Witness China’s New Love: the Changing Landscape of Chinese Children’s Literature

This post was first published on the Curatorial Blog of the Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University; re-posting with minor changes.

When I registered for the Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair in November 2017, I did not know what to expect. The idea of China hosting a fair fully dedicated to children’s book publishing would seem bold less than five years ago, when the book fair was first established. The state of publishing for children was sorry in China in the 1990s and the early 2000s. You visited the juvenile section of a bookstore and were assaulted by shelves of supplementary study materials and test preparation books, the most lucrative business of Chinese publishers for youth. Books in the public domain, such as Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm, and Andrew Lang were relentlessly reprinted. Choices for families with preschoolers were especially limited. Since the mid-2000s, however, children’s book market has grown rapidly in China.

Over the course of three days at the book fair I was variously surprised, impressed, and delighted. As many as 150 exhibitors and publishers crowded the massive exhibition hall of the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center. Specialized children’s houses do not have a monopoly on children’s books, which have lured numerous general publishing companies and even unlikely competitors such as Chinese university presses!

Publisher’s promotion of a Chinese language learning series, which teaches characters through their origin in hieroglyphs.

An astounding number of children’s writers, illustrators, critics, and scholars from both China and other countries were giving talks and panel discussions, promoting books, and interacting with the public at the fair.

Cao Wenxuan, the first and only Chinese author to win the Hans Christian Andersen award, and Helen Wang, the British translator of his award-winning novel Bronze and Sunflower, met for the first time and had a conversation on the art of translation. The session was moderated by Liz Page, Executive Director of the International Board on Books for Young People.

If the book fair exuded all the vibe of an annual American Library Association Conference and Exhibition, the semblance broke down when, instead of meeting fellow librarians galore, I found that the majority of visitors seemed to be caregivers tethered to youngsters. The gigantic exhibition hall was flooded with children and their adults, some of whom had travelled from nearby cities, booking up hotels as far as two or three metro stops away.

I looked up what was holding the interest of this proudly crowned boy reader. It was a title from Uncle Leo’s Adventures series, by Israeli writer Yannets Levi and illustrator Yaniv Shimony, translated from Hebrew into Chinese. Each Chinese character in the book is marked with pinyin pronunciation guide to make it a bridge book for beginning readers.

The international scope of children’s books offered at the fair also made it different from what are typically available in the US, where translated children’s literature is hard to come by and “international” titles are quite so often equivalent to imports from Britain and Australia. Chinese publishers closely monitor children book awards, bestselling lists, and starred titles in review sources abroad, and snatch up foreign translation rights.

The Shandong Education Press translated many winners of Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava (BIB), which, held in the capital city of Slovakia since 1967, is a competition exhibition of original illustrations to children’s books. In the course of fifty years of BIB history, and its 25 exhibitions, a total of 7,580 illustrators from 110 countries have presented original illustrations for 9,500 books.

New Talents: Illustrators of the Millennial Generation

The book fair held its own illustration contest called Golden Pinwheel Young Illustrators Competition金风车国际青年插画家大赛. The finalists were from as many as fifteen countries that include China, Iran, Spain, and other European, South and North American, and African countries. All born between 1980 and the 1990s, these artists are definitely new names to look out for in future picture books. Here are some of the breathtaking works exhibited at the fair.

Seven Khane Esfandiar by Zahra Mohamadnejad (Iran)

Based on the story of “The Seven Trials of Esfandiar,” a famous episode from The Shahnameh, which is an epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between 977 and 1010 CE. Prince Esfandiar, a legendary Iranian hero, must rescue his two sisters who had been abducted by the king of Turan Arjaasb. He had to accomplish seven dangerous tasks before he could reach the Roein Fortress, meaning “Invincible Fortress,” where he battled the king.*

The Forest in Me by Adolfo Serra (Spain)

A visual meditation on the forest and its metaphor: “To walk into the forest is to walk into yourself. The forest is a journey, where we can find our fears as well as our dreams, and even discover the forest that grows within us.”

The Golden Beard and Red Sweater金胡子和红毛衣 by Yu Yin俞寅 (China) [Amazon.com]

An old granny liked to sit at the window and knit her sweater. The Sun came to watch her knit every day, and then his golden mustache was accidentally woven into the sweater. What a tantrum the Sun threw! But what could he do about the granny, who could not see well and was quite deaf? The economy of color accounts for half of the charm of the pictures.

The Timeless Island永恒岛 by Tu Qianwen涂倩雯 (China)

When a young girl learns that her dog can live for only twenty years, she launches a journey to look for the Timeless Island, a place with no time, so that she and her dog can have each other’s company forever.

