Mention “pop science” in China and one blockbuster comes to mind: The Magic School Bus. It has remained the #1 children’s title since its launch in 2010, with online retailer Dangdang selling nearly half a million copies in an average year. On Singles’ Day—which is the equivalent of Black Friday in China and falls on November 11—no less than 250,000 copies of books in the series are shipped from Dangdang’s warehouse.
So far, Beijing Dandelion Children’s Book House, the Chinese home of The Magic School Bus, has translated 68 titles in the series. “The authors’ ability to simplify complex scientific knowledge and reasoning into plain language that children can understand is the key to its popularity. And this ability is not easy to come by, locally or overseas,” says foreign rights manager Jing Bo, whose team has recently introduced the German series Forschen, Bauen, Staunen von A bis Z to Chinese children.
Forschen, Bauen, Staunen von A bis Z, which Beijing Dandelion discovered at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair, uses innovative and creative strategies to make unique and beautiful things using various materials. Jing says, “Aside from having great content, the series’s colorful and attractive design caught our eye—and the eye of many parents and children when it was launched at the 2017 Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair in November.” Sales of the German series have exceeded 5,000 sets.
Beijing Dandelion also translated Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski’s Maps and Under Water, Under Earth, as well as Robert E. Wells’s Wells of Knowledge science series. “Wells, for instance, offers a unique learning concept through comparisons—big and small, fast and slow, old and young, and so on—that attracts children, parents, and teachers,” Jing says.
For New Buds Publishing House, Croq’sciences (from Éditions Nathan) marks their first foray into the pop-science segment. Featuring a whole year’s worth of science experiments with monthly themes and two weekly tests, this 16-volume series highlights the role of the father in family education and child development. “This is a science title that doubles as a parent-child bonding tool,” explains editor-in-chief Ma Yuxiu, whose team translated the series in 2016, redesigned the original flap books, and added science kits to suit the demanding Chinese market with its much lower price points. The team has also translated Scholastic’s Discover More series.
At Thinkingdom, the German book Über Land und durch die Luft: So reisen die Pflanzen has proven to be a winner. “When this title came out in 2010, there were very few titles in the Chinese market that combined scientific knowledge and artistic beauty. Parents and educators embraced this book, which then became mandatory reading in many primary schools,” says Li Xin, vice president and general editor of the children’s books division.
Another translated pop-science bestseller at Thinkingdom is the five-volume Stone Age Geometry series, which has sold 95,000 copies since 2016. Prepublication, Li’s team spent considerable time thinking of a suitable Chinese title and preface and the appropriate marketing approach. “Geometry and everyday life are intertwined, but geometry is a particularly abstract discipline,” Li says, adding that it is also difficult for parents to explain geometry to their children. “So we came up with the idea of promoting this book by using examples in everyday life, such as the general preference for holding conferences at a round table instead of a square one. This strategy successfully aroused public interest in the book, which we promoted heavily through various sales channels, old and new, retail and social.”
The increasing popularity of pop-science titles in the Chinese book market—and the disproportionate amount of translations on the bestseller list—is obvious to general manager Liu Qian of Beijing Bright Culture Development Company. “Sourcing local scientists to work on pop-science series is tough,” Liu says. “Often, their works are just too high level for children, and dumbing down is not a good solution. On the other hand, there is this perception that the Q&A format is the go-to style for pop-science titles, though children, parents, and teachers are tired of being inundated by titles in this format.” Liu’s team is working on an original series, tentatively set to launch in 2019, which he hopes will meet market needs in an innovative way.
A six-title picture book series on currency and circulation is also on the way from Beijing Dandelion. According to Jing, “How to provide correct and factual information at a level that children of a specific target age group can comprehend and accept is the biggest challenge in this segment. This makes us even more determined to publish an original series that addresses this gap in the market.”
At Thinkingdom, the pop-science genre has become such a major part of the company that a Children’s Science Books editorial department was specifically created in June 2016. “While there is no shortage of science writers in China, finding those who can write for children is a different matter altogether. Providing serious and rigorous scientific knowledge in a fun, lively, and entertaining way while finding a format, illustrations, and a design suitable for children is not easy,” Li says, pointing out that “when it comes to working with local authors, we need to assess not only their professional skills but also the suitability of their creative works for children.”
Achieving the same levels of creativity and innovation that come from markets with established picture book and pop-science traditions, such as Europe, Japan, and the United States, is another challenge. Li says that two questions need to be answered: “How do we retain the Chinese characteristics within the works and how do we get these works accepted internationally? This is where our new Children’s Science Books editorial department with more defined responsibilities comes into the picture.”
Over at New Buds, its original pop-science series, Don’t Do, Don’t Know: Science Is Really Wonderful, originated with a China Central Television program. “We retain the wonderful experiments and explanations while updating the text with current applications in local and international contexts as well as with predictions. It brings experimenting and science exploration into the classroom and students’ daily lives. This series adds value to the original TV program, making it even better and more popular,” adds Ma.
Pop-science publishing in China has certainly changed since the early days of the Q&A format, which was popularized—and is still monopolized—by Juvenile & Children’s Publishing House’s 100,000 Whys series.
The biggest challenge to the genre today, Ma of New Buds says, “is the surge of payment-based knowledge acquisition, which ranges from relatively low-cost online courses to top-of-the-line field trips—all of which tempt people to acquire knowledge through nontraditional methods. From the supply-side perspective, it is faster and easier to deliver knowledge through voice or video than through books.” From the demand side, Ma finds that “these innovative and efficient methods have changed conventional thinking on knowledge acquisition.”
Ma also observes a shift in format and delivery of pop-science content, which has made this genre even more popular. “Today, the content focus is on getting children to understand science principles in everyday life and to develop their scientific reasoning at a very early age. So pop-science titles now target a much younger audience than before,” adds Ma, who finds pop-science publishing fun to do, in part because it allows her to learn something new.
Now that parents and children have access to excellent books, both foreign and local, they have cultivated a discerning taste for quality titles, Jing of Beijing Dandelion says. “This is pushing publishing houses to produce more attractive and value-added titles, those with unique formats and styles and those that involve new technologies such as augmented and virtual reality.” But, Jing reiterates, “regardless of style or technology, the whole publishing premise relies on delivering quality content to readers. So while it is clichéd, the phrase ‘content is king’ remains true.” ■