The contradictions embodied in the folk symbol of the witch captured the attention of Sally Yan, founder and editor-in-chief of 11-year-old publishing company Beijing Dandelion. “The witch is a popular figure in Western classics: sometimes as the protagonist; other times, in the periphery. The Western witch can be bad or good, frightful or funny—there is no specific mold to cast her. Not so in Chinese folktales and oral traditions. The Chinese witch is bad and scary, never lovable or even the slightest bit endearing. Chinese kids often equate her with a monster or demon. Why? That is my question and the reason behind this new book from Peng Xuejun,” Yan says, flipping through a copy of Granny Xiu and Peach-Blossom Fish.
The first 3,000-copy printing of Peng’s book sold out during its November launch; a reprint of 7,000 copies soon followed. “The witch in this book, accompanied by her feline companion, is a mystery to the kids in the village,” says Yan, who wants children to read the story and start questioning and wondering. “The illustrations in this picture book are intricately done, with many touches of Miao tribal arts woven throughout. It ends with an abstract teaser, leaving the reader to question the ways that the witch can be bad, scary, lovable, or endearing. The moral of the story is about not judging a person by his or her appearance or by simply agreeing with other people’s judgments.”
A quality picture book, Yan adds, must not be just a feel-good read. “It must provide food for thought. It should invite questions, even when there are no concrete answers. But it must always trigger curiosity and wonder, which is the essence of childhood itself. Without these two elements, the child is isolated and stunted,” adds Yan, who has introduced Chinese children to The Magic School Bus (still China’s #1 title ever since its 2010 launch), Mizielinska and Mizielinski’s Maps, Richard Scarry’s titles, and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. This year will see several new Sendak translations, including In the Night Kitchen, Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work, and Outside Over There.
Yan is trying to identify gaps in the market and evaluate the right titles—originals if possible, imports if more appropriate—to plug those gaps. “The Chinese children’s book market being relatively young opens up opportunities for new formats or story types,” says Yan, whose team has published titles on difficult subjects, such as Michael Morpurgo’s The Kites Are Flying (about hope and friendship in conflict zones) and Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water (about meeting hardship with perseverance). “We must not avoid addressing difficult topics. While we aim to protect our children, we must also expose them to the real world, to inspire and prepare them for their journeys ahead, which are going to be filled with opportunities and challenges, the good and the not-so-good.”
Meanwhile, Yan is busy looking through her past projects to “uncover old gems or dig out those nuggets for the next plot.” The Miao ethnic minority tribe, for her, is fascinating. “Their language, music, food, crafts, and clothes, for instance, stand out for being so different. There are a lot of stories in there as well as commonalities,” she explains, adding that “food, for instance, is an universal theme, and our shared love for food needs little translation.” The Beijing Dandelion team is set to release a new title on Miao food.
“Work is also in progress on a picture book that revolves around the pickled vegetables of Szechuan cuisine. We have no idea where these pickles came from and who first made them and have little familiarity with the many myths behind the dish. And if we do not know, how are we going to explain that to our children? So the tasks for our team are clear: Investigate, collect the fun and interesting bits, and turn them into a beautiful story to educate and inform.” Food as a theme is working well for Yan. There Is Always a Reason to Eat Buns, launched in July 2016, has already sold more than 28,000 copies.
Stories are everywhere if one is willing to search for them, observes Yan. “The minute detail can become an engrossing tale. And the mundane, an exhilarating plot. It is all about imagination and the melding of ideas to hatch the next story. This is what makes children’s book publishing so fun and exciting to me and my team.”