“Helping every kid to become a book lover” is the motto at Thinkingdom Children’s Books, which was established in 2002 to translate classic and award-winning children’s books. Less than one year later, it published two well-known authors: Tetsuko Kuroyanagi (Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window) and Shel Silverstein (The Giving Tree, The Missing Piece, and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O).
But the going was tough. “The Chinese children’s book industry had barely started then, and very few good titles were available in the market,” says Li Xin, vice president and general editor of the children’s books division. “Parents and teachers were not reading to children, and reading for leisure was nonexistent. So, our first five years—while we grew slowly and were extra lean—were largely sustained by funds from our adult book side.” The team printed 10,000 copies of The Giving Tree and “basically gave half of that away to parents and teachers and urged them to read it at home and in the classroom.”
Today, Totto-Chan and The Giving Tree are among Thinkingdom’s blockbusters, chalking up sales of more than 10.9 million copies and 1.7 million copies, respectively.
Yoshio Nakae’s Little Mouse series is another bestseller, having sold 11 million copies. “The rights to the series were actually bought in 2001; six titles were published in 2004, followed by another six a year later,” Li says. “When the first six titles were published, our team visited Beijing kindergartens one by one to promote them. Convincing teachers and parents that picture books—even those with very little text—are essential to a child’s development and growth was a slow and painstaking process.” The team has gone on to translate titles by Quint Buchholz, Leo Lionni, Anne Möller, Jörg Müller, and Chris Van Allsburg.
The first printing of Totto-Chan was unusually high at 20,000 copies. “Our strategy has always been to print more in order to keep the unit cost lower for the consumer,” says Li, whose team held talks and gave out copies to promote the title. “It was only when Xinhua News Agency wrote a good article about Totto-Chan that we saw sales picking up.” The book went on to become a part of the recommended reading list for schools.
The so-called golden decades of children’s books in China, Li says, have much to do with the Chinese reform and open policies starting in 1978. “The education reform that took place thereafter means that those born in the 1970s were much more highly educated, and so, as parents, they pay a lot of attention to their children’s reading and learning needs.”
Anticipating the new demand from these educated parents, Thinkingdom started looking for award-winning titles from Italy, Japan, and the United States. “Along the way, we found out that past award winners are much more influential than new writers whose works are just coming into the market,” Li says. “So we shifted our focus to the content—not the award or the author name—and how to market and promote a particular title to the Chinese audience.”
Last year, the publication of originals started in earnest. “In the quest to uncover new talents, we realized that while many can draw beautifully, they cannot tell a captivating story,” Li says. “The required creativity and storytelling ability did not meet the standards that we have established. In fact, there was a lack of understanding about pictorial and prose publication. This means that we need to train illustrators and budding authors of picture books.”
To do that, Li has organized expert-led training sessions (such as with Dong Yang from the Cambridge School of Art) to nurture talented picture book illustrators and authors. The first two sessions drew 45 participants. Most of these participants, Li adds, had some ideas and content, which they refined and polished during the sessions. “Upholding our reputation and standards means that we will publish only those titles that fit our requirements. We are not likely to grow our originals overnight.”
Not surprisingly, Thinkingdom published only 76 children’s titles last year, most of which were reprints. Li says, “Being selective in our publishing program has proven to be the right decision. We may not have as big a catalogue as other publishing houses, but our list contains classics and bestsellers that will be enjoyed by generations of readers to come.”