Witness China’s New Love: the Changing Landscape of Chinese Children’s Literature

When I registered for the Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair in November 2017, I did not know what to expect. The idea of China hosting a fair fully dedicated to children’s book publishing would seem bold less than five years ago, when the book fair was first established. The state of publishing for children was sorry in China in the 1990s and the early 2000s. You visited the juvenile section of a bookstore and were assaulted by shelves of supplementary study materials and test preparation books, the most lucrative business of Chinese publishers for youth. Books in the public domain, such as Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm, and Andrew Lang were relentlessly reprinted. Choices for families with preschoolers were especially limited. Since the mid-2000s, however, children’s book market has grown rapidly in China.

Over the course of three days at the book fair I was variously surprised, impressed, and delighted. As many as 150 exhibitors and publishers crowded the massive exhibition hall of the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center. Specialized children’s houses do not have a monopoly on children’s books, which have lured numerous general publishing companies and even unlikely competitors such as Chinese university presses!

Publisher’s promotion of a Chinese language learning series, which teaches characters through their origin in hieroglyphs.

An astounding number of children’s writers, illustrators, critics, and scholars from both China and other countries were giving talks and panel discussions, promoting books, and interacting with the public at the fair.

Cao Wenxuan, the first and only Chinese author to win the Hans Christian Andersen award, and Helen Wang, the British translator of his award-winning novel Bronze and Sunflower, met for the first time and had a conversation on the art of translation. The session was moderated by Liz Page, Executive Director of the International Board on Books for Young People.

If the book fair exuded all the vibe of an annual American Library Association Conference and Exhibition, the semblance broke down when, instead of meeting fellow librarians galore, I found that the majority of visitors seemed to be caregivers tethered to youngsters. The gigantic exhibition hall was flooded with children and their adults, some of whom had travelled from nearby cities, booking up hotels as far as two or three metro stops away.

I looked up what was holding the interest of this proudly crowned boy reader. It was a title from Uncle Leo’s Adventures series, by Israeli writer Yannets Levi and illustrator Yaniv Shimony, translated from Hebrew into Chinese. Each Chinese character in the book is marked with pinyin pronunciation guide to make it a bridge book for beginning readers.

The international scope of children’s books offered at the fair also made it different from what are typically available in the US, where translated children’s literature is hard to come by and “international” titles are quite so often equivalent to imports from Britain and Australia. Chinese publishers closely monitor children book awards, bestselling lists, and starred titles in review sources abroad, and snatch up foreign translation rights.

One Chinese publisher translated many winners of Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava (BIB), which, held in the capital city of Slovakia since 1967, is a competition exhibition of original illustrations to children’s books. In the course of fifty years of BIB history, and its 25 exhibitions, a total of 7,580 illustrators from 110 countries have presented original illustrations for 9,500 books.

New Talents: Illustrators of the Millennial Generation

The book fair held its own illustration contest called Golden Pinwheel Young Illustrators Competition. The breathtaking works exhibited at the fair were all created by artists born between 1980 and the 1990s. They are definitely new names to look out for in future picture books.

Seven Khane Esfandiar by Zahra Mohamadnejad (Iran)

Based on the story of “The Seven Trials of Esfandiar,” a famous episode from The Shahnameh, which is an epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between 977 and 1010 CE. Prince Esfandiar, a legendary Iranian hero, must rescue his two sisters who had been abducted by the king of Turan Arjaasb. He had to accomplish seven dangerous tasks before he could reach the Roein Fortress, meaning “Invincible Fortress,” where he battled the king.*

The Forest in Me by Adolfo Serra (Spain)

A visual meditation on the forest and its metaphor: “To walk into the forest is to walk into yourself. The forest is a journey, where we can find our fears as well as our dreams, and even discover the forest that grows within us.”

The Golden Mustaches and the Red Sweater by Yu Yin俞寅 (China)

An old granny liked to sit at the window and knit her sweater. The Sun came to watch her knit every day, and then his golden mustache was accidentally woven into the sweater. What a tantrum the Sun threw! But what could he do about the granny, who could not see well and was quite deaf? The economy of color accounts for half of the charm of the pictures.

Timeless Island by Tu Qianwen涂倩雯 (China)

When a young girl learns that her dog can live for only twenty years, she launches a journey to look for the Timeless Island, a place with no time, so that she and her dog can have each other’s company forever.

The Escape of School Bags by Kiki Ni倪思琪 (China)

A story that deals with the issue of school corporal punishment. The artist plays with size and color to visualize emotional tension.

The Adventure of Little Tadpoles in Search for Their Mom by Mango Xu徐虹艳 (China)

A retelling of “Little Tadpoles Look for Their Mummy,” a story known by every Chinese school kid. Danger and deception await the inexperienced but determined tadpoles!

Music Life by Zhu Yu朱昱 (China)

“Draw a moon for the lonely night sky, and draw me singing under the moon.” The caption of the pictures is taken from “Drawing,” a pop song written by Zhao Lei. The lyric is loosely inspired by Ma Liang and His Magic Brush (Princeton collection), a Chinese fairy tale about a poor boy with a magic brush. Whatever he paints with that brush immediately materializes. The boy thus uses the powerful brush to help poor people and punish greedy and abusive officials. In the guitar song, a young singer draws as if he had been given a magic brush, longing for a life that is free from stress and loneliness.

The Reeds by Birfish春鱼秋鸟 (China)

A beautiful rendition of “Jian Jia”蒹葭, a poem from The Classic of Poetry诗经, the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC.

A tree grew in the children’s book fair.

This red-trunked tree, bearing fruit of children’s books, grew in the exhibition hall. It perhaps best captures the changing landscape of children’s publishing in China. Chinese families have found a new love for children’s literature; and children’s literature, created by Chinese and international talents, will prosper in this land.

Acknowledgment

*Description courtesy of Dr. Razieh Taasob.

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