In our last post (no. 135) we interviewed Helen Wu about her work as an author, illustrator and commissioning editor. We’re also keen to know more about Yeehoo Press, in particular how it works with Shanghai Yihe Industrial Co., Ltd (SYIC) 上海凤凰颐合 in China. Thank you, Helen, for answering our questions!
Helen, we’d like to know more about Yeehoo Press. What can you tell us? Yeehoo Press is dedicated to publishing fun, enchanting, and socially responsible children’s books for audiences around the world. Yeehoo books are currently being published and sold in English and Simplified Chinese editions. Yeehoo’s office was recently moved from Los Angeles to San Diego, California. For the Chinese market, Yeehoo Press collaborates with Shanghai Yihe Industrial Co., Ltd (SYIC), which was founded in August 2007. SYIC publishes over 200 titles per year. With support from its publishing partner, Phoenix Publishing Media Group (PPMG), one of the largest publishing houses in Mainland China, SYIC maintains its publishing activities in Mainland China and seeks further opportunities in the domestic market, and Yeehoo Press strives to develop international publishing activities in a global market. SYIC and Yeehoo Press work together through the sharing of resources and information.
We’re curious to know more about how Yeehoo Press works with Shanghai Yihe Industrial Co., Ltd. Could you expand on what it says on the Yeehoo Press website? How does the relationship work in practice?
Yeehoo Press website: For the Chinese market, Yeehoo Press collaborates with Shanghai Yihe Industrial Co., Ltd (SYIC), which was founded in August 2007. SYIC publishes over 200 titles per year, reaching an annual output value of $15 million. SYIC, with support from its publishing partner, Phoenix Publishing & Media Group (PPMG), a large-scale, state-owned enterprise, maintains its publishing activities in China and seeks further opportunities in the domestic Chinese market, while Yeehoo Press strives to develop international publishing activities in a global market. The two companies work together through the sharing of resources and information.
SYIC publishes a wide range of books, including text books, novels, graphic novels, picture books, and board books. Yeehoo Press focuses on picture books. For the picture books, Yeehoo publishes the English editions in the U.S., and SYIC publishes the Chinese editions in China. Our team goes to book shows and conferences both in the U.S. and China, and shares information in a timely way. The marketing materials, such as book trailers, bookmarks, activity books, etc., are made in two languages, and we also tailor them to fit the audiences in the two markets. We do in-depth market research on the books we’re ready to acquire in the U.S. and Chinese markets. Depending on the market, readers’ tastes can differ and we may promote the books in different ways. We try to find books with themes that have common ground between different markets. Once our books are published in English and Chinese editions, I believe it will be easier for them to reach other countries and cultures and be enjoyed by readers around the world.
The Yeehoo Press website gives very clear and helpful instructions about submissions. What happens once Yeehoo Press receives a submission? How do you decide whether or not to commission a book and see it through to publication?
For the acquisition process, our editors go through stacks of submissions, consider what we think may work for our program, create a memo to share with the team that includes a positioning statement about the topic of the book and why someone would want to buy it, a brief description of the story, an author bio, and comp titles. In the U.S., the books will be published and promoted individually, while in mainland China, books by different authors and illustrators are commonly sold and promoted as collections or sets, with a common theme. For a set of books, we might choose from three to ten books. We usually need to acquire at least three books about a particular theme—say emotions, STEAM, non-fiction about a particular topic—to establish a set of books.
We usually have several rounds of acquisitions meetings. Occasionally, the manuscript might need some revisions, in which case we’ll also talk with the author, make sure we’re on the same page and we agree on the revision directions. Acquisitions can take a few weeks to a few months, depending on our list. If we rush to complete a set of books, the acquisition will be faster. If we’re developing a new list, as we have been during recent months, we’re slow at acquisitions. Once we’re interested in acquiring a book, we’ll send the author an offer with advances and royalty structures and all the other terms.
Strong writing, compelling plots, and universal messages are something we’re always looking for. We also have to think in terms of our list. We have five editors acquiring picture books and the acquisitions decision is made by the whole team.
Authors sometimes write to us asking for advice on how to get their book(s) published in China. Could you share some tips?
Most books translated into Chinese are acquired through rights agencies. I would recommend reaching out to rights agencies who specialize in the Chinese market.
In our last post (no.134) we interviewed Hunter Liguore and Vikki Zhang about their collaboration on the picture book The Whole World Inside Nan’s Soup. Both of them said it had been a wonderful experience, and we were curious to know more about Helen H. Wu ,吴卉婷, the editor of Yeehoo Press, who brought this project to publication. We’re delighted that Helen agreed to an interview.
Helen, please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?
