The €7,500 grand prize of the inaugural Key Colours Competition China, which was awarded in August 2017, went to Wang Yuwei’s Mr Cat and Little Fairy; five other books received honorable mentions. All six works will be published in Chinese by Beijing Yutian Hanfeng, with print runs ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 copies, and in Dutch and English by Belgian publisher Clavis, with 3,000 copies for each edition.

This competition was the culmination of a two-day workshop led by six industry experts: children’s author Mei Zihan, Clavis founder and publisher Philippe Werck, illustrators Mark Janssen and Tian Yu, child psychologist Wendy Peerlings, and Poplar cofounder Akiko Nakanishi. A total of 120 entries for the competition were received.

An Hongmin, president of Beijing Yutian Hanfeng, says, “China is easily 20 years behind Western countries in picture book creation and publishing. Chinese illustrators, while talented, are not familiar with the rules and principles of creating quality picture books. They need more nurturing, encouragement, and motivation—all of which we hope to deliver through the workshop and competition.”

An, who is aware that his 18-year-old company—considered an old-timer among Chinese independent publishing houses—has yet to stretch beyond the domestic market, says: “This is our opening gambit to become a global player, with the competition aimed at uncovering high-quality content for the international market. While we want to redress the Chinese market imbalance where translations far outnumber originals, safeguarding the future of local illustrators and their works is the ultimate goal.”

The decision to collaborate with An is a no-brainer, Werck says. “Whenever we sit down together to discuss titles or the market in general, the Beijing Yutian Hanfeng team is never driven by the need to outbid other companies or simply grab a title for translation; they are always analytical and careful. This approach, which differentiates them from others, is what we want in a partner.” Werck, who has sold about 600 titles to China, views the collaboration as an opportunity to give back. “This competition provides us with Chinese works and illustrators that we can promote to the rest of the world, thereby kick-starting a two-way rights exchange.”

Werck and An have agreed on a 12-year collaboration, or six Key Color competitions. “Our goal is to get illustrators to think internationally—not locally—right from the manuscript stage, to increase their chances of being published and translated in other languages,” explains Werck, who founded Clavis 40 years ago and launched the Key Colours Competition in Hasselt in 1994.

One popular theme from the inaugural competition that struck the collaborators as uniquely Chinese revolves around the loneliness of children left behind in rural regions while their parents work in the bigger cities. Werck says, “We know we will uncover new talents as well as unique themes that differ from those coming from Europe. Overall, we are impressed by the quality of the entries. This has been an auspicious start to a new type of collaboration—going beyond conventional rights trading—between East and West.”