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.
|(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.
The Crow and the Fox 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.
|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)
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, 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)
In Is It Morning, 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.”
|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, 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 (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?
What Do You Like for Breakfast? 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. http://baby.sina.com.cn/edu/14/2907/2014-07-29/2112275235.shtml
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)