I recently returned from a 3½-week speaking tour of China, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. It was an exciting trip that revealed much about the current state of children’s books and publishing at each of my destinations. The story I found being played out everywhere was one of cultural transformation: a complex tale of rising enthusiasm for Western-style literature for young readers, and of the special challenges such books pose for societies where educational practices have long been rooted in principles of regimentation and top-down authority.
For the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, in Singapore, I was asked to lead several programs, including a daylong master class (in collaboration with English critic Marjorie Coughlan) on children’s book reviewing. The AFCC is a five-year-old annual gathering of several hundred writers, illustrators, editors, librarians, and others sponsored by the National Book Development Council of Singapore to jump-start the creation of a homegrown literature for young readers in their own and such neighboring countries as Malaysia and the Philippines. In a newly emerging publishing industry, one of the first questions always is: who will decide which books are the “good” ones, and how will parents and other book buyers know about them? I was there to help put that piece of the puzzle in place, even as Singapore continues to wrestle with its troubling legacy of censorship and autocratic rule.
In contrast to Singapore, Taiwan already has a flourishing, decades-old Western-style picture book tradition. The interest there was in gaining a deeper historical perspective. It was for that reason that my illustrated biography Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Could Not Stop Drawing has now been published in Taiwan, and that at the National Library in Taipei and at National Taitung University in southern Taiwan, I was invited to speak about Caldecott, Maurice Sendak, picture book history, and the Caldecott Medal tradition. In Hong Kong, where the all-pervasive influence of the global financial industry pushes parents to fast-track their youngsters for future success by favoring flashcards and workbooks over leisurely bedtime excursions into make-believe, the Bring Me a Book Foundation (a U.S.-based not-for-profit with a Hong Kong outpost) requested a series of talks to help educate parents about why picture books like Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are have relevance in their young children’s – and their own – over-scheduled lives.
Then there was China. As of the year 2002, no more than 20 Western-style picture books were available in Mandarin to the children of that nation of 1.3 billion inhabitants. Just over a decade later, that number has skyrocketed to something like 5000 (the vast majority of them imports in translation), with industry growth poised for continued rapid acceleration. There are various reasons for this. For centuries prior to 1900, the Chinese had limited the reading material they earmarked for young people to texts on math, Confucian philosophy, and other academic subjects that were considered useful as preparation for entry into the civil service by an elite minority. In the early decades of the last century, an artist, storyteller, and philosopher named Feng Zikai emerged as China’s first advocate for children’s “pleasure reading.” Then as now, Feng was universally revered as modern Chinese children’s literature’s founding figure. But the initial impact of his pioneering efforts was blunted by the revolutionary turmoil that culminated in the rise of Mao. During the Communist period and especially the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Social Realist picture books in the same dourly prescriptive vein as those published in the Stalinist Soviet Union became the norm. Only recently have Western models become viable again.
All this was new to me a few short years ago as I searched the New York Public Library’s collection for Chinese children’s books to showcase in the exhibition “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” and read up on the historical background needed to make meaningful curatorial choices. Serendipitously, while still immersed in my library search, word came from HarperCollins that a Chinese publisher had acquired Simplified Chinese foreign-language rights to my book Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom.
I was completely baffled by this news at first, but as I learned more about the economic and cultural changes underway in China, it became clear that a major push to introduce Western-style children’s books was in progress there. It must be, I guessed – correctly as it turned out – that Ursula Nordstrom had been identified as a potential mentor. Dear Genius as the Little Red Book of Chinese publishers? Why not! I later learned that a long list of the picture books Nordstrom published during her fabled 33-year-long tenure at Harper was already available in China in Mandarin: Bedtime for Frances, The Carrot Seed, A Tree Is Nice, Harry the Dirty Dog, The Runaway Bunny, The Giving Tree, and Where the Wild Things Are, among others, as well as the Little House books and Harriet the Spy. I also learned that a team of seven translators had worked intensively on the Mandarin edition of my book for a solid year and a half and had done so much background research on American children’s book publishing that they now planned to bring out a companion volume collating their findings. This, I thought, is how Great Walls get built.
Beijing-based King-in Culture, Ltd., the firm that published Dear Genius in Mandarin, is one of several small companies that have formed in the last decade with the primary goal of bringing high-quality picture books to China. These firms, I was told, typically have a “studio” or workshop atmosphere, with staffers often hired for their art and design background. They pride themselves on working late, publishing only books they care about, and cooperating with their colleagues at other firms for the mutual benefit of their young industry.
