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.

Jim Kay’s Wizarding World 3: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Design of Dementors for the right rear pastedown endpaper of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Azkaban is on an island somewhere in the North Sea, but being unplottable, it cannot be found on a map.  The Minister of Magic officially administers rhe prison, but who takes responsibility for daily operations is a mystery.  No episode in the Harry Potter series is actually set in Azkaban, so it never seems as real as the Chamber of Secrets or the Ministry of Magic.  What readers hear repeated over and over is information everyone in the wizarding world knows about the debilitating aura of the Dementors who guard it.   After a few weeks in their presence, most prisoners perish   Hagrid survived  a two-months’ incarceration in The Chamber of Secrets, but would not (or could not) say anything about his experiences.

Jim Kay makes Azkaban almost as terrifying as Tyrion Lannister’s sky cell in the Eyrie by situating the prison in a somber landscape on the book’s preliminary pages. The front end papers depict a graveyard of ships off a beach outlined by monumental jutting rocks with the prison tower looming behind.  On the half title, heavy seas dash an unmanned ship against the island. The next two double-page spreads zoom in on the tower.  The first shot is a view of the prison entrance from the ship’s deck; the second pans up the prison’s stone walls.  It was not a felicitous design decision to set the list of Rowling’s works, the title page, the extensive copyright information, and dedication on these four pages of sublime drawings. All the type obscures the drawings’ grandeur and the type is largely illegible with the highly textured images as background.  But it is consistent with the greater use of ghosted patterns and figures here than in the first two volumes.  Some like the embossed paper napkin are relatively unobtrusive, others like the chocolate bar wrapper are distracting enough that the words cannot do their work.Thus far Kay has taken advantage of the artistic freedom J. K. Rowling and the publisher have given him.  With the third volume of the set completed, readers can expect certain things.  The Hogwarts faculty picture gallery has been expanded with three portraits, complemented with more informal views of the characters elsewhere in the story.  Professor Trelawney’s huge glasses, strongly marked features, and prominent front teeth are comically exaggerated for having been painted from below.  When she falls into a prophetic trace later in the story, her face appears eerie and mannish.  Greasy locks of hair frame Severus Snape’s unsmiling face and his crossed hands are surprisingly full of tension. Lying near the hand darkened with soot is a sprig of lily of the valley, the emblem of Snape’s love for Harry’s mother.  On the following page,the potions master looks much uglier as he grimaces at Neville’s toad.   A third illustration of Snape in chapter nineteen, which looks down on him as he casts a spell, makes him look quite formidable.  By changing his appearance in every illustration, Kay keeps readers uncertain as to which is the true Snape.  Remus Lupin, shown in his study before leaving Hogwarts in disgrace, looks down at the floor.  It is a startling contrast  to his first appearance in chapter five, with his back to the reader and his startled face reflected in train compartment’s door.

Illustrations of magical creatures are among the delights in Harry Potter’s  first two volumes and Kay provides some more wonderful ones in Prisoner of Azkaban.  Of the “scientific” illustrations, the Grindylow, which supposedly comes from Aquatic Wonders of Yorkshire: A Wizard’s Field Guide, is a gratifying mixture of the scary, gross, and humorous.  Hagrid’s hippogriffs, noble hybrids of eagle and horse, are given three illustrations.  There’s one of the spirited herd crossing the paddock and an endearing one of Buckbeak  asleep on Hagrid’s bed, its head resting on a plate of dead ferrets.  The book’s most important illustrations of magical creatures turn out to be three men who can transform themselves into animals.  All of them belonged to James Potter’s Hogwarts posse and the pictures contain visual clues pointing to their dual natures. The sinister plate of the Werewolf is drawn in the same sepia tones as Remus Lupin’s portrait.  The animage Sirius Black’s thinness, unfathomable dark eyes, and messy, bristly, black hair is unsettling when he is portrayed as a dog, although the gigantic picture of Sirius spread over four pages was an experiment that did not quite work for me.  When Kay finally draws Sirius as a half-starved man with an uncanny resemblance to Rasputin, he makes it difficult for the reader to be sure whose side he is on. Peter Pettigrew presented a somewhat different challenge because the secret that he did not die thirteen years previously must be concealed until late in the story. Throughout Prisoner of Azkaban, Pettigrew is present like Sirius, but not in his human form.  Until Remus spots Pettigrew’s movements on the Marauder’s Map, only Hermione’s cat Crookshanks knows that there is something peculiar about Scabbers, the Weasleys’ mangy, ancient pet rat.  Kay misdirects the reader’s attention by drawing the rat and cat scampering across the pages like a couple of Keystone critters.  Given the fact that the chase was dead serious, perhaps these drawings were a little too cartoony in style.  If Crookshanks had dispatched Scabbers/Pettigrew, imagine how the plot of The Goblet of Fire  would have been altered…  Deep blacks and purples in The Prisoner of Azkaban could be associated with the difficulty of reading character from faces, with treachery, with the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children.   Certainly yellow, blue and orange are prominent in illustrations where the future members of Dumbledore’s army are coming into their own, as when Parvati masters the Ridikulous charm or Harry and Hermione fly Buckbeak to the tower where Sirius is being held.  The scene by the lake where Harry is confronted by the Dementor is painted in  impenetrable blacks, but a snaky, Slytherin green similar to the one used in the background of his fight with the basilisk.  Even the unfortunate accident where Harry blows up his hateful Aunt Marge is bright with color, as if to emphasize that the Dursleys, no matter how awful they may be, are not the real enemies.What’s out of balance in The Prisoner of Azkaban is the weight given to the dark, sometimes nearly illegible illustrations of the past represented by James’ circle, and the colorful light-filled ones of the future, represented by Harry and his friends.  The glimpses readers catch of the school days of James, Sirius, Remus, Peter, Severus, and Lily revolved more around competition, cruel tricks, and one upsmanship instead of harmless fun, like visiting the pet store in Diagon Alley.  Nor are readers treated to enough scenes like the one in Madame Rosmerta’s pub, where the drama comes from the interaction between the figures, rather than isolated moments of horror or fear.  Another major disappointment  was the exciting sequence where Hermione takes Harry back in time to save Buckbeak and Sirius.  In terms of the number of illustrations the episode was allotted, it ended up being all about Harry’s conjuring of the Patronus, not Hermione proving herself the cleverest witch of her generation as well.For many Potterites and literary critics, The Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the set. Will many readers be disappointed that the children did not get the attention they deserved because Kay was rushing to meet the draconian deadline of a volume a year?  I suspect there was added pressure on him to produce enough dazzling drawings for the British Library’s exhibition “Harry Potter: The History of Magic.”  At least the powers- that-be have realized that Kay deserves more time to work his magic on the fourth installment–but we’ll have to wait until 2019 to see the results.