This year marked the 60th anniversary of Xinjiang Juvenile Publishing House, which is located in Xinjiang, a province that makes up one-sixth of China’s total land area and borders eight countries, including Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Its location in the vast nation’s interior and the presence there of 47 ethnic groups have influenced XJPH’s unique publishing program.
Afanti, a Uighur protagonist who is never far from his donkey or a witty remark, is XJPH’s most famous brand. His stories are inspired by the folklore corpus of Nasreddin, who lived nearly 750 years ago and whose stories are celebrated by various cultures and countries along the ancient Silk Road. More than 30 Afanti titles—covering picture books, comics, and fiction for children ages 3–12—have been created by XJPH since 2005, with over one million copies sold.
“Delving into Xinjiang folktales, history, culture, and literature to produce outstanding titles is what we do best,” says Xu Jiang, president of XJPH, which is the only multilingual children’s press in China, with publications in Chinese, Kazakh, and Uighur. “At the same time, mostly due to our remote location, we are able to give fresh perspectives on, say, Beijing culture and its tourist attractions. Bao Dongni’s When I Was in My Childhood series, for instance, is about snacks, hutongs, and life in old Beijing seen through the eyes of children. Another series, Ming’s Adventure, revolves around a young boy’s travels—visiting the terra-cotta army, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall, for instance—and his encounters with famous figures of Chinese history. Ming’s stories strike a chord not just with children from China but also with children from overseas—resulting in sales of the series’ rights to Brazil, Portugal, and the U.S.”
Another of XJPH’s series, the seven-volume Quintessence of Chinese Opera, makes classic Chinese opera stories accessible and enjoyable to children. Launched during the 2014 Shanghai Children’s Book Fair, this groundbreaking series has been reprinted five times for a total of 150,000 copies. “Four more titles will soon be added to this series while five more are in development,” adds Xu, whose company has also published a 14-volume series on the Mongolian epic Jangar, illustrated to highlight the nomadic culture, warring tribes, and rugged landscape of Mongolia.
But Xu is just as keen to bring in the best books from overseas. Among the company’s biggest ever imports is Berenstain Bears. After it bought rights to the series in 2003, XJPH published 30 Berenstain titles in three years and trademarked the name BeiBei Xiong (literally, “BeiBei Bears”) in China. It took XJPH five long years to promote the series, which came into the market at a time when little attention was paid to picture books. Ten years later, sales for the series (totaling 147 titles) exceeded 18 million copies. Unfortunately, the rights deal was not renewed after 2014.
“It was a huge disappointment and a big lesson,” Xu says. “We did not communicate enough on the progress made and on the effectiveness of the trademark and events in turning the series into a bestselling brand. We learned the need for direct—and more effective—communication with our overseas partners.” Xu’s team is applying those lessons to promote and brand another big series, Marc Brown’s Arthur. “We bought 50 titles in 2011, and the total sales have already exceeded one million copies.”
Increased dealings with overseas partners prompted Xu to establish an office in Cologne, Germany, in July 2016, to forge closer collaborations with and gain better understanding of the global book market. To date, Xu and his team have bought rights from over 20 countries, including Finland, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S. Among XJPH’s most recent acquisitions are Chris Monroe’s Monkey with a Tool Belt and the Maniac Muffins and Isabelle Simler’s Cette nuit-là au musée (That night at the museum).
“I’m interested in having current bestsellers such as the Magic School Bus series translated into minority languages,” Xu says, pointing out the need to make proven and quality content available in Kazakh and Uighur in the province. “However, since sales will only be a fraction of the simplified-Chinese edition, publishers do need to consider accepting a lower rights fee for these minority-language editions and to think of it as a philanthropic gesture to help support the reading needs of minority children.”
For Xu, Xinjiang’s name, which literally means “new frontiers,” perfectly encapsulates his mission of “leveraging Xinjiang’s cultural diversity, openness, and talents to rise to new market challenges and opportunities, domestically and internationally.”