In some respects, small companies like King-in Culture and Beijing’s Poplar call to mind the nascent American children’s book publishing scene of the 1920s – the time of the first freestanding juvenile editorial departments, the founding of The Horn Book and establishment of Children’s Book Week and the Newbery Medal – all projects dreamed up to give another set of idealistic editors the best possible chance of succeeding. The contemporary Chinese publishing scene is far from exactly like that other, long-ago one, of course. For one thing, China’s smaller presses do not ply their trade in quaint cottage-industry isolation, but rather must compete – or more often form what are at times multilayered cooperative arrangements – with the vastly larger state-owned and licensed houses such as China Children’s Press and Publications Group, 21st Century Publishing House, and Jieli Publishing House. For another, to build their lists rapidly the Chinese have had the luxury of acquiring rights to a vast number of picture books of proven merit from the U.S., England, and elsewhere.
Just as important, in a nation that spans the equivalent of five time zones (though, strangely, all of China does business on Beijing time), they have had the Internet as a powerful selling tool. By one estimate, 40 percent of all picture books published in China are sold online, the largest e-bookseller being Dangdang.com. And in contrast to the first generation of American children’s book editors, who tailored their lists to the needs and tastes of a national network of well-informed public librarians, Chinese publishers sell the majority of their picture books retail to parents and grandparents; in China, public libraries currently serve no more than 10 percent of the population and have yet to assume a cultural gatekeeper role. On a small scale, ad hoc home rental libraries organized by engaged, enterprising mothers have taken up some of the cultural slack, as have innovative online reading clubs.
JOne other striking similarity to the American experience is worth highlighting. China now has its own high-visibility award aimed – as the Caldecott Medal was from its inception in the 1930s – at luring artists (and writers) to channel their talents into picture-book making and to alert book-buying parents to prize-worthy options. The structuring and sponsorship of the aptly named Feng Zikai Chinese Children’s Picture Book Award reflect the region’s complex history. The award was created in 2008 under the sponsorship of Daisy Chen of the Hong Kong-based branch of the Bring Me a Book Foundation, with books published in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong all eligible. Judges for the biannual prize have thus far been drawn from all three places plus the United States. (The top prize goes to both the author and illustrator of the winning title; lower-tier recognition is also given for excellence in text and art individually.) The inaugural grand prize, announced in 2009, went to A New Year’s Reunion, by Yu Li-Qiong, illustrated by Zhu Cheng-Liang. The book was subsequently published in the U.S. by Candlewick and in the U.K. by Walker. In 2011 it was named one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Illustrated Books of the Year.
I spent five days in China, just long enough to gather a few strong impressions. At Zhejiang Normal University, a sprawling modern campus with over 30,000 students located in Yiwu,175 miles southwest of Shanghai, I spoke at the university’s Institute for Childhood Studies, China’s leading children’s literature research center. Reproductions of Feng Zikai brush paintings line the walls of the Institute’s headquarters in a weathered 1950s structure, called Red Mansion, which houses a busy research library with special collections of Taiwanese children’s literature and books from around the world. Political relations between Taiwan and mainland China may be bitterly tense, but these scholars seemed eager to learn from, and absorb, Taiwan’s vibrant children’s literature heritage. The Institute also looks to the West for ideas via a series of monographs by Western scholars that it publishes in translation within its Red Mansion Academic Book Series. Its director currently heads the Feng Zikai Award committee of judges. China’s children’s book publishing community may be quite young but its efforts are, it seemed clear, well focused and highly coordinated.
From Yiwu, I flew with members of the King-in Culture staff to Beijing, where more than 300 Chinese publishers gathered at the National Library of China to hear my morning program about Ursula Nordstrom, and stayed for a question-and-answer session that lasted the entire afternoon. Audience members asked how Ursula Nordstrom had trained to be a publisher. They also wanted to know about American parents’ attitudes toward reading to their children. How did American parents feel about comic books? What was Maurice Sendak like? Were there many science-based books for American children? What percentage of American children’s books were purchased by parents and what percentage were bought by libraries? How well were America’s minority populations represented in children’s books? Were there American editors like Ursula Nordstrom today?
The lead translator of Dear Genius, a passionate, knowledgeable man with a hearty laugh named Ajia, is responsible for the Mandarin editions of many Western picture books, including Uri Shulevitz’s Dawn, Mo Willems’s Knuffle Bunny series, and not least of all Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. (He is also a well-known storyteller and the co-founder, with his older brother, of an online bookselling company specializing children’s books.) Ajia is currently at work translating Goodnight Moon. We talked about the lilting music of Margaret Wise Brown’s deceptively simple text. We debated the fine points of the Great Green Room!
That evening, he and I and the managing director of King-in Culture, another energetic idealist named Ao De, climbed to the highest point in Jingshan Park, opposite the entrance gate to the Forbidden City, the walled Ming Dynasty-era imperial enclave that occupies the exact geographic center of Beijing. From an old, ornately festooned observation platform, we enjoyed the cool of the evening and the view of the entire city spread out before us. It was the perfect place from which to consider the extraordinary fact that Ursula Nordstrom, American visionary publisher and self-professed champion of “good books for bad children,” had just planted her flag in China.