China’s massive children’s book market is no secret to anybody. But here are the latest statistics, once again: between January and September 2018, the country’s children’s segment expanded by 14.2% and accounted for 25% (or roughly $2.55 billion) of China’s total retail market. It is estimated that there are nearly 300,000 children’s titles in circulation, with around 15,000 new ones added within the first nine months of this year.
The growth is fueled by several factors, including an expanding middle-class with higher disposable income and a propensity to spend on books; younger parents wanting their children to have the best books and start reading at the youngest age possible; education reform that emphasizes reading in and outside the classroom; and an estimated 370 million children below the age of 18, with about three million added annually through China’s second-child policy.
But most overseas visitors (and even participants at the Beijing and Shanghai international book fairs) may not realize the complexities, diversity, and income inequality in China. “In general, we can divide the country into the metropolitan areas, small cities, and the countryside,” explained Zhang Mingzhou, who is the current president of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), and the first person from China elected to lead the 65-year-old nonprofit organization. “More than half of China’s 1.38 billion people live in urban areas, and obviously, there are more than enough bookstores and books for them. Their main challenge is about not knowing which titles to select for their children.”
On the other hand, Zhang noted that “most rural villages have no access to books, bookstores, or even libraries. So how to get books to these areas—and address the inequality in access to, and distribution of, books—is the biggest issue for this country with a booming children’s book segment.”
Recent years have seen more books being donated to the rural areas, Zhang added. “There are more volunteers than ever before working to get books to the countryside and teaching the locals about the importance of reading and having books. That effort needs to be revved up because many living there are farmers, who are not reading at all or may be illiterate. But things are improving since the government has built more than 600,000 rural libraries, big and small, over the past decade.”
Reading promotion, which IBBY is known for, is becoming more active than ever in China. In fact, during the closing ceremony of the 36th IBBY International Congress in Greece on September 1, the newly elected Zhang announced the establishment of the IBBY-iRead Outstanding Reading Promoter Award. “The name itself is an acknowledgment of Shenzhen-based iRead Foundation’s efforts in promoting reading across China in the past 10 years,” said Zhang, who also pointed out that the foundation has pledged 1.2 million CNY (or approximately $173,000) biennially for the next 20 years for this award. Nominations from IBBY 70 National Sections for the iRead Award will take place every two years, with the first two winners to be announced at the next IBBY Congress in Moscow in 2020.
IBBY, which organizes the Hans Christian Andersen Awards, has also been busy putting together a traveling exhibition showcasing the works of the winning illustrators since 1966. Several major cities in China have hosted the IBBY Hans Christian Andersen Awards Exhibition, including Beijing and Shanghai (in 2017), and Hangzhou and Shenzhen (in 2018). The original artworks from about 25 illustrators—including Mitsumasa Anno, Robert Ingpen, Roger Mello, Maurice Sendak, and Peter Sís—are targeted at sparking imagination not just in children but also budding Chinese illustrators.
IBBY executive director Liz Page said, “We want to connect content creators with readers, and this exhibition is one of the ways we reach out to the public to inspire them. As the biggest children’s book market in the world, China is also a place for publishers—domestic and global—to create and illustrate stories. We are seeing more co-publishing efforts bringing Chinese publishers and overseas illustrators together.” Feather and Lemon Butterfly, for example, were two picture books created by two Hans Christian Andersen Award winners, Chinese author Cao Wenxuan and Brazilian illustrator Roger Mello.
Page added that IBBY “is happy to cooperate with different organizations to offer platforms that provide access to quality books, talks, and research related to picture books, and facilitate collaboration between Chinese publishers and their counterparts from other countries.”
The goal of IBBY, Zhang reiterated, “is all about bringing books and children together, upholding the right of every child to become a reader, and ensuring access to quality children’s literature around the world.”