The Escape of School Bags书包逃跑记 by Kiki Ni倪思琪 (China)

A story that deals with the issue of school corporal punishment. The artist plays with size and color to visualize emotional tension.

The Adventure of Little Tadpoles in Search for Their Mom小蝌蚪找妈妈历险记 by Mango Xu徐虹艳 (China)

A retelling of Little Tadpoles Look for Their Mummy小蝌蚪找妈妈, a story known by every Chinese school kid. Danger and deception await the inexperienced but determined tadpoles!

Music Life音乐人生 by Zhu Yu朱昱 (China)

“Draw a moon for the lonely night sky, and draw me singing under the moon.” The caption of the pictures is taken from “Drawing,” a pop song written by Zhao Lei. The lyric is loosely inspired by Ma Liang and His Magic Brush神笔马良, a Chinese fairy tale by Hong Xuntao洪汛涛 about a poor boy with a magic brush. Whatever he paints with that brush immediately materializes. The boy thus uses the powerful brush to help poor people and punish greedy and abusive officials. In the guitar song, a young singer draws as if he had been given a magic brush, longing for a life that is free from stress and loneliness.

The Reeds by Birfish春鱼秋鸟 (China)

A beautiful rendition of “Jian Jia”蒹葭, a poem from The Classic of Poetry诗经, the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC.

A tree grew in the children’s book fair.

This red-trunked tree, bearing fruit of children’s books, grew in the exhibition hall. It perhaps best captures the changing landscape of children’s publishing in China. Chinese families have found a new love for children’s literature; and children’s literature, created by Chinese and international talents, will prosper in this land.


*Description courtesy of Dr. Razieh Taasob.


The NCTA Freeman Book Awards

The 2017 NCTA Freeman Book Awards have just been announced. I’m delighted that Bronze and Sunflower has won the young adult/middle school literature award, and that An’s Seed received an honourable mention. I didn’t really know what the Freeman awards were about. Who better to ask than David Jacobson, whose book Are You an Echo? received an honourable mention last year to tell us about the prize, and what winning meant to him. 


Bronze and Sunflower, by CAO Wenxuan, tr. Helen Wang (Candlewick Press, 2017)


Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko  by Misuzu Kaneko (Author),‎ Toshikado Hajiri (Illustrator),‎ Sally Ito (Translator),‎ David Jacobson (Translator),‎ Michiko Tsuboi(Translator),‎ Setsuo Yazaki (Foreword)  – image credit amazon.com

David:  Thanks, Helen, for this opportunity.  To be frank, I didn’t know much about them either, when my publisher applied for consideration. That was in the winter of 2016, and we had just learned that a new Asia-related prize would be added to the slew of children’s book awards announced at the American Library Association’s annual mid-winter meeting. So, of course we applied…

In April, we received word that Are You an Echo? had received an honorable mention, so I did a little sleuthing online to find out a little more about the awards.  In so doing, I discovered that the University of Washington’s East Asia Resource Room was about to hold a National Consortium for Teaching about Asia (NCTA) seminar using my book as one of its teaching materials.  So I contacted them and offered to introduce the book and answer questions, if they desired.  They did, and I ended up teaching a seminar to about 25 elementary and secondary school teachers.

Which brings me to what I find so striking to me about my experience with the Freeman Award:  the immediate connection it has helped me create with teachers who care about introducing Asia to their students.  Besides the seminar last spring, NCTA also invited me to participate in two sessions at its upcoming summer institute (one about Echo and the other about the database of translated children’s books in Chinese, Japanese and Korean  that we published on this blog), and possibly an online webinar in the fall.

That, it turns out, is the essence of NCTA’s mission: to make a “permanent place for East Asia in K-12 classrooms in the United States,” according to Mary Hammond Bernson, who is both NCTA co-founder as well as the director of the East Asia Resource Center at UW, one of the seven national coordinating sites that make up NCTA.

Founded in 1988, NCTA’s principal vehicle for aiding teachers has been its teacher seminars; some 22,000 educators have participated to date.  But a few years ago, it discovered that other organizations were recognizing and promoting international children’s books with prizes such as the South Asian Book Awards, but there were none for East and Southeast Asia.

So it started the Freeman Book Awards.  Unlike other prizes such as the Scholastic Asian Book Award and the APALA Children’s Book Awards (which are limited to those who are Asian or of Asian descent), the Freeman awards do not consider Asian-American focused topics.

“We are simply hoping to promote literature, as opposed to text books, that will interest K-12 students,” says Roberta Martin, a senior researcher at Columbia and also a co-founder of NCTA (Columbia is another of the national coordinating sites).

The awards are named for the Freeman family, whose foundation (the Freeman Foundation) funds both NCTA and the book prizes.  For a colorful history of the Freeman family’s 100-year-long association with Asia, see this interview of Houghton Freeman.

