For Phoenix Publishing and Media Group (PPMG), the task of selecting titles to be included in its new Jiangsu Literature Translated series was tough. First, PPMG has 10 publishing subsidiaries producing more than 6,000 new titles annually and numerous award-winning works in its catalogs. Second, the selection needs to reflect not only the standing of Jiangsu Province, where the publishing group is based, as the center of contemporary Chinese literature but also that of its capital city, Nanjing, as a UNESCO City of Literature.
In December 2021, the first volume of the Jiangsu Literature Translated series was finally unveiled. The three titles are Huang Beijia’s I Want to Be Good, Su Tong’s novellas Another Life for Women and Three Lamps (published by Simon & Schuster), and Ye Zhaoyan’s nonfiction Nanjing: The Story of a Chinese City (now available from Long River Press).
I Want to Be Good, the first children’s book from Huang, was written more than 25 years ago. “It has stood the test of time and remains a favorite among children, parents, and educators across China,” says Liu Qinqiu, deputy director of global business development at PPMG. The title “has gone to print at least 300 times and sold upward of five million copies,” Liu says. “It has been adapted into a movie, a TV series, and a play, and is now published in Arabic, French, German, Korean, Russian, and Vietnamese. I Want to Be Good was among the list of outstanding translated titles selected by the U.S.-based Children’s Literature Association last year.” Huang, who has written more than 50 children’s books, was nominated for the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award.
What is astonishing is that Huang took just 20 days to write the story. “It came out of her own experiences in helping her daughter deal with school and the many exams required to get her to the middle grade,” explains Wu Xiaohong, rights manager at Jiangsu Phoenix Juvenile and Children’s Publishing. “She saw firsthand the intense pressure for academic excellence that children face from the first day they start schooling. She also found the ultimate goal of getting accepted into a top-ranking university to be both horrifying and myopic. So she set out to write a book that speaks not just to her daughter but to all children facing the same circumstances.”
In I Want to Be Good, the protagonist, Ling, is an average sort of child: a cheerful, kind, brave, and creative 10-year-old who is rather hopeless at math. Her adventures and misadventures and her triumphs and despair over her math scores are at the center of this 398-page novel. There are many uplifting moments—Ling’s grandparents riding a tandem bicycle or Ling saving a silkworm, for instance—as well as heartfelt revelations about the stress and pressures on Ling as a child and a student. “Woven into the pages is the understanding that academic performance is not everything and that the ability to express love, gratitude, and sympathy, for instance, is crucial for a child’s growth and development,” Wu says. “This inspiring story about school life and the process of growing up touches on universal themes that make I Want to Be Good accessible and relatable to readers across geographical borders. And this is probably the main reason this title has already been sold to 10 countries.”
Promoting Jiangsu literature and authors such as Huang is a major mission at PPMG, which ranked ninth in the 2021 Global 50 publishing list. Between 2016 and 2020, the company sold the rights to 1,565 titles to 62 countries. “Our newly established Phoenix Literature Award is focused on discovering homegrown talents, which will then allow us to continue introducing new voices from Jiangsu to international readers,” Liu says. “At the same time, we are seeking top translators to ensure the best quality translation possible for our titles.” For the Chinese-to-English translation of I Want to Be Good, Liu’s team worked with U.K.-based prizewinning literary translator Nicky Harman.
The next volume in the Jiangsu Literature Translated series—featuring outstanding works by Han Dong, Lu Min, Xu Zechen, and (again) Huang Beijia—is set for publication by the end of 2022.