Part II: Children’s Books and Reading: A Photo Album
Part II of my travel notes annotates photos of my delightful encounters with children’s materials, reading, and entertainment outside the USA. I stayed in Shanghai for several weeks between two children’s literature symposiums that I attended in June and July. (The subtropical city oscillated between relentless, all-day rains and sweltering blaze. Unless part of your goal is to lose weight by taking long walks in what feels like free sauna offered by nature, I do not recommend these months as the best time for visiting Shanghai.) Thanks to the itinerary that was kindly arranged for me by the University of Leeds, I had the unexpected luck of spending a few eye-opening hours at Abu Dhabi International Airport during my connecting flight from Shanghai to Britain.
Shanghai is historically the center of the publishing industry in China. Except for the disruption of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Shanghai dominated the publishing of Chinese comic books and books for youth during the twentieth century.
View from the lobby of the Shanghai Library through large windows into a peaceful back garden, where a statue of Confucius stands as a symbol of great learning.
The first Disney theme park in mainland China was opened in Shanghai on June 16, 2016, causing plenty of sensation among the locals. Drawing on its rich Republic of China collection, the Shanghai Library offered a timely exhibition on the history of how Disney animated films swept over Shanghai as early as the 1930s and became an integrated part of Chinese popular culture.
Shanghai Book City
Shanghai Book City, as its boastful name promises, is the largest bookstore in Shanghai and takes up seven massive floors. The sixth floor is dedicated to children’s materials, offering books, toys, as well as game areas, programming space, and a newly opened fee-based subscription library of picture books. The most prominent format on display is large, colorful picture books, spreading over half of the entire floor. Text-oriented books for older readers and teens are tucked away on the side. The layout has reversed what it was like a decade ago, reflecting major growth in the translation, publishing, and consumption of picture books for preschoolers in China since 2000. Chinese children’s books used to target young independent readers mainly. Should a parent bring a toddler to the store ten years ago, they would have had to choose from only a couple rows of picture books shelved in a tight corner.
The Former Residence of Comic Artist Zhang Leping
Numerous Chinese authors and artists who wrote and illustrated children’s literature were based in Shanghai. Among them was Zhang Leping (1910-1992), arguably the most successful Chinese comic artist during the twentieth century. His former residence has been made into a modest museum free to the public. Adorning the yard of his house is a sculpture of Sanmao, the three-haired protagonist of Zhang’s nearly wordless comics series. The sculpture is based on a panel from The Wanderings of Sanmao the Vagrant, in which the orphaned and homeless boy is constantly in search for food, clothing, and shelter while trying to survive in a postwar Shanghai. He unknowingly joins a gang of thieves and receives an over-sized gown to cover his naked body. In the most economical visual language of comics, Zhang exaggerates the length of time it takes a scrawny Sanmao to finish buttoning the large garment. The boy’s visible awkwardness in putting on the gang member’s clothing, as the story unfolds, foreshadows how his kindness and empathy would make him an “incorrigible” misfit in the criminal group.
This is the study where the late comic artist Zhang Leping, dubbed “Father of Sanmao,” worked and received visitors after 1950. Interestingly, the two most important works of Zhang, Sanmao Joins the Army (三毛从军记, 1946) and The Wanderings of Sanmao the Vagrant (1947) were both created before he moved into this seemingly spacious and comfortable house. Not that the house was at fault, but perhaps more of an indication that even an enviable material condition for creative work could not mitigate the post-1949 constraints on intellectual and artistic freedom in China.
If you are as hapless a tourist as I was and will visit the museum in the unwelcoming hot season, I have a gentle reminder for you: arm yourself with mosquito repellent before entering the vicinity. The blood-suckers outside Zhang’s residence were so ferocious that the security guard had a free bottle of spray ready for visitors. The staff warmly told me to help myself with the chemical, because this was “on taxpayers.” The experience increased my admiration for Zhang Leping even more, as I imagined the artist might have had to endure the same attacks every long summer.
A small shadow play museum is located in Qibao Old Town, a tourist attraction in a suburban district of Shanghai. A spider web of metro system that has been continuously expanded over the past two decades makes the old town, once a remote part of Shanghai, easy to reach. The shadow play museum displays shadow figures and related artworks that were an important part of folk life in rural Qibao between the late Qing dynasty and the Republic of China. (Princeton University has held an exhibition of Chinese shadow figures and maintains a database of digitized shadow figures images.)
I could not resist another opportunity to document the prevalence of Monkey King in Chinese folk culture. This was an edible dough figurine of Monkey, freshly kneaded, shaped, and sold at a shop in Qibao. The dough should taste sweet, but I would not dream of gobbling up the trickster. He is famous for turning into a tiny mischievous bug and making you regret and consent to whatever unpleasant demand he shouts out gleefully from inside your belly–to surrender your magic heirloom fire-extinguishing fan, or to give him the password of your smart phone, for example.
Kids Still Read Today
Yes, they do. I spied on them in the children’s reading room of a district public library in Shanghai on a hot, hypnotizing Saturday afternoon in June. Children and teens read, took notes, did homework, and some of them also couldn’t stop checking their smart phones. The plastic chairs were hard; the reading tables were plain; and the seating was a bit crowded. A quiet afternoon in the cool public library, however, was still a pleasant escape for those lucky children who happened to live close by. Many Chinese families, even if they own air-conditioning at home, reserve the machine for the most unbearable heat waves. Free air-conditioning alone makes a trip to the public library worthwhile.
These two young school girls, engrossed in children’s books on paper in the subway, were in the minority among an army of adult passengers who were equally engrossed in (or possessed by) their smart phones.
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Abu Dhabi was the first city where I stopped (at its international airport anyway) during my 30-hour, door-to-door journey from Shanghai, China to the University of Leeds campus. I didn’t expect to walk off the jet bridge into a library, newly opened in April 2016.
Arabic-English bilingual slogan “Read and Rise” on a column. In the Arabic parallel text, “naqraʼ li-nartaqī,” there is alliteration at the beginning of each verb, and the roots of the verbs have similar sounds: qaraʼa and raqiya. Kudos to whoever designed the slogan for achieving alliteration in two distinct languages simultaneously. The literal meaning of the Arabic passage is “let’s read so that we may rise.”
A quote that puts great value in education, from the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was the driving forces behind the formation of the United Arab Emirates and its first president, 1971-2004.
I was also unable to bring back any of these desert friends, cheerful or aloof, as a reminder of my summer travel. Regardless, next time I see a chance to rate libraries, I will not forget to vote Abu Dhabi as the most hospitable airport library.
My heartfelt thanks to Dr. Denise L. Soufi, a Middle Eastern expert, for graciously deciphering and explaining the Arabic text for me in preparation for this photo essay. All errors are mine.