For Thinkingdom Children’s Books, the main goal in creating its first series of original children’s picture books goes beyond “helping every kid to become a book lover,” which has been the company’s motto since 2003. “For the longest time,” says Li Xin, vice president and general editor of the children’s book division, “the educational system in China has revolved around academic achievement and passing the college entrance examination. Little has been done about art education, specifically, about developing an understanding of Chinese art. I believe that if we want to nurture the next generation of illustrators and creative people, we must get them to appreciate art—in all forms—when they are young.”
With the Ancient Chinese Paintings in Stories series, which launched in 2017, Li wants to break ground by helping children understand the masterpieces, techniques, and styles of the most famous painters in Chinese art history. The books, which each open up to 64 cm x 23 cm spreads, explore paintings rarely seen outside the national archives and include pages with additional information for further exploration and understanding. “The three titles published so far focus on different subjects,” Li says. “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains is about landscapes, Along the River During the Qingming Festival is about daily life, and Nymph of the Luo River deals with fairy tales.” Li’s team plans to add another two titles to the series by 2020.
The featured paintings date as far back as 1,600 years. “We can see the evolution in painting styles and innovation in the palettes,” Li says. “In the painting A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, which was created 900 years ago, the application of various minerals in the colored pigments was unique then, as it is now. At the back of the book, we discuss the various minerals used and the seemingly formulaic movement of the rolling landscape, thus turning the book into a STEAM title, which parents and educators really like.” Li says the series is attracting not only children but also adults and art aficionados, since it is the first series of its type on the market.
The series has similarities with wordless picture books—for example, Mitsumasa Anno’s Anno’s Journey, Aaron Becker’s Journey trilogy, and Christa Holtei’s Die Strasse: Eine Bilderreise durch 100 Jahre—that Thinkingdom has been promoting and selling successfully. “The paintings, in their original scroll format and on these printed pages, provide a wordless and continuous narration,” Li says, adding that the series author, a 20-year veteran in fine art promotions, used to work with Western art. “We want these high-quality and complex paintings to inspire a new generation of illustrators and painters.”
Meanwhile, the market for translations continue to grow. Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window, (11 million copies sold), Yoshio Nakae’s Little Mouse series (11 million copies sold), David Shannon’s Duck on a Bike (700,000 copies sold), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1.7 million copies sold), for instance, are longtime sellers. The Thinkingdom catalogue, Li says, “though considerably smaller than those of other publishing houses, contains mostly classics and award-winners—and now several original series—that will be enjoyed by generations of readers to come.”
Last year, among the 80 titles published were Carson Ellis’s Du Iz Tak?, Ruth Krauss’s The Carrot Seed, and Marc Martin’s A River. “Carson’s book was an interesting project since the language is totally made up and our editors were not sure that it would work in China,” Li says. “So we asked for a gathering of our staff’s children to check out the book, and sure enough, no interpretation was required. The children understood the whole story without needing to comprehend the words. The power of the imagination and the innate sense of creativity in children are boundless. This makes us want to work harder to publish great titles that will take that power and sense to an even higher level.”
The Carrot Seed, which was published last October, has already sent the team back to press three times since the initial 10,000-copy printing. “It just shows that certain titles are classics and perennial favorites,” Li says. “For this timeless title, which was first published in 1945, the little boy’s perseverance in waiting for his carrot seed to grow has inspired many children—and our team.” Like the boy with his carrot, Li is patiently nurturing authors and illustrators and planning additional original publications to get children to read more and to inspire creativity.