years, Cotsen has received a number of generous donations of Chinese-language books and magazines. Many of these acquisitions are picture books created by Chinese writers and illustrators in the past decade. China has at least a century-long history of publishing illustrated reading materials for the enjoyment of children, but these publications were not always the sort of picture books familiar to Western audiences. Indeed, it was not until the new millennium that short-length picture books with large, full-color illustrations began to be embraced by middle-class Chinese families.

Picture Books: A Luxury Read

Brave early attempts by Chinese publishers to produce pricey children’s content are preserved in the Cotsen collection. Lacking support from robust institutional purchasers and private citizens, however, these publications maintained only a tentative presence in the Chinese children’s book market.

Miniature accordion picture books published in China between 1955 and 1965.


Two books on an adult palm.

Outside book: Bathing and Sleeping (洗澡和睡觉 Xi zao he shui jiao). Shanghai, 1961. (Cotsen 94643) Inside book: The Swallow and the Bumblebee (燕子和黄蜂 Yan zi he huang feng). Shanghai, 1960. (Cotsen 94649)

Accordion style.

(Right) Outside book: Bathing and Sleeping [洗澡和睡觉 Xi zao he shui jiao]. Shanghai, 1961. (Cotsen 94643)
Inside book: The Swallow and the Bumblebee [燕子和黄蜂 Yan zi he huang feng]. Shanghai, 1960. (Cotsen 94649)

These tiny accordion books are one such example, published for Chinese children during the 1950s and 60s. Their small size lowered the cost of color printing, all coming in under 3 ½ inches and selling for RMB 6-10¢ each. Still, this was no trivial sum for many Chinese families. In a letter of opinion published in the Shanghai-based Wenhui Daily (文汇报) in 1958, a reader applauded the innovative folded format but commented that the price of 10¢ was “still a bit expensive” (Yang 2). To put her complaint in perspective, consider lianhuanhua (连环画), the most popular book format for older children until the mid-1980s. These lengthier illustrated story books were typically palm-sized, featuring cheap black-and-white illustrations on thin pages, and each copy could be rented for 1¢ or less at neighborhood bookstands.

The accordion style was a clever and economical design for young readers who were learning to turn book pages; it was easier for unpracticed fingers to separate double folded pages than single sheets. Obviously intended for a child’s tiny hands, the format reveals the expectation that children, however young, would read the books on their own. The majority of these miniature books contain rhyming text, and some include pinyin—the Romanized, phonetic spelling of characters—to help with pronunciation. Most of the accordion books in the Cotsen collection are well-worn, having clearly entertained young children new to the pleasure of reading.

A board book dated 1978.

The Crow and the Fox (乌鸦和狐狸 Wu ya he hu li) adapted from Aesop’s fable by Yu (吕榆, aka洪汛涛, 1928-2001) and illustrated by Zhan Tongxuan (詹同渲, 1932-1995). Shanghai: Shao nian er tong chu ban she, 1978. 12 pages, 21 cm. (Cotsen 93898)

Caption: Hearing these words the Crow was overjoyed. It stretched open its wings and admired at them, feeling as if it were indeed prettier than a peacock.

The Crow and the Fox (Cotsen 93898) is a board book published by the Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House in Shanghai in May 1978. This date is remarkably early, as the country was just stepping out of the shadow of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) at the time. The book is a beautiful rendition of Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Crow.” Color ink wash paintings by Zhan Tongxuan, a successful anime director and children’s illustrator, portray natural scenery with the elegance characteristic of traditional Chinese landscape painting. At the same time, he captures the lively personalities of animal figures with warm and playful brushstrokes. The inviting full-color visuals, brief text, and thick board pages make The Crow and the Fox suitable for the shared reading of preschoolers and their caregivers.

It is unclear what other board books Chinese children’s presses had issued at the time. What we do know is that board books were rare, and full-color picture books were not widely available in China for another two decades. The Crow and the Fox was marked at a steep price of 1.20 yuan in 1978. The publishing house was ahead of its time in producing high-quality materials when most Chinese families were not yet acquainted with early childhood literacy practices.

Imagination, Humor, and Lenient Parenting

Since the beginning of the 21st century, imported, translated titles have (re)introduced Chinese audiences to the full-color picture book. Inspired by these titles, Chinese authors and illustrators have begun creating their own works. The concept of shared reading is now continually encouraged by education scholars and parenting advocates. Cotsen’s new acquisitions reflect the latest changes and achievements in contemporary Chinese children’s literature. The new genre is nourished by a growing diversity of styles, themes, and subject matter. Particularly noticeable are the increasing number of titles intended for toddlers and preschoolers.