I’ve been passionate about writing and drawing since I was a kid; however, I never thought it would be a career option growing up in China. After I graduated from the University of Georgia with a MS in Economics, I landed a job in the marketing field. To make attractive marketing materials, I learned how to use Photoshop and how to draw in Photoshop. I did digital drawings and put up a portfolio online. To my surprise, someone asked me if I could illustrate their picture book. Gradually, I illustrated more self-published picture books. I got involved in every step of bookmaking, from illustration to layout to cover design, typography, and book printing. When my son was born, I was inspired to write and illustrate my own picture books. The positive feedback encouraged me to do more.
In August 2019, I attended SCBWI conference in Los Angeles and met Mr. Zhang, the publisher and two editors from Yeehoo Press. Luyang Xue, the acquisition editor, told me they were looking for someone to take charge of the US division of their publishing house. They wanted someone who could speak Mandarin and English and had experience in children’s book publishing and connections with authors in the US.
My background was a perfect fit for Yeehoo’s criterion. They invited me to visit their offices in Shanghai and Suzhou to have a more in-depth discussion with the whole team. After a few months of discussion and planning, I officially joined the team in November 2019. Yeehoo Press will publish 7 titles in 2021 and will publish 12-15 books in 2022. I’m very lucky to be working with a talented team.
My first traditional picture book, Tofu Takes Time, illustrated by Julie Jarema and published by Beaming Books, will be released in April 19, 2022 and I’m super excited for it.
You recently commissioned Hunter Liguore and Vikki Zhang to create The Whole World Inside Nan’s Soup – could you tell us how this project came about and how you developed it into the beautiful book that has just been published?
The Whole World Inside Nan’s Soup is a story about interconnectedness. A little girl asks her grandmother, Nanni, what’s inside the soup she’s cooking, and this prompts Nanni to reveal all the labor that went into the soup, from the seeds, to the people who harvest and transport our food. Hunter’s manuscript immediately captured my attention. This loving tale showcases the poignant connection between Nanni and her granddaughter. It’s a tender relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter, and it’s a celebration of community. From farmhands to delivery drivers to market merchants, readers can see all the essential hands needed for this family to put together a meal. The tradition of preparing a meal is so much more than just the food in the bowl—it’s the time spent together, the knowledge passed down, and the honoring of family and community.
I’ve known Vikki a few years now, I follow her on Instagram and Weibo. I really love her artstyle. Vikki’s art is stunning, gorgeous, full of intricate details for readers to pour over. It bears a strong influence from traditional Chinese painting, yet the technique is modern. It’s a true balance between modern and traditional, and her style is very recognizable. I always hoped we could work together on some project. I thought Vikki’s art could bring another layer to the book. Indeed, the art itself has so many things to tell. Hunter’s text for The Whole World Inside Nan’s Soup provides a lot of illustration opportunities at the same time leaves a lot of room for the illustrator’s interpretation. The whole team at Yeehoo believes Hunter’s story and Vikki’s art are a perfect match.
We acquired this book last summer and it took just over a year from acquisition to publication. There will be an English edition and a Chinese edition.
We first came across your name on the book Be a Corona Virus Fighter – could you tell us more about this project?
This book was not in our original publishing schedule, and was put together in about two weeks. I’d been following the news about the coronavirus outbreak since January 2020, and in early March when the virus was spreading to more and more countries, I felt a strong urge to write a picture book about it to help kids understand the situation so they might feel less confused and anxious. The biggest challenge for me was to produce a book in such a short time. Many of my previous projects had taken months or years to polish, so, I decided to collaborate with another author.
Songju had submitted a very well-written manuscript to Yeehoo Press a while ago. I contacted her to see if she would be interested in collaborating with me on writing the book. Songju was truly amazing: she immediately agreed and started working on the project. As an illustrator myself, I felt it would appear unprofessional for a publisher to ask an illustrator to produce illustrations for a book in several days, so I decided to illustrate the book myself. After ten days, Songju sent me a draft, which we revised and finalized. Then I spent about a week on the illustrations. I drew characters with different skin tones, hairstyles, and hair colors to reflect people of various ethnic groups around the world.
After we released the English version, we received positive messages from many readers. They said, “The book is a great resource,” and “It spreads knowledge, lessens fears, and empowers people.” Teachers and translators from other countries started contacting me for permission to translate the book into their own languages and share it with readers in their countries. We made a web version and a print-ready version for each edition, so it would be easier to browse on cell phones and parents could print it out on paper for kids to read over and over again.
When Songju and I started this process, we wanted to make a book to help kids understand this difficult time and that we’re all in this together. We wanted to emphasize that people in different jobs and locations are all working hard to fight the virus and that kids can also be part of it and contribute to winning the battle.
Have you written or illustrated any other books?