The Freeman Book Awards are offered in two categories, children’s and young adult literature.  Submission guidelines and instructions can be found here. This year’s deadline for books published in 2018 is August 31.

Winners and Honorable Mentions 2017 

Children’s Literature

  • Winner: The Crane Girl by Curtis Manley, illustr. by Lin Wang (Shen’s Books) – Fiction, set in Japan
  • Honorable Mention: An’s Seed by Zaozao Wang, illustr. by Li Huang, tr. Helen Wang (Candied Plums; Bilingual edition) – Fiction, set in China
  • Honorable Mention: Chibi Samurai Wants a Pet by Sanae Ishida (Little Bigfoot) – Fiction, set in Japan
  • Honorable Mention: My First Book of Vietnamese Words by Tran Thi Minh Phuoc (Tuttle Publishing; Bilingual edition) – Fiction, set in Vietnam

Young Adult/Middle School Literature

  • Winner: Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, illustr. by Meilo So, tr. Helen Wang (Candlewick Press) – Fiction, set in China
  • Honorable Mention: Hotaka: Through My Eyes – Natural Disaster Zones by John Heffernan, edited by Lyn White (Allen & Unwin) – Fiction, set in Japan
  • Honorable Mention: Ten: A Soccer Story by Shamini Flint (Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – Fiction, set in Malaysia
  • Honorable Mention: The Emperor’s Riddle by Kat Zhang (Simon & Schuster; Aladdin) – Fiction, set in China

Young Adult/High School Literature

  • Winner: The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball by Doris Jones Yang (Spark Press) – Fiction, set in Japan and the U.S.
  • Honorable Mention: Want by Cindy Pon (Simon & Schuster; Simon Pulse) – Fiction, set in Taiwan
  • Honorable Mention: Tanabata Wishby Sara Fujimura (Wishes Enterprises, LLC) – Fiction, set in Japan

 Winners and Honorable Mentions 2016

Children’s Literature

  • Winner: My Night in the Planetarium by Innosanto Nagara (Seven Stories Press) – Non-Fiction, set in Indonesia
  • Honorable Mention: Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko by Misuzu Kaneko (Chin Music Press) – Non-Fiction, set in Japan

Young Adult/Middle School Literature

  • Winner: Somewhere Among by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) – Fiction, set in Japan
  • Winner: The Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky) – Fiction, set in Japan
  • Honorable Mention: Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth by Holly Thompson (Henry Holt BYR/Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group) – Fiction, set in Japan

Young Adult/High School Literature

  • Winner: Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea by Sungju Lee and Susan Elizabeth McClelland (Amulet, an imprint of ABRAMS) – Non-Fiction, set in North Korea
  • Honorable Mention: Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson (Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group) – Non-Fiction, set in Japan


Getting to Know Rural Young Chinese Readers and Their World(s)

I recently had the privilege of visiting four schools in southern Zhejiang Province and talking to students from three of them about books, reading, and learning. It was part of an outreach program organized by the local public library of my hometown, where I was visiting family in late November 2017. The library hoped a librarian’s lecture like mine would instill a love of reading into the fresh and curious minds of those students. At the end of the tour, however, I knew I was bestowed with so much more from those young people than they learned from my static PowerPoint slides.

Children in the Town of Wooden Toys

The topography of Yunhe can be compared to a dinner bowl, with its township seated at the flat bottom of the bowl, and hundreds of villages strewn over the encircling mountains that overlook the increasingly urbanized town center. One main industry of the county is wooden toys, which local factories started producing at a miraculously early period of the 1970s, before the Cultural Revolution had ended.

A wooden toy rickshaw, curtained by blue print fabric in batik style and with moving wheels. From Wooden Toy Library and Museum, a special collection curated by the local public library.

If you had imagined that children growing up in the hometown of wooden toys are blessed with all the play and fun that Pinocchio is promised in Pleasure Island, the reality may disappoint you. For long decades wooden toys were not even sold in this town, but were produced for export primarily under contract with German companies. Some of the school dropouts and middle school graduates, if they had not joined any street gang, could secure their first jobs in mom-and-pop shops and factories of every size, spinning and cutting wood, and painting and assembling rolling trains, quacking ducks, and colorful abacuses. I visited a rudimentary two-room toy shop a quarter of a century ago, where girls newly out of school worked next to mercury lamps that dried a fresh coat of paint on toys, and were warned to discontinue at least six months before they planned to have a baby. Packaged and shipped, these wooden toys eventually found their way into the homes of children living across the globe.

For children who grow up in Yunhe, wooden toys mean employment and livelihood more than anything else, not that they would not enjoy playing with them if you placed a good one in their hands. College education offers a hope for escaping the repetitive, low-paying work of stringing beads and assembling parts in unsafe factory environments. Every family is preoccupied with their children getting good grades, attending ever better schools, and being admitted into good college programs that promise good job prospects.

Young Readers

The best part of visiting schools was that I got to hear about children’s interests and thoughts about books and reading. In each school I asked them to talk about their favorite book titles and story characters, and to speak about the latest book they had read. First they exchanged answers with a neighboring classmate, and then I invited volunteers to share their reading interests with us all.

Fourth and fifth graders in Yunhe Central Elementary School, China, November 2017. (Photos courtesy of the Yunhe Public Library)

Yunhe Central Elementary School is the largest elementary school in the county and the best equipped one. The wooden desks and windows of the auditorium are beautifully made in the antique Chinese style, befitting even a lecture by Confucius, except that he probably would not know how to operate the computer that casts words and pictures on the gigantic screen behind the dais. After an initial moment of shyness, children started raising their hands. Journey to the West西游记, the classical Chinese folktale about the much-loved supernatural Monkey, was one child’s favorite book. One girl cited Cao Wenxuan’s The Grass House as the title she loved most, and named Zhiyue, a quiet, shy, and smart girl in the story, as her favorite character.

The saga of the stubborn Monkey King’s journey to obtain Buddhist sutra from India has been retold numerous times in all kinds of genres and formats. It is now available in pop-up books. Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Heaven大闹天宫, adapted by Fang Suzhen方素珍; illustrated by Wang Yihan王毅汉, etc.; paper engineering by Chen Qing陈庆. Beijing: Beijing lian he chu ban gong si北京联合出版公司, 2016. (Image source)

Zhiyue (纸月, the delicate name means “paper moon”), the girl on the right, stays overnight with a boy classmate’s little sister when a storm prevents her from returning home, and regales the latter with rhymes. In The Grass House草房子, by Cao Wenxuan曹文轩; illustrated by Sonja Danowski. Beijing: China Juvenile and Children Publishing House中国少年儿童出版社, 2016. (Image source: Sonja Danowski)

The students that were the most reluctant to go under the spotlight, surprise, surprise, were teenagers from the high school. One brave soul volunteered that she loved Grimms’ Fairy Tales best. Knowing very little about what other books she had read and enjoyed, I could only speculate if the student was like me, someone who loved reading but fell through the YA gap during high school. Publishing for YA was and still is not strong in China. Young readers graduating from folktales and children’s stories are often encouraged by adults to move onto Chinese and World Classics (Dream of the Red Chamber红楼梦, The Red and the Black, and the sort), and not every teenager can make that flying leap.

The second girl who stood up was even braver, because she made a confession with the full awareness that teachers in the auditorium were listening. What she read was mostly novels, she admitted. The Chinese word for “novel”–小说 (which translates directly as “small talk”) –almost connotes “frivolous content.” Used in this sense, “novel” could refer to works of fiction that are not considered of high literary quality. The student mumbled the word in such an apologetic tone that, as her voice trailed off, she seemed to be waiting for laughter and rebuke to fill in the silence. Fellow students who heard her did laugh, but not unkindly. “This classmate told us she likes reading novels in a tone as if she felt sorry for that.” I commented, “Never apologize for your reading choice and interest.” To my surprise, the audience broke into applause.

One of the main messages I gave students and teachers in these talks was to diversify what they read in terms of subject matter and genre. To make my point, I compared reading with eating. Chinese all believe ginseng boosts health, but no parents in their right minds would feed ginseng, and only ginseng, to their children three meals a day. We understand that our body needs a wide array of nutrition from all sorts of food. Books are like that too. Then I showed two book covers, one was Dream of the Red Chamber, which is one of the Four Classic Chinese Novels, and the other was Photoshop for Dummies. I asked which book I should read if I wanted to learn how to use the graphic design software called Photoshop. The answer that impressed me most came from a little girl from an elementary school in a mountain village, the last stop of my tour. In a confident tone she replied that we should read both titles, because each had different things to offer. “Yes, that’s right.” I confirmed, “The second book can quickly teach you how to use the tool. Dream of the Red Chamber will cultivate an aesthetic taste in you. Both help you design better images.”

A village school cradled by the mountains.

The girl’s school was in the poorest village that I visited. Every child there qualified for free school lunch. There was a high rate of broken families in this village. A third of the students, as the school principal told me, did not have mothers in their lives any more. After giving birth, these women, who came from even poorer regions through mercenary marriage, would quietly leave and disappear one day. (See Helen Wang’s interview of Mei Fong, whose book One Child points out that gender imbalance and rural bachelors are among the big unintended consequences of China’s One Child policy.)

Students in this school impressed me in more than one way. The building did not have an auditorium. Because the student population was tiny, the school principal decided that we could all fit snugly into one classroom. The students were asked to bring extra chairs in. They got to work immediately and with enthusiasm, running up and down the stairs between classrooms. Some boys and girls carried two chairs at a time. That must be why we adults all got to sit.

School Libraries

In each school I was given a little tour. Principals and teachers were proud to show me the new school buildings (the best facilities in mountain villages and in the neighborhood), student dorms and canteens, bulletin boards that showcased alumni’s success stories, and, at the central elementary school in town, an elegant garden with a pond and an arched stone bridge. Not a single school, however, thought of taking me to its library collection.

This flight of stone steps led to one of the mountain village schools I visited.

I found the library myself in one of the village schools. It was the morning of Thanksgiving, Thursday, November 23, when I visited. Chinese have informally adopted the holiday as an occasion for expressing thankfulness. The school was holding a speech contest on the theme of gratitude. Lacking an auditorium, children brought their chairs and gathered outside in the school playground, all bundled up against the chilly open air. Because of the difference in altitude, the temperature in the mountains was always lower than in the town. Children and adults alike kept overcoats on indoors anyway, because buildings in Yunhe have never known central heating systems.

Students from an elementary school in a mountain village. They were waiting for the start of a speech contest on the topic of gratitude while bracing the winter air out in the open.

The library room was open even though the sign on the door indicated that its regular hours were during lunch time and early evenings, for a maximum of an hour and forty minutes on school days. The room had been temporarily used to store Thanksgiving gifts donated by local businesses, to be handed out to each child at the end of the speech contest. Even though the library collection could use some organization, I was delighted to see that there was no lack of good reads. On the floor were new deliveries that had yet to be unpacked and shelved. Among them I spotted the Harry Potter series, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, as well as Maxim Gorky’s autobiographies, My Childhood and In the World.

A big area for improvement was the Recommended New Books in the Library posted on the door. They were all sound works, but were they really the best choice for elementary school students? The great majority of them were either alarmingly old or not children’s literature at all, or both.

Recommended New Arrivals

Children’s literature

Heart爱的教育 by Edmondo De Amicis, first published in 1886.

Starring Night, Spring Water繁星春水, poetry anthology by Bing Xing冰心, first published in 1923.

The Little Guerilla Soldier小游击队员, juvenile fiction by Wang Yuanjian王愿坚.

Little Soldier Zhang Ga小兵张嘎, juvenile fiction set during the Sino-Japanese War, by Xu Guangyao徐光耀 (See Helen Wang’s post).

The Singing Cat会唱歌的猫, juvenile fiction by Yang Hongying杨红樱 (2013).

Tears of Life生命流泪的样子, juvenile fiction by Wu Meizhen伍美珍 (2010).

Other titles

Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk朝花夕拾, possibly an essay collection by Lu Xun鲁迅, first published in 1928.

Rickshaw Boy骆驼祥子 by Lao She老舍, first published in 1929.

Teahouse茶馆, a play by Lao She老舍, first published in 1957.

How the Steel Was Tempered钢铁是怎样炼成的, by Nikolai Ostrovsky, first published in 1932-1934.

Les Misérables悲惨世界by Victor Hugo.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame巴黎圣母院by Victor Hugo.

And Quiet Flows the Don静静的顿河by Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov, first published in 1928–1932.

Red Crag红岩, historical fiction set during China’s Civil War, by Luo Guangbin罗广斌 and Yang Yiyan杨益言, first published in 1961.

Red Sun红日, historical fiction set during China’s Civil War, by Wu Qiang吴强, first published in 1959.

Love in a Fallen City倾城之恋, a love story set before and after the outbreak of the Pacific War, by Eileen Chang张爱玲, first published in 1943.

If You Are Safe and Sound, Then the Skies Are Blue你若安好便是晴天, biography of Lin Weiyin, a female Chinese architect, by Bai Luomei白落梅 (2011).

The Etruscan Smile爷爷的微笑by José Luis Sampedro (Chinese translation in 2009).

Reminiscing Is a Light Pain回忆是一种淡淡的痛, an essay collection by Taiwanese writers that include Long Yingtai龙应台 (2013).

I cannot help wondering if it was unhelpful recommended reading lists like this that were partly responsible for the teenager we witnessed earlier, not having expanded much beyond childhood favorites. Actually, when I asked the high school audience if they had read the Harry Potter series, many drew a blank face and shook their heads.

