At the recently concluded Taipei International Book Fair, PW met with blogger, reviewer, critic, book club host, and author Charlene Lai, who is widely praised for being one of the most ardent supporters and promoters of picture books in Taiwan. The mother of three, with children ranging from 17 to 27 years of age, is a force of nature.
Lai’s love for picture books started because “[she] didn’t like reading books with too many words, but [picture books] were so imaginative and beautiful.” Lai said of her work: “This path that I have taken over the years was totally unplanned and unconventional. I started searching for, and buying, good picture books for my eldest child, and that led me to reviewing them—for myself. However, the blog became popular, and was quoted and shared by parents and the publishing and bookselling community.” Now Lai is a regular contributor to Taiwan’s third-largest newspaper, United Daily News, as well as Okapi magazine and the Scholastic Asia online portal.
Six years ago, Lai established PlayGrounD (PGD) to host events and campaigns on picture-book reading. Through PGD, Lai has worked with Taiwan Interminds Publishing on the Traditional Chinese translation of Jon Agee’s Milo’s Hat Trick and a volume written by 20 local writers, List of Picture Books for Grownups. She also proofread the translation of Leonard S. Marcus’s Show Me a Story.
“Everything that I do is picture book-related,” Lai said. “Coming up next on my roster is a three-week exhibition, The Craft of Picture Books, which will start on March 3 in Taipei, and will showcase the works of 11 contemporary Taiwanese picture book artists. The exhibition explores the dynamics between visual and verbal narratives inherent in picture books, and it will show that [the] picture book, originally intended for children, has become a form of literature [used] in graphic novels and short stories, which are read and enjoyed by grownups.”
Over the past three years, Lai has been working hard on getting adults to read picture books. “My so-called campaign is not without merit. Adults are [too] stressed out from work and family involvement to read thick books. Picture books are entertaining and light-hearted—though some do deal with ‘weighty’ subjects of loss and death.”
With Lai busy concentrating on her own writing and book publishing activities, her reading classes for kids have been discontinued. However, she said, “I remain passionate about these classes. I truly believe that if parents are willing to commit to getting their kids to my reading classes for six months, I can almost guarantee that the kids will end up enjoying picture books, will start to read on their own, and will cultivate an enduring love of reading and books. This is a difficult service to commercialize.”
Her book clubs and talks for adults are also built along the same goals of addressing the declining habit of reading in Taiwan. “I am working on a Picture Books for Grownups campaign with public libraries to encourage reading of picture books, and collaborating with bookstores and publishers on book clubs and reading activities,” said Lai, who is the host of publisher Bookman’s Love for Reading Picture Book Club.
Bookman has published two of Lai’s books. Picture Book Reading Map 1 is about animals in children’s literature and picture books, featuring an interview with James Mayhew, author of Katie’s Picture Show. The second volume, launched at the recent Taipei International Book Fair, revolves around a selection of picture books based on true stories, with topics ranging from environmental awareness to human rights. Two more titles, Rendezvous with Children’s Authors and Illustrators, a collection of interviews with 12 internationally renowned children’s book creators, and Children’s Literature in Museums and Tours, a travelogue through the lens of children’s literature, are published by Taiwan Interminds Publishing.
Lai is focused on using reviews and commentaries on these titles to inspire local works. “It is not strange to see Taiwanese children’s book publishers having up to 70% of their children’s list translated from other languages. Now, of course, there are more local illustrators and picture book authors. With more appreciation and understanding, more local picture books will hopefully go abroad and inspire a new generation of readers, illustrators, and authors.” At her reading groups and book clubs, however, Lai uses mostly English-language picture books.
Lai sees herself as “a link—a support staff, if you will—in the reading/publishing/bookselling ecosystem. By motivating people to read, and read more, the publishing and bookselling industry will get to publish and sell more titles.” As it is, Taiwan’s book market has declined by 46% between 2012 and 2015, dropping from $1.14 billion to $617.9 million—and holding steady since then—while bookstore closures, around 700 within the past two years, of mostly indie outlets, have been alarming. The good news, says Lai, “is that more children’s books were published last year than before, and sales far exceed those of other segments.”
As for Lai, her goals remain to “assist in making the bookselling and publishing industry much more than a commercial undertaking. The passion for books and reading must be there. And I want that passion to start with kids and picture books—everybody will benefit from reading picture books.”