I started this publishing journey in 2012, almost ten years ago. I started as a self-taught illustrator and I worked with other authors on their self-published books. Then I started to write, illustrate and self-publish my own books. In 2018, with ten picture books of my own under my belt, I realized I wanted more than just a book, I wanted my books to reach an audience. My dream was to write a book that would be carried by libraries and brick-and-mortar bookstores. I knew I needed a professional team – an editor, designer, art director and marketing resources – to back me up. Traditional publishing was the route to take. I started to take classes and attend conferences, and submitted my work to agents and publishers who take unsolicited submissions. My first traditional picture book, Tofu Takes Time, illustrated by Julie Jarema and published by Beaming Books, will be released on April 19, 2022 and I’m super excited for it. Based on my own experience of making tofu with my grandma, it’s a story about a little girl called Lin and her grandma, NaiNai, who are making tofu from scratch. When NaiNai goes through each step, from blending the soybeans with water to molding the curd into shape, Lin gradually becomes impatient. But she soon discovers that making tofu not only takes time, but also takes the whole universe! It takes the seed from soil and sunshine, the cloth from thread and fiber, weight and space, books of words and pictures. And most of all, it takes spending lovely time with her beloved grandmother. I can’t thank enough my editor Naomi Krueger, my illustrator Julie Jarema, and the whole team at Beaming Books for believing in this story of my heart.
Could you tell us about your own childhood reading? Any favourite books? Any special places and people you associate with your early reading?
Back when I was a child in the 1980s, there were mostly black and white comic books. Picture books were introduced into China around the 2000s. My childhood reading favorite was The Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦 Hong lou meng), a Chinese novel written by Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 in the 18th century that is generally considered to be the greatest of all Chinese novels.
Thank you, Helen, for taking the time to answer our questions!
You can follow Helen H. Wu on the following sites:
We have interviewed Vikki before, almost three years ago now (no.70), so have given Hunter’s words first this time.
Please tell us about yourselves. What would you like our readers to know about you?
HL: Hunter Liguore is a gentle advocate for living in harmony with the natural world and with one another. An award-winning author, professor, and historian, when you support her work, you’re partaking in an equal exchange that supports compassion and peace in the world. When not making soup, she is often roaming old ruins, hillsides, and cemeteries.
VZ: Hi, my name is Vikki Zhang (张文绮), I am an illustrator and artist. I work on children’s books, book covers, fashion, advertising, products, toys, etc. After graduation, I stayed in NYC for a few years, but last year, because of COVID, I moved to Shanghai. Like all artists, it’s challenging to keep doing creative work in unstable situations and with abrupt change. But even during the worst time I saw talented artists—some are friends, some are unknown—consistently posting amazing work online, I am proud of them and want to say thank you for the positive energy they shared with me.
Congratulations on your new book, The Whole World Inside Nan’s Soup! Could you tell us about the book and how it came about?
HL:The Whole World in Nan’s Soup is a rumination on our ability to recognize our interconnectedness with ‘all’ people. It is wisdom passed down many generations through my own nanni, who understood that in order to eat a single meal, it takes the whole world to make it.
Our dinner table doesn’t end at the four corners, but is reciprocal; it extends to all those faceless helpers involved with making sure we’re nourished—and that’s a very beautiful thing! When we take the time—through slow-cooking—to see and talk about ‘all’ people in a bowl of soup, then we can begin to notice it in other areas of our life with the same care and unity.
The more we see our oneness, the more each meal—each bowl of soup—becomes a celebration, and our struggle with each other falls away, and the harmony we experience within will be reflected back.
VZ: I began working on this book in summer 2020. My goal was to make a book to heal, so that anyone holding this book could feel loved and secure. So I took references from nursery art of the early 20th century. I love the faded palette from that time. Some pages in the book look like an old handkerchief, or plate, just like the objects I collected from the vintage store.
Could you tell us more about the collaboration? What was it like working together?
HL: The sweetness and heart of our collaboration (for me) is the unity created by our inspired editor Helen Wu at Yeehoo Press, whose vision, guidance, and incredible insight brought Vikki and I together. We’re like three seamless workers with a unified goal to bring forth something truly beautiful to others. You can see/feel the harmony of our work in the finished book, which rings with wholeness, above and beyond our individual efforts. To me that’s the jewel of this collaboration.
VZ: It’s a wonderful collaboration. Hunter wrote the story first. And when Yeehoo Press contacted me with her manuscript, I immediately showed my interest in this beautiful story. I love the space that Hunter left between the lines, which allowed more possibilities in the illustration. The beauty of children’s books comes when the text and images tell stories respectively, and in the end the two paths cross.
For example, the story could happen in any cultural background. We chose Chinese-Americans this time, but I could easily imagine the artwork with the setting in London, Bombay, Tokyo, etc.
Another example is when the text says “I stood on my tiptoes to see.” Instead of drawing the girl standing in front of the kitchen table repeatedly, I put her beside the tree she planted and showed her trying to touch the fruit. No conflict, and more fun.
