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.


*Description courtesy of Dr. Razieh Taasob.

If it’s Almost Microscopic, is it a (Real) Book? “Le Bijou des enfans pour l’année 1817”

Can you judge a book by its cover? Cover of: Bijou des enfans pour l’année 1817 (Paris: [1816?]) at 28 mm tall (Cotsen 46176)

You can’t judge a books by its cover, the old saying goes. That’s true enough, for the most part. The body of the binding isn’t necessarily a window onto the soul of the printed text within.  The early quarto publications of Shakespeare’s plays were offered for sale in unbound sheets, or sometimes in plain paper wrappers when first published. The simple green wrappers of the first edition of James’ Joyce’s Ulysses (with just author and title simply printed on the upper wrapper) provide no hint of the revolutionary narrative lurking inside. The unimpressive, and well-handled, covers of George Bickham’s 1750 Pretty-Book give no sign that the book is now a unique surviving copy. (You can’t get much more “rare” than that!).

There are some exceptions to this truism, of course.  Some book covers do signal the content inside: children’s books with bright (loud?) chromolithographed wrappers or covers, artists’ books with complex cover designs or engineered paper, or medieval “treasure bindings,” such as the gold, silver, and gem-encrusted “Magnificent Gems” on exhibit recently at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Bespoke morocco bindings of the book? Or is it “just” the box?

The idea of judging a book by its cover — and being surprised by it — was certainly brought home to me recently while working with the Cotsen Library’s copy of Le bijou des enfans pour l’anée 1817 (Paris: Chez Janet, [1816?]).  The cover, or so I thought, at first looked like a nice, bespoke maroon morocco binding for a nineteenth-century book, apparently in a protective sleeve.  Take a look for yourself!  But then as I (gently) pulled the “book” out, I realized it wasn’t really the cover of a book at all, but rather part of a protective box of some kind.  The plot thickened…

Opening up the clamshell box, a real surprise awaited me.  Inside was a tiny book — one of the smallest I’ve ever seen (at 28 mm., barely more than 1 inch)– and also a magnifying glass, an artifactual magnifying glass,to boot, which appeared to be roughly contemporary with the book, which is bound in crimson roan — probably a publisher’s binding (and definitely cheaper than the later bespoke morocco binding of the case).  I felt a little like Alice, after swallowing the “drink me” shrinking potion in Wonderland.  Where would this end?  Curiousier and curiousier, for certain.

A glimpse inside the box… Extreme miniature book, magnifying glass, bookplate, and hand-painted paper…

The tiny book and magnifier both lay within perfectly-fitted, red velvet-lined cut-out indentations inside the box.  (Note the gilt turn-ins around the box’s inner edges too.)  The box was lined with quite beautiful, hand-painted, floral-patterned paper — quite a work of art in itself. And then there was the hand-colored, engraved pictorial bookplate, depicting a seated young tutor and his charge, who seems more interested in his drum and hobby-horse than whatever might be inside the book that his tutor is holding!

Kurt Szafranski’s bookplate, depicting tutor and less-than-diligent pupil…

The bookplate belonged to Kurt Szafranski, an early twentieth-century book collector of some note, whose collection was purchased en bloc from his daughter in the late 1990s.  The German text on the bookplate — “aus der kinderbuch sammlung von” — translates as “from the children’s book collection of” Szafranski.

But what about the tiny book itself? OK, I’m getting to that now…  It’s a little hard to know where to start with this mini marvel, as I hope you can appreciate!  This is where the magnifier came into play — perhaps it was sold with the book? — and eventually, a more powerful, new-fangled one, better suited to tired eyes.

The book’s title page provides just the basic bibliographic facts, ma’am.

The Bijou’s title page “under glass”… No books were harmed in the making of this photo!

Pour les demoiselles…

Pour les garçons…

Title (including date), imprint, and address of Pierre-Étienne Janet, the book’s issuer, a Paris bookseller active from about 1791 to 1830. No illustration, publisher’s ornament or device, nor engraved frontispiece on the facing page. The date is part of the title, though, not the date of publication, and we’ve dated this book as [1816?], since almanacs were typically issued late the year before, just in time for Christmas or holiday giving (much like gilt-stamped leather pocket date-books were in the olden times before Palms, PDAs, and cell-phones rendered these.leather-and-paper objects somewhat obsolete to many).

These little almanacs tended to follow a similar general format in their contents: a monthly calendar noting holidays, religious events, and other dates of note, poetry, some sorts of mottoes, quotations, or sayings to inspire thought, and illustrations (often nicely executed).

Cotsen’s Bijou des enfans indeed follows that model, beginning with emblem-like illustrations facing little poems, followed by short rhyming couplets about love and romance for both boys garçons and young ladies (“devises pour les garçons” / “devises pour les demoiselles), a table of these “devises”, and the calendar pages.

December pages from the calendar section of Le bijou

According to the Grolier Club’s Miniature Books (the wonderful catalog accompanying their 2007 miniature book exhibition), these “bijou” (jewel) almanacs were especially popular in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the small “almanachs minuscules” (tiny almanacs) being especially popular among fashionable young ladies during the 1740-1850 period, when they were issued in two different sizes: a “larger” size of up to 3 1/4 inches tall (80 mm.), and a smaller size of “less than an inch” in height, numbering sixty-four pages in length, “entirely engraved from metal plates,” and featuring illustrated love songs or poems; Cotsen’s Bijou des enfans seems to fit the latter description to a “T”.  The Grolier’s Miniature Books catalog adds that these smaller leather-bound almanacs were “given out at the New Year to favored patrons of Parisian chocolate shops”!  I wonder if these special bijoux publications came with tiny sweets too?  That’s certainly a notion that would have appealed to children!

Hey buddy, Can you spare a dime? The cover of the Bijou (at 28 mm), with FDR included for scale

At less than an inch in height, the tiny size of these smaller almanachs minuscules places them at distinctly the smaller end of the spectrum of miniature books, which are technically 100 mm in size or smaller (i.e. less than 4 inches inches).  Compare the size of Cotsen’s 28 mm copy of the Bijou des enfans to the dime in the photograph and imagine just how small that really is. By way of comparison, Cotsen’s copies of the individual volumes in John Marshall’s Doll’s Library, a miniature library set (dated [1800?]), are 50 mm tall; Francis Newbery’s 1772 Pocket Bible for Little Masters and Misses is 84 mm tall; and each of the five volumes in Marshall’s miniature library set, A Concise Abridgement of Natural History … for the Juvenile, or, Child’s Library, are 98 mm tall.

Imagine handling, reading, and simply turning the pages a much tinier 28 mm book — it takes some dexterity.  And while children have smaller hands than grown-ups and are also more dexterous with tiny objects, think of how roughly they can handle books and toys, even in the case of older children, at whom the Bijou des enfans seems to be aimed.  One can readily imagine lost pages, torn up books, or books lost altogether.  Perhaps that’s why Cotsen’s copy is one of only a very small handful of copies of a Bijou des enfans from the years 1816 or 1817 that seemed to turn up on (admittedly very) quick searches of OCLC and the French Bibliothèque nationale.  Almost microscopic and rare!

The Bijou des enfans (box) on the shelf (third from left) with some of its mates… The next time you see a book on the shelf, as yourself: “Can you really judge a book by its cover?”