A Young User of the 24/7 Reading Room

A reading room run by the local public library, open 24/7 to the public – a swipe of one’s Resident’s Identity Card opens the glass door with all the magic of Ali Baba’s password “open sesame.” (Photos courtesy of Xiaoli)

In the reading room that was open 24/7 to public in town, I met Xiaoli, who had just started vocational school in the fall semester. (Xiaoli took all the photos of the reading room for me.) The room was brightly lit, welcoming and comforting with its large windows, and blissfully warm thanks to the air conditioner and relatively good insulation of the room. The walls were lined with new books in various genres for all ages, from books for children to self-help titles, literature, history, and so on. The room offered free wifi signals. Xiaoli had both library books and her coursework on the table. She told me that her parents were migrant workers from Sichuan province, having been attracted to this town by job opportunities. She moved here at a young age and grew up in Yunhe. Having not been admitted into high school by a narrow margin, she was studying e-commerce at the local vocational school but in a program that allowed students to switch to an academic track if they kept up with the coursework necessary for college entrance exams. Xiaoli liked to work in the reading room after school, explaining that it was quieter than at home. It comforted me to know a child of a migrant workers’ family could find a free haven to read and study.

I have not been able to present a neat picture of this small rural county, which defies a simplified description that would fit everything into a few adjectives easy for outsiders to process and remember—it is neither rich or poor, well-equipped or woefully lacking, developing or backwards, education-driven or lip service. If anything, I have failed to capture the full complexity of the town and its skirting villages. They have evolved and transformed at different paces as the world has hurtled forward, and they are not immune to the social and environmental issues that have come with high-speed modernisation. However, in those curious, warm, and resilient young students, who shouted words of gratitude to the crisp mountain air, who carried extra chairs for teachers and guests without being asked to, I could not help seeing hope.

P.S. I would like to set up donation of English-language picture books to the Yunhe Public Library. If you are aware of potential donor organizations, please drop me a note. Thanks!

Interview with Chloe Garcia Roberts, translator of the picture book “Feather” by Cao Wenxuan and Roger Mello

2017 saw the publication of Feather, the stunning picture book collaboration between author Cao Wenxuan and illustrator Roger Mello [you can read Minjie Chen and David Jacobson’s post about Cao and Mello at the USBBY conference in Seattle here].  I was delighted to discover that the translator was Chloe Garcia Roberts, poet (The Reveal, 2015), translator and managing editor of the Harvard Review. I know her better for her translations of poetry by the Tang dynasty poet LI Shangyin 李商隱 (813-858), and was keen to learn more about Chloe’s work, and how she came to translate Feather. She very kindly agreed to an interview. 


Feather 羽毛written by Cao Wenxuan and illustrated by Roger Mello. English edition

Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Chloe! Please tell us about yourself! 

Thank you Helen for the invitation, I am in the middle of reading your beautiful translation of Cao’s Bronze and Sunflower and just loving it. It’s really a pleasure to connect with a translator working on a different facet of Cao’s work.

About myself, I am a poet and a translator. I have always been interested in languages, having grown up between English and Spanish in my own family, and all of my very favorite writers were and are also translators. So doing both has been a natural evolution. I see translation as a necessary complement to my writing, which is very insular and solitary. Translation feels like a way to connect and be of service even if the author I am working with is no longer alive.

I began studying Chinese in college, continued my studies in Beijing and had the good fortune of getting my MFA at the University of Oregon where they allowed me to focus on translation alongside my own poetry. I started researching and working on the poetry of Li Shangyin while I was there. After graduate school, I was a contract translator for an academic publisher for a few years and then slowly started exclusively working on literary translation. Over the past several years, I’ve published one book of translations of Li Shangyin’s work (Derangements of My Contemporaries, New Directions, 2014) and have another coming out this summer (The Selected Poetry of Li Shangyin, NYRB). Currently I am the managing editor at Harvard Review where I do try to do what I can to help include and support other literary translators. We have an online column, Omniglots, for example where each month we feature a new project in translation. I also occasionally teach or give workshops on poetry and literary translation. Finally, I have a few possible projects in the works now, but nothing definite so I am thinking a lot about a new translation project!

How did you come to translate the picture book Feather by Cao Wenxuan and Roger Mello?

Serendipitously, this project came to me by invitation through Archipelago editor, Kendall Story. I had of course been a fan of Archipelago for years and am so excited to be a part of their brand new imprint of children’s literature in translation, Elsewhere Editions. Kendall sent me a copy of the original book and I fell in love with it immediately. Working on it was such a pleasure, and I would love to do more.

I’ll admit to being surprised to see you leap from writing and translating in a more adult world to working on a picture book, a genre more usually associated with younger readers. How did you go about translating Feather?

In all areas of my life I strive to keep trying new things and when I received Kendall’s invitation to translate the text I was immediately curious. It’s true I hadn’t thought of doing this type of translation before, but at the same time I have a six year-old son and a two year-old daughter and realistically, between bedtimes, and homework, and just reading together on the couch, I am probably reading more children’s literature at this point than any other type. It’s been an interesting journey to return to this genre as a parent now instead of the child, as the reader and not the listener. I really tried to apply my new parent knowledge in my translation, and thought about both the children who will be listening to the words, and the adults who will be reading the book out loud. I know if we forget the latter with a book aimed at younger children, the book won’t become a favorite. And interestingly, I found that there is a lot of overlap between translating poetry and translating children’s literature, both must sound graceful in addition to presenting their subject matter in a new, or exciting way. Throughout the process I read my drafts out loud to my son so see how they felt, and how we both connected to the subject matter.

Recently, in Seattle and Shanghai, Cao Wenxuan has talked about the importance of philosophy in literature. Did you sense this as you were translating “Feather”? Or anything else?

I knew that Cao Wenxuan was a professor of Chinese literature and had a strong interest in philosophy, and he emphasizes the connection between philosophy and children’s literature in his introduction, so from the outset I knew that was the lens that I would translate through. With this in mind, I strove for consistency in my language and worked to keep the author’s expansiveness of meaning. A big part of the translation work was solving what the repeated language would be so that these phrases and points could be touchstones for the reader as Cao Wenxuan takes us through the various phases of feather’s journey. For example, I tried out various renditions of  the repeated, “Am I yours?” line until I found the line I thought would both sound the best, but also echo Cao’s stated parallels with the human search for understanding. In other words, I wanted the line to feel familiar, almost something that the reader has already said to themselves many times. In that same vein, I translated feather as both a description of what the main character was and her name, so that her search for meaning could really be inhabited by the reader. Finally, the push and pull between Feather’s will and the force of the wind was also something that I really focused on, Cao uses some repetitive phrases in regards to the wind, but the instances of the wind taking control of Feather are themselves repetitive interludes that punctuate all of the conversations and stages of Feather’s journey. I wanted to make sure that these points, like in the Chinese, had an inevitable and natural feel like the drawing back and crashing of a wave.

Above:  Feather, read by Chloe Garcia-Roberts

Finally, a word or two about Roger Mello – what was it like to translate Cao and Mello’s collaborative work? Is there a page/part of the book that particularly sang to you?

I immediately connected with Roger Mello’s illustrations of the book, and the harmony between the words and his magical images definitely drew me to the project. As is the case in other great children’s books Cao and Mello’s contributions resonate against each other in new ways every time I read the book. There is always something more to find here in both the words and the images. Personally I particularly loved Mello’s interpretations of the Ming blue and white vessels. Mello’s renderings are fresh, playful, and personal (you can see the roughness of his strokes in some places) and yet they reference a recognizable formal tradition very clearly. In terms of the text, I loved Feather’s time with the kind-hearted skylark. Those moments in the book channeled a pure and present joy, a kind of reveling in journey, that I really appreciated.

Thank you, Chloe, and many congratulations! Feather has already received some excellent reviews, including the ones below:

Kirkus Review

Publishers Weekly

School Library Journal

Outside In World



China Welfare Institute Publishing House: Picture Books from China, with Love & Beauty

This guest blog by Helen Limon was first published on Children’s Literature in Newcastle, the blog of the Children’s Literature Unit Graduate Group (CLUGG) at Newcastle University, UK earlier this month. Many thanks to Helen Limon and CLUGG for allowing us to repost it here. We’ve added in some Chinese and a few weblinks.


Helen Limon writes:

Shanghai, January 2018

During the knowledge-exchange program for the Visiting Publishers Fellowship at the Shanghai International Children Book Fair, in November 2017, I spent an inspiring afternoon at the China Welfare Institute Publishing House’s 中国中福会出版社 picture book publishing department. The Publishing House has developed into a comprehensive one from a magazine house which was founded in 1950 by the formidable visionary and philanthropist, President Soong Ching Ling, guided by her philosophy: “Giving Children the Most Valuable Things”.

Located in a designated Heritage Building, in a lovely part of the city, the Institute’s dedicated editorial team (led by Yu Lan 余岚) is the power-house behind a range of beautifully produced picture books portraying contemporary Chinese family life. The Love and Beauty list is part of the range marketed for independent readers. [1] The Publishing House has won many honours for its books and the team is committed to engaging with young Chinese writers and illustrators and to make their work available to a wider readership.

A number of their fiction and non-fiction titles are available in other languages. For example, I Have a Little Lantern by author and illustrator, Gan Dayong, is a very charming story about a little girl’s long journey to school in the dark of the early morning. On the way, she meets many anxious animals but her lantern, and the knowledge that her teacher is watching out for her, lights up the dawn for them all. This title is available in Mandarin, English and Mandarin, and French and it is excellent.