What would you like readers or take away from The Whole World in Nan’s Soup? Or what can readers expect from The Whole World in Nan’s Soup?
HL: The Whole World in Nan’s Soup offers readers a window into reciprocity (shu 恕) which is more than an intellectual understanding that I will treat others with the same respect I want to be treated. It goes deeper and implies, Who I am on the inside is the same as what is on the inside of others—and if that’s true, we can experience and discover for ourselves the delicate thread that connects all people.
In doing so, when we meet others, we do so with an awareness that their suffering is our suffering, felt and experienced the same way, and through empathy, through not wanting suffering for ourselves, we will not want it for another (ji suo bu yu, wu shi yu ren 己所不欲, 勿施於人)—thus, we will seek harmony and peace in all our words, actions, and relationships.
As our understanding of reciprocity grows, so does our empathy. The circle of life expands, as we recognize we’re not able to live without those beautiful helpers, which we can now honor with our thankfulness, our kindness, our understanding, our patience, and most of all, our self-responsibility that discerns: we are the root of others’ suffering when we set aside our interconnection.
We can always take time to recognize our interconnection with others. Even in a bowl of soup!
Was this your first children’s book? Have you written or illustrated other books?
HL: Writing is a way of life, so yes, there are other books, and readers can learn more through my website and grow the circle with me.
VZ: It’s the first time I’ve illustrated a children’s book written in English. It’s a different experience compared with working on a Chinese manuscript. The switch of language encouraged me to build empathy, find the emotion shared with all human beings, and finally, translate them into illustrations that everyone could read.
Guavarama has been writing about home-educating and raising Chinese speakers and readers for some years now, and the Guavarama Facebook account offers a wealth of information, and tried and tested ways, things that worked and things that didn’t. We’re very pleased that Guavarama agreed to be interviewed. Thank you, Guavarama!
Please tell us about yourself, Guavarama. What would you like our readers to know about you?
I’m an introverted homeschooling mama, who procrastinates by watching way too much K-drama instead of prepping. I’ve learned four to five languages but can only really speak two. It is why I have strong opinions on how to learn languages. We’ve been homeschooling for 7+ years and a major reason was because I wanted the kids to learn Chinese in a Montessori way or more non-traditional method.
I’ve been very impressed with the ways you have endeavoured to raise your children as Chinese readers. This isn’t easy. Could you tell us how you went about it?
People always tell me what I did takes a lot of effort. And on some level it did. But really the only thing I could consistently and persistently do was set up the Chinese Learning Environment. I don’t have the stamina to actually teach. The most time I spent (and you see this in my blog often) is researching and understanding how to teach, hours making material, and then 15 minutes of kids working on said material and me giving up eventually.
We didn’t spend our summers in Taiwan (as some families did). I sped through Sagebooks with one child (she’d learned at least half through pre-school) and 3/4 with the other (we started zhuyin by set 4 and I zoomed through set 5 as well). Everything else was really just CLE. Most of the other things I tried to “teach” (成語, poems, etc) did not last for more than a few times.
The key, I think, is (1) knowing the end result you want, (2) being consistent, and (3) being persistent.
We are often asked about where to find appropriate books and reading material in Chinese. How do you do this?
There are three aspects. One is that I home-school, so we needed non-fiction and fiction books that supported our learning. Two is that I learned English late, so I tend towards the classics in either language, as I felt that once you pass a certain reading level, without knowing the classics, you get stuck academically in the language. So going in, I already had opinions about what books to read. Then, you add the third aspect, which is just reading tons of book recommendation blogs.
On the book choosing front, I’ve always felt like I’m in the middle, like how many of us are in the middle between “Asian” and “American”. I can’t buy books all the Taiwanese parents recommend because they’re coming in as a native speaker, they read to their children (I have a 5-min stamina), they can afford to just pick books that are interesting because they themselves offer other opportunities for language input. Plus, they have the local library!
At the same time, the books in the American bookstores like China Sprout or Asian Parent were often not of good quality (there weren’t that many choices back then).
It took many years of research to find what I wanted. I’ve detailed where to buy the books on my blog, and it hasn’t changed much.
You’ve had some success with accessing Chinese children’s books on a Kindle. I would love to be able to read Chinese on a Kindle and look up characters as I read. You make it look so easy. Could you give us some tips on how to get started?
That’s a bit harder. I would need to write a blog post on it! It’s easy if you want simplified characters because it’s all built in. The traditional Chinese part is harder and you have to install zhuyin fonts, which I have detailed on my blog, but I’m sure things have changed since the last time I did it.
Finally, we’re curious to know about your own childhood reading.
I read a lot as a kid. That’s all I did. I remember the Chinese book collections I read back in Taiwan. The most memorable is a set of 12 books, