As the world’s athletes head to China this summer for the Olympic Games in Beijing, HarperCollins is hoping that a children’s book character currently making the reverse journey will attract his share of attention, too. Last August, HarperCollins U.K. acquired the first eight titles in Hongying Yang’s Naughty Ma Xiaotao series (there are 18 in all), which have been renamed Mo’s Mischief; this April the books will be published simultaneously in Britain and the U.S.
This chapter book series has sold more than 10 million copies in China, making Yang that country’s bestselling children’s author. Originally published by Jieli Publishing House, the books center on the daily adventures of Mo Shen Mo, a Chinese boy with a knack for getting into trouble. “He can be really mischievous, but has a really good heart,” says Phoebe Yeh, editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books, who edited the series along with Nick Lake, an editor at HarperCollins U.K. “My comparison is really [Beverly Cleary’s] Ramona the Pest. [Ramona] is a little quirky, and so is Mo.”
After the books were translated into English, Yeh edited the books in conjunction with Lake in the U.K. She says that aside from a few vocabulary differences, the British and American editions are essentially the same. “We talk about grades, they talk about forms. So some of the school terminology is different,” says Yeh. “But the essence of the characters is the same. The whole idea is to really give kids living outside China [a look at] what it is like to be a third-grader in a big city [in China].”
The editor believes that the cosmopolitan urban setting may surprise readers who have only studied ancient China. “It’s a very different lifestyle than what most U.S. kids get taught. These kids are pretty high-tech, and they are only children, because of the policy in China. That leads to an interesting dynamic.” She cites the books’ humor and depictions of everyday Chinese life as reasons for their success in that country. “You can just tell from reading these books that she just understands kids that age and what they care about. Even with the humor, though, they are very realistic situations. She could be writing about [the readers’] own classrooms.”
Yeh thinks that Western readers will readily see commonalities between their lives and Mo’s. “I feel that kids here will connect with him and say, ‘Oh, he’s just like me,’ ” she says. “Because they are set in China, there will be some things that are not very familiar. But it’s really a very cool way for kids to get this sort of glimpse.” The books will include back matter that provides additional insights into Chinese life, schooling and culture.
Yeh’s background as a Chinese-American (“just a coincidence,” she notes) was at times helpful when figuring out how best to explain certain elements of Chinese culture, or even in how to list the author’s name. “There was much conversation about what we should do,” she says of Harper’s decision to put the author’s surname second, in the Western style. “We felt that if we didn’t reverse it, there was a greater risk of people not understanding that Yang is her surname.”
The first four Mo’s Mischief titles—4 Troublemakers, Teacher’s Pet, Pesky Monkeys and Best Mom Ever—arrive as paperback originals from HarperTrophy next month, with first printings of 40,000 copies each. Subsequent books in the series are scheduled to be released this September and in May 2009.
Harper is taking a grassroots approach to introducing Yang to American audiences. “It doesn’t matter how huge a celebrity she is in China. We’re dealing at this stage with the gatekeepers—teachers, parents, librarians and educators,” says Mary Albi, marketing director for HarperCollins Children’s Books. The publisher has distributed galleys at conferences and through mailings, and plans to reach out to parents through online lists. “In terms of retail, we want to key into the Beijing Olympics and to the awareness [about China] we think it will bring,” Albi says. “We’re aggressively pursuing retail opportunities wherever they appear.”
Albi believes that the added educational material in each book will be both attractive to teachers and helpful for readers. “I think it really expands the reader’s understanding of a bigger world, and especially China and the issues that are dealt with there,” she says, citing as an example environmental topics covered in Pesky Monkeys. “This is a generation that will be dealing with China as a major world power, unlike any prior. It’s an interesting time to be publishing this.”
Harper has also acquired Yang’s middle-grade series Diary of a Smiling Cat, which stars a girl and her talking cat (certain characters from the series appear in the Mo’s Mischief books as well). “Like Mo, they are very popular [in China],” says Yeh (the series has sold more than three million copies). “These are all very childlike scenarios. What kid doesn’t wish his pet could talk? It’s fanciful in a way that kids really relate to.” A U.S. publication date for the series has not yet been set.
Harper U.K. has sold French rights for Mo’s Mischief, and negotiations are underway for German, Spanish and Portuguese rights. And in China, a stage performance based on the series has been on tour since 2006, and an animated film and TV series are in production. “I have seen photos of the author on tour in China, and she is beloved there,” says Yeh. “She’s like a children’s book author rock star. We’re going to make her into one in the U.S. too.”
Mo’s Mischief: Four Troublemakers by Hongying Yang. HarperTrophy, $3.99 paper, 978-0-06-156472-7 ages 7-10
Mo’s Mischief: Teacher’s Pet by Hongying Yang. HarperTrophy, $3.99 paper, 978-0-06-156473-4 ages 7-10
Mo’s Mischief: Pesky Monkeys by Hongying Yang. HarperTrophy, $3.99 paper, 978-0-06-156474-1 ages 7-10
Mo’s Mischief: Best Mom Ever by Hongying Yang. HarperTrophy, $3.99 paper, 978-0-06-156475-8 ages 7-10