[GAN Dayong, I Have a Little Lantern  —  甘大勇:《我有一盏小灯笼》(bilingual: English-Chinese), Shanghai Press, 2017. ISBN:9781602204508 link — see also Minjie Chen’s discussion of Gan Dayong’s picture book Little Rabbit’s Questions]


Two very engaging titles by the young artist, Liu Xun, Tooth, Tooth, Throw it on the Roof, and Riddles, use time-honoured Chinese cultural practices to gently illuminate the transformative developments in contemporary China’s urban and rural regions. Tooth, Tooth, visually and thematically links the loss of a little girl’s front tooth with the changes proposed for her neighbourhood. The ritual of throwing the lost tooth onto her Grandfather’s roof, so that she will grow tall, is reassuring. The roof has protected the family for generations and the child is propelled out of her bed and through the welcoming neighbourhood to find her Grandfather. A symbol painted on the walls of the little shops and homes indicate that these alleyways are scheduled for demolition. But the signs are faded and the atmosphere of the neighbourhood is happy, safe and joyful and so there is a suggestion that the inevitable changes will not be so destructive or, perhaps, as imminent.

[LIU Xun: Tooth, Tooth, Throw it on the Roof  –  刘洵:《牙齿,牙齿,扔屋顶》, 中国中福会出版社 ISBN:978-7-5072-1937-1 link | image source]




Riddles uses the Qingming Festival – Tomb Sweeping Day – to reunite a child and her loving grandmother, who appears in a fluffy cloud, for a happy day of play and stories. The illustrations portray the emotional strength that cultural festivals can bring even to the challenges of remembering the beloved dead. Though I could not fully understand the text, I was very moved by both these titles. As a recent, and very happy, resident in Shanghai I have been regularly confronted by my own ignorance and unacknowledged prejudices about contemporary Chinese life. This story and its richly detailed, representational illustrations gave me an insight into family life in the city and would, I’m sure, have a general appeal were its text to be accessible to non-Chinese readers.

[Liu Xun, Riddles  –  刘洵:《谜语》,中国中福会出版社, 2016 年,ISBN 9787507220636 link]


It is hard for independent Chinese publishers to promote books in other languages, particularly in English where there seems to be an almost overwhelming offering already. But, there are some really outstanding titles being published here. For example, while I was in the editorial offices, we looked at a picture book in preparation and I felt the excitement book people feel when they see something very special. I can say no more (yet) but the man with the soup van who feeds the city’s night workers and some hungry cats, is a brilliant creation and I’m sure I’ve met him, more than once, coming home after a late night.

I am looking forward to discussing with CWI ways in which these and other titles can be shared with a wider range of readers.

The Visiting Publishers Fellowship is a six-day programme offering a small group of children’s book specialists insights into China’s publishing landscape and the opportunity to visit the Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair. Helen Limon will be presenting her findings from Shanghai at the upcoming European Literacy Network Winterthur Conference and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair at which China is the 2018 Guest of Honour.

[1] In the UK, I would see these being books that were read to or with children of a younger age group.

UPDATE: The Chinese name of China Welfare Institute Publishing House’s 中国中福会出版社 (in the first paragraph) was corrected on 5 Feb 2018.

Dong Yanan’s picture books

DONG Yanan 董亚楠 is the author and illustrator of the gorgeous book Express Delivery from Dinosaur World, which she created while she was a student at the Picture Books Studio at the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) (中央美术学院绘本创作工作室) in Beijing. So far, the book has earned her first prize in the CAFA 2014 Student Design Award, and a special award in the 8B Design Awards; and its English translation, by Helen Wang, received a Kirkus starred review. Continue reading

What’s the difference between children’s books in China and the US?

This is the title of an article by Nurith Aizenman, published in NPR on 6 January 2018. It refers to an academic study “Learning-Related Values in Young Children’s Storybooks: An Investigation in the United States, China, and Mexico” carried out by Cecilia S. Cheung, Jorge A. Monroy and Danielle E. Delaney (Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology vol. 48, issue 4, May 2017, pp. 532-541 – see the abstract at the bottom of this post).  Continue reading

Chinese children’s and YA books, in English, 2017

Paper Republic recently published its annual list of Translations from Chinese in 2017. The list includes a long list of books for children and YA, so I’ll reproduce those here. As always, if we’ve missed anything, let us know, so we include it! Most of these books are available to purchase online – and Candied Plums titles (published in the USA) can also be ordered through https://www.bilingualbees.co.uk/ . Continue reading