A peep-hole book dated 2014.
The Very Wonderful Little Pebble (好神奇的小石头) written and illustrated by Zuo Wei. Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 153830) The Very Wonderful Little Pebble (好神奇的小石头) written and illustrated by Zuo Wei. Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 153830)
The Very Wonderful Little Pebble (好神奇的小石头) written and illustrated by Zuo Wei (左伟). Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 153830)

If the title “The Very Wonderful Little Pebble” sounds familiar, you’re probably hearing echoes of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The title is not the only part of the book that bears Carle’s influence. Every other page has a pebble-shaped hole, a stable element that introduces surprising visual transformations throughout the book. Each hollow pebble takes its color from the image on the next page, seen through the cut-out. As you turn the page and reveal the rest of the image, the gray pebble becomes the body of a gray mouse; the bright yellow pebble becomes the juicy body of an Asian pear; and so on. The text first invites the reader to observe the little pebble and its color and then asks for a guess of what the pebble’s next transformation will be. Each new object is then described in short and joyful rhymes. The use of repetition and rhymes, the invitation to participate in the guessing game, the teaching of color and object names, the fun of being surprised by the humble pebble’s many transformations, and not to mention the immense satisfaction that will soon come to a toddler from getting the answers right within a few repeated readings make The Very Wonderful Little Pebble an enjoyable picture book for preschoolers.

Who Took a Bite of My Pancake (谁咬了我的大饼) written and illustrated by Xu Zhijiang (徐志江). Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154141) Who Took a Bite of My Pancake (谁咬了我的大饼) written and illustrated by Xu Zhijiang (徐志江). Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154141)
Who Took a Bite of My Pancake (谁咬了我的大饼), written and illustrated by Xu Zhijiang (徐志江). Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154141)

How terribly boring would it be if there were no humor in children’s books? Humor contributed to the immense popularity of many Chinese children’s stories published in the second half of the twentieth century, works which were otherwise didactic, nationalistic, and Communist. Humor continues to characterize contemporary Chinese picture books, which have been considerably de-politicized. In Who Took a Bite of My Pancake (Cotsen 154141), published in 2013, a good-natured piglet wakes to find a bite missing from his freshly made pancake. He begins asking around to identify the culprit. In order to prove their innocence, the suspect animals (a bird, a rabbit, a fox, etc.) take defiant bites from the pancake, so that their bite-marks can be compared to the first bite. One by one, the animals demonstrate that the first bite, which was shaped like a half-moon, could not possibly have been left by their beaks or teeth. The piglet resigns himself to enjoying what little is left of his pancake, still wondering who did it. On the last page, more perceptive readers will notice that the only bite that matches the first one is the piglet’s own. Who Took a Bite is a definite giggle-inducer. Toddlers will relish being the wiser as the piglet takes on his inevitably fruitless investigation. This flattering feeling of wisdom is not to be taken for granted at an age when everyone else in your life seems to know more than you do.

Is It Morning (天亮了吗) written by Xiao Mao (萧袤) and illustrated by Liu Xuebo (刘学波). Nanning: Jie li chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 154239) Is It Morning (天亮了吗) written by Xiao Mao (萧袤) and illustrated by Liu Xuebo (刘学波). Nanning: Jie li chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 154239)
Is It Morning (天亮了吗), written by Xiao Mao (萧袤) and illustrated by Liu Xuebo (刘学波). Nanning: Jie li chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 154239)

In Is It Morning (Cotsen 154239), we meet a young rooster on the eve of his first cock-a-doodle-doo duty. Too excited to fall asleep, he stays up lest he miss the first sign of dawn. Over the course of the night, he mistakes the glow of fireflies, the sparks of fireworks, the radiance of a shooting star, and the glare of headlights for the break of day. After so many false alarms, he is exhausted. When dawn finally does arrive, as you might have guessed, our protagonist is fast asleep.

Is It Morning is part of a 20-volume toddlers’ series titled I Have Never Thought of That (没想到: 婴儿创意图画书) (2014), which intends to teach parenting skills in addition to amuse children. Each volume contains a one-page guide to sharing the book with a child reader, often spelling out the “moral” of the story for adult caregivers. These morals break away from traditional values such as self-constraint, modesty, and perseverance, and encourage self-esteem and assertiveness in children. Overall, they advocate a parenting attitude that is more tolerant and sympathetic to children. The shared-reading guide for Is It Morning points out that it is okay to make mistakes, especially on your first try, promoting a more positive view of failure. As the guide suggests, the young rooster will be able to respond to teasing and laughter by saying, “Yes, I have overslept and missed my crow duty, but last night I saw the dance of fireflies, beautiful explosions of fireworks, and the shining journey of a shooting star.”

Do I have to go to sleep when evening falls?

The owl, “No, I won’t.”

I Won’t (就不), written by Gong Ruping (巩孺萍) and illustrated by Dou Dou Yu (豆豆鱼). Nanning: Jie li chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen 154239)

In another title I Won’t (Cotsen 154239), the shared-reading guide warns that it is unhealthy for children to bottle up their feelings and remain constantly obedient, a message that is alien to traditional Chinese culture. The guide suggests that such repressive parenting strategies have the potential to cause estrangement in the long run. In I Won’t, a little girl finds a voice and an emotional outlet through “disobedient” animals who are not afraid of saying “no” to commands. Revolutionary as the message sounds, it reflects a shift of what children are most valued for–from being a source of material returns to that of emotional rewards.

Authors and Illustrators Renewed

A sign of vitality in the world of Chinese picture books is the even distribution of authors along the age spectrum. These new picture book titles are created by a range of writers and illustrators, including Wang Xiaoming (王晓明, born in 1945), a nominee for the 2004 Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration, and a young, accidental author, Shao Yinjie ( born in the late 1990s). Shao and his mother got the idea for their picture book when he became disgruntled about eating “the same old breakfast” yet again (Shao).

The Big Cardboard Box (大纸箱), written and illustrated by Zhong Yu. Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154137) The Big Cardboard Box (大纸箱), written and illustrated by Zhong Yu. Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154137)
The Big Cardboard Box (大纸箱), written and illustrated by Zhong Yu (钟彧). Nanjing: Nanjing shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2013. (Cotsen 154137)

Zhong Yu (born in 1985) won a picture book award for her drawings of a girl’s imaginative play with a cardboard box. The girl’s resourcefulness and creative mind transform the box into an airplane up in the sky one minute and a fancy restaurant dining table the next. She might be able to offer a few tips to the contestants in the annual Cardboard Canoe Race at Princeton, wouldn’t you say?

Caption: [If you like grass for breakfast,] then you might be an ox, or a sheep, or a horse, or an elephant.
What Do You Like for Breakfast? (早餐, 你喜欢吃什么?), written by Yin Xiuhua (殷秀华) and Shao Yinjie (邵殷杰); illustrated by Zhou Xiang (周翔). Nanjing, 201-. (Cotsen 154138)

What Do You Like for Breakfast? (Cotsen 154138) plays with the food habits of animals, repeating the pattern “If you like X (e.g. fish) for breakfast, then you might be a Y (e.g. cat)” throughout. It also builds upon the deep-seated assumption that children naturally identify themselves with animals, or perhaps upon adults’ subconscious association of children with animals and lesser humans. The book seamlessly switches from describing various animals to describing a toddler at the end: “If you like bread, egg, and milk for breakfast, then you might be a human child.” If these foods are not the “authentic” Chinese breakfast you’d expect, it is worth knowing that they are common on the breakfast tables of contemporary urban Chinese families, a reflection of constantly changing and partially Westernized lifestyles in the country.

The Chinese picture book industry faces some of the same old hurdles it did more than half a century ago. Lacking the backing of strong institutional purchasers, most children’s books clearly rely on individual buyers and are kept at the low price of 8-10 yuan (under $2 USD). Nearly all have been issued in softback edition alone and are not ideal for a public library to collect and shelve. We can only hope that Chinese picture books are here to stay this time, bringing color, joy, and useful knowledge to children in 21st century China, as well as enriching children’s literature for the whole world.


The list of individuals, authors, publishers, and a peer library that made generous donations of Chinese children’s literature to Cotsen in the past two years is too long to appear here. Special thanks goes to the Dong fan wa wa (东方娃娃) magazine, Jieli (接力) Publishing House, professors Tan Fengxia (谈凤霞, Nanjing Normal University, China), Zhu Ziqiang (朱自强) and Luo Yirong (罗贻荣, Ocean University of China), Mei Zihan (梅子涵, Shanghai Normal University), Qi Tongwei (齐童巍, Hangzhou Dianzi University), and Hou Ying (侯颖, Northeast Normal University, China), and Yunhe (云和) Public Library of Zhejiang Province.


Shao, Yinjie. “《早餐,你喜欢吃什么?》诞生记” [The birth of What Do You Like for Breakfast?]. 2014. Web.

Yang, Xiaomei. “对新形式小画片的意见” [Criticism of Small Pictures in a New Format]. Wen hui bao: 2. 26 May 1958. Print.

(Edited by Melody Edwards)

Harry Potter and the Mystery of the Author’s Name

(Written by Team Cotsen)

An O.W.L.-level quiz

But what’s in a name really? We could say that names are important. Think of how much effort parents put into giving their new baby the perfect name. Or we could argue that names do not really matter. After all “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Confucius cautioned that “if names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things”. But names just do so often fail to tell us anything useful about their possessors. Names can even be disadvantageous to their owners when they are interpreted through sweeping generalizations and preconceived bias.

Writer J.K. Rowling knows all about the contradictory nature of names—their undeniable influence and false promises.  When naming characters in the wizarding world of the Harry Potter series, she masterfully plays with the meaning, form, and sound of names. Think of Professor Trelawney, who teaches at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As a Divination teacher and the great-great-granddaughter of a celebrated seer, she is appropriately named “Sibyll” after Sibyl, prophetess in Greek legend. Her telling first name and impressive pedigree notwithstanding, Sibyll Trelawney appears to be an untalented fake with no real foretelling skills to pass along to young witches and wizards. However, after we have all dismissed her as a fraud, like Hermione has early on, we gradually learn that Sibyll is the progenitor of major prophecies that have had a profound impact. An irony turns on its head.

Or think of Tom Riddle. In bygone days when he answered to his birth name, Tom is known as school prefect, Head Boy, and winner of the Award for Special Services to the School. Handsome and well-liked by most Hogwarts teachers, Tom is expected to head for a spectacular future. In the story Tom himself tinkers with the power of naming by making a riddle out of it (see what I did there?). He anagrams his own full name Tom Marvolo Riddle in order to create his darker moniker out of the same letters–I am Lord Voldemort. When Tom reappears under that new title, he fashions a new identity imbued with so much terror that its mere mention sends fearsome vibes around, a bit like the naming of the Devil in superstition or black magic legends.

Other Harry Potter characters have suggestive names: for instance, Lupin, Black, Malfoy, as well as Harry.  Lupin’s name suggests his werewolf aspect and seems to add a sinister touch to his character in a world where neither Harry nor the reader knows whom to trust. Similarly, Sirius Black is first presented as a villain, a supposed “mass murderer” and a practitioner of dark magic.  Both names belie the true nature of these wizards’ benevolence (and their canine associations), as the reader discovers only after events unfold in the books.  Malfoy?  Bad faith, bad intentions, malefactor…  What about Harry?  Harry is a common nickname for Henry in England. Henry V, one of the great heroes of English history, is generally called “Harry” in Shakespeare’s play Henry V. What better, and more typically English, first name could there be for a heroic young wizard?

Some characters’ names seem to evoke the old-time and eccentric world of Harry Potter.  Filch, Snape, Slughorn, for instance.  All could be characters’ names out of a Charles Dickens’s novel, along with the likes of Pecksniff, Chuzzlewit, Magwitch, Miss Haversham, and Uriah Heep.

Meanwhile in the muggle world, Rowling and her publishers know all about the promises and misgivings of naming firsthand. Most people have noticed that the title of the first volume differs between British and American editions (Philosopher’s Stone versus Sorcerer’s Stone). The book’s American publisher, A.A. Levine Books, felt that the medieval alchemical connotations of the “Philosopher’s Stone” would be lost on an American audience, and that the alliteration of sorcerer and stone was more pleasing anyway. It is likewise common knowledge that her editor at Bloomsbury Publishing suggested using initials on the book cover of the first edition so as not to give away Rowling’s gender. A female author named “Joanne” was considered a potential turn-off for boy readers (and might still be perceived so, despite the phenomenal contributions that writers like Rowling and Suzanne Collins have made to the genre). Not to mention that the use of initials conjures up an association with older male English scholars and authors in the genre, such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Common knowledge—at least we thought it was, until a passage found in Marja Mills’s new book, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee (Penguin, 2014), made the children’s literature community do a double take at the issue:

“Harper Lee” had other benefits that became clear early on. Especially in the early years, not everyone knew the author was a woman. The name could be either. Would S.E. Hinton’s novel about troubled Tulsa teens have taken hold the way it did, especially with boys, if the name on the cover was Susan Eloise Hinton? Joanne Rowling published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone under that name, but her publishers were looking at the marketplace and so her future books came out under J.K. Rowling. (Mills, 224)

Did Rowling really publish the first installment of her fantasy series under “Joanne,” and change to “J. K.” in the second volume? On the Child_Lit mailing list where the question was posed, even die-hard Harry Potter fans and senior children’s literature scholars were confused by that statement for a moment, unsure if what they had remembered was accurate (Levin et al.).

We think the Cotsen Children’s Library can help clear up the confusion! After a nauseating (as usual) ride accompanied by a trusted libngo to the deepest vaults of Rare Books and Special Collections, we have emerged with several copies of Harry Potter books in their earliest published forms. (You have never heard of “libngos”? They are the special agents who guard library treasures. Yeah, we know the name is a mouthful and, occasionally, our libngos have been disgruntled that their title does not sound as fantastical as that of their colleagues who work for Gringotts.)

A few Harry Potter copies housed at the Cotsen Children’s Library. From left to right: an uncorrected proof (Cotsen 52989); first American edition (Cotsen 21739); a German translation (Cotsen 16930).

A few Harry Potter copies housed at the Cotsen Children’s Library. From left to right: an uncorrected proof (Cotsen 52989), first American edition (Cotsen 21739), and a German translation (Cotsen 16930).

You may have noticed that the name “J.K. Rowling” is not ubiquitous in all editions. The German edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire above displays the name “Joanne K. Rowling” on the cover, which encourages the speculation that the initials-and-last-name format does not carry the same connotation in Germany as it does in Anglophone countries.

Let’s take a closer look at the different editions of the first volume we have here at Cotsen.

First up, our earliest copy, the 1997 uncorrected proof of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (52989):

52989 front cover

The familiar initials “J. K.” are found here on the cover.

52989 title page

But the title page ascription has a typo! Apparently J. A. Rowling wrote this book . . . good thing it is just the uncorrected proof.

52989 copyright page

Notice how the copyright is issued to “Joanne Rowling.”

52989 signature

Cotsen’s copy is even signed by the author, as J.K. Rowling.

Next up, our copy of the 1998 first American edition, first issue (46385):

46385: The very familiar ascription to "J.K. Rowling" and Mary GrandPré cover art introduced the series to millions of American children, young adults, and grown-ups.

The very familiar ascription to “J.K. Rowling” and Mary GrandPré cover art introduced the series to millions of American children, young adults, and grown-ups.

46385: the title page with the vignette of Hogwarts

the title page with the vignette of Hogwarts

21739 copyright page

Unlike the British edition, the ascription “Joanne Rowling” does not appear on the copyright page of the American edition, or anywhere else for that matter.

46385: On the back of the dust jacket, notice how the author is referred to as the single mother "Ms. Rowling."

On the back of the dust jacket, notice how the author is referred to as the single mother “Ms. Rowling.”

Last but not least (and drum roll please), a copy of the definitive 1997 first British edition, first issue (Cotsen 36550):

36550: A much less familiar front cover, illustrated by Thomas Taylor.

A much less familiar front cover, illustrated by Thomas Taylor.

36550: Title page ascribed to J. K. Rowling!

Title page ascribed to J. K. Rowling!

36550: The copyright, however, is ascribed here to Joanna Rowling.

The copyright, however, is ascribed here to Joanne Rowling.

36550 back cover

back cover

A modest number of hardbound copies were printed for the first issue of the first British edition. Various sources on the Internet have given that total number as 350 or 500, and indicated that at least 300 of them were distributed to libraries. Cotsen has acquired one of the ex-library copies. Judging by the frayed book covers and by the crowded circulation stamps, which run to a second charge slip not shown in the photo below, this copy must have served the residents of Carlisle, UK very well.

36550 library stamp

The original owning library stamped front paste down endpaper.

36550: first charge slip

Though it is hard to make out here, the earliest stamped check-out date is “Sept. 11, 1998.”

In short, the answer to the quiz that began this post is: All of the following!

Quiz answer. Five points to...which house are you?


Levin, Sharon, et al. “Quick question, re: original cover for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.Child_lit., 3 Sept. 2014. Web. 8 Sept. 2014.

Mills, Marja. The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee. New York: The Penguin Press, 2014. Print.

If that’s not enough Harry Potter love for you, check out these miniatures and doll houses made by Sally Wallace featured on Cotsen’s outreach blog:


Pop Goes The Page: Magical Miniatures