Last March, the Guardian ran a news report that seemed to insert a giant question mark into the story of China’s phenomenal rise as a player on the global children’s book publishing scene. According to the piece, based on reporting by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, China’s central government, out of concern for growing Western influence over the nation’s estimated 220 million people age 14 and under, had ordered a sharp reduction in the number of new foreign children’s books on the lists of the nation’s publishing houses. The news came as American and European publishers were just getting used to reaping the rewards of a giddy seller’s market in simplified-Chinese-language rights, and to entertaining dreams of huge sales in a retail market that could become four times larger than North America’s.
As the Guardian article made the rounds online, I was planning my third trip to China. On order was a 10-day, four-city tour organized by Beijing-based Ever After Books, with a packed lineup of talks and workshops with the Chinese publishing community. For most programs, I was to be joined by American publisher Neal Porter and Belgian artist Kitty Crowther, the 2010 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award winner. As an adviser to the Ever After imprint of Trustbridge Media, I had been recommending Western titles for publication in China for two years and writing guides to the books for Chinese parents.
My China connection had come about serendipitously and had proven to be a very rewarding experience, so when the Guardian story ran, I was eager to learn more about the rule and its likely consequences. On arriving in Beijing in mid-August, it was the first question I had for all my friends.
I had begun following developments in China about five years earlier, after learning that a Chinese edition of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom was in the offing. By 2013, with the Chinese rush for translation rights to Western children’s books well underway, a publisher there had recognized my collection of Nordstrom’s editorial correspondence as a teaching tool for an industry impatient to play cultural catch-up. Within a year, not only had more of my books about children’s books been signed up for Chinese editions but I was also asked to lecture in China and work with Ever After’s editors.
China historically had taken a no-nonsense approach to educating its children, publishing school books and other texts designed to advance the child’s core knowledge and academic skills, but no titles that Westerners would recognize as imaginative literature. News of the new rule aligned with press reports of President Xi Jinping’s determined appeals to the Chinese people to reject Western values and re-embrace Confucianism. While the ubiquity in China of Western brands, from KFC to Prada, might have seemed enough to suggest that Xi’s nationalist message was falling on deaf ears, the reality remained that all Chinese publishing was subject to government control and that the current leadership was consolidating its power.
Neal and I arrived in Beijing together and were driven into town to meet Kitty for dinner and a taste of Chinese opera in a nightclub-like setting. The next morning, I gave my first talk at the National Library and had my first chance to see some old friends. I was surprised when not one of the publishing professionals I spoke with sounded the least bit fazed by the new government policy. One translator laughed heartily when I asked about it. “Like weather,” he said. “Sometimes cloudy!” And an editor who has held several key positions over the years commented that the new rule merely illustrated the guiding principle of contemporary Chinese life summed up in the catchphrase “enter by the back door” and roughly translates as: “rules matter, but relationships matter more.”
The fact that a two-tiered system of children’s book publishing has evolved in China in recent years seemed to bear out this observation. On the margins of the big state-owned houses, a second tier of smaller, quasi-independent companies have established themselves by the “back-door” route of purchasing bundles of ISBNs from the state firms. Acquiring ISBNs in this way entitles the buyer—in much the same way that purchases of air rights work for developers here—to publish an equal number of books. Companies in this second group are required to tether themselves to one of the state-run entities by a distribution agreement that ensures that no book can see the light of day without first being approved by a government censor. So the editorial freedom gained by publishing as an indie press farther from the center of scrutiny is ultimately one of degree rather than of kind. But it is nonetheless real.
Kitty, Neal, and I spoke at the National Library, the Beijing Book Fair, on college campuses, and at publishers’ offices and bookstores in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Xi’an. Besides editors, illustrators, writers, and students, the largest group who came to our programs were “book promoters,” enterprising mothers who operate private home libraries that serve as a community resource and source of personal income. The main purpose of the workshops I led for promoters was to help hone their critical skills and broaden their knowledge of classic Western books. Many I met seemed already to have a sophisticated understanding of the genre; they were far from beginners.
China’s home library book promoters, unlike their Japanese counterparts, typically charge a membership fee and sell or rent copies of books they discuss. One reason there are so many promoters is that they fill a gap left by China’s still-spotty commitment to public library service. Most promoters have only a local following, but a few have been able to reach much larger audiences. In Shanghai, “Auntie Magic,” a high-level media executive who directs a literacy NGO during her off-hours, hosts regular evening guest-author events that sometimes draw hundreds of parents. Her “Magic Reading” media platform has attracted 100,000 online subscribers.
The August tour also took me to Xi’an, the university town that was China’s first capital and is home to the spectacular display of terracotta warriors unearthed around the first Chin emperor’s tomb; and to Shenzhen, an up-from-nowhere high-tech megacity of more than 20 million. Forty years ago, Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, was a ragtag marketing town of 30,000. Things changed rapidly after the central government designated it in 1980 as China’s first Special Economic Zone. The region grew into a financial and new-media powerhouse with a brassy reputation. (Aptly, its U.S. sister city is Houston.) Like China’s much older cities, Shenzhen has a dedicated core of book promoters. And with a nod to its self-image as a city of the future, its municipal authorities sponsor a variety of childhood literacy initiatives in which promoters have a role. A centerpiece of these efforts is an annual citywide celebration which, similar to our Children’s Book Week in its original iteration, takes place in November, running not just for seven days but all 30.
Chinese children’s literature professionals are quick to acknowledge they are engaged in a game of cultural catch-up. A senior staffer at the National Library laid out the historical timeline for me with characteristic precision. “We are 100 years behind the United States,” he said, “70 years behind Japan, 50 years behind Taiwan, and 30 years behind Korea.”
Rule or no rule, I could see that Chinese children’s book publishing was entering its next phase, with the goal of generating prizeworthy children’s books for export to the world. In June 2016, on a visit to the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, I was introduced to the two instructors responsible for China’s first degree program in picture-book art. As I arrived, the senior students were installing their graduation exhibition, which consisted of completed book projects paired with marketable product tie-ins. As I toured the gallery, I could see skillful work in a variety of styles and media. I could also see that the students shared a distinct reluctance to create characters that a reader could identify with on an emotional level. The characters in their books were rarely shown close-up, and some appeared only as tiny figures on the horizon. Were the students uncomfortable asserting their characters’—or their own—individuality, or fearful of encouraging children to do so? If that was the case, then they clearly had more to learn before their work would win acceptance abroad.
Even so, it seemed likely that the flow of notable Chinese picture books to the West would increase dramatically in the next few years. For one thing, more Chinese illustration students than ever were training at American art colleges like the School of Visual Arts and the Maryland Institute College of Art. And Chinese illustrators were being presented at home with a growing abundance of models to emulate. Last August, the National Library hosted a touring exhibition of illustration art by all 26 past winners of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, most of whom have been Europeans, and China has joined the tour itinerary of the Bologna Book Fair’s annual Illustrators Exhibition. Within the last year, Beijing’s Dandelion Press acquired simplified Chinese-language rights to about 30 of Maurice Sendak’s picture books as well as all three of the art books published by Abrams about Sendak’s life and work. I had been wondering whether a rebellious child hero like Sendak’s Max could possibly make it past the government censor. When I asked about this at Dandelion, I was reminded of China’s recently ended one-child policy. An unintended consequence of that policy had been the creation of an entire generation of spoiled, unruly “little emperors” incapable, in the eyes of their doting parents and grandparents, of doing any wrong. Viewed from that perspective, Max was a most familiar contemporary Chinese character, his raucous behavior of far lesser account than his brash little-boy adorableness. In addition, from a cultural catch-up perspective, it weighed heavily in the book’s favor that Where the Wild Things Are was a venerated American classic.
Cao Wenxuan’s selection as the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award winner for literature put an impressive new feather in China’s cultural cap. At this year’s Bologna Book Fair, the country’s publishers will have their best chance yet to show the world how far they have come. As this year’s “honored guest” nation at the fair, China will sponsor programs with Cao and other authors and an exhibition of its leading illustrators. The country’s children’s publishers will be bringing 700 new books to market, up from 100 titles in 2014, the second year of China’s Bologna fair participation. Things happen fast in China. It would not be at all surprising if some unknown Chinese illustrator or writer proved to be the talk of the fair.
At the Beijing airport as I headed home, I found myself standing near the end of a very long passport control line. After waiting patiently without progress for a long time, I began to worry I might miss my flight. Apparently, I looked worried too, because just then someone nearby spoke up in English to suggest that I go straight to the front of the line and demand to be taken care of immediately. Reluctantly I decided to give it a try, and soon came face-to-face with a uniformed clerk with a stony stare. As the clerk tried to wave me off, a second bystander kindly volunteered to interpret. Finally worn down, the man in the uniform gave in, stamped my passport, and let me through.
I crossed over into the secure area and took a moment to regain my calm. I felt shaken but was also suddenly amused as it dawned on me what I had just done. I had exited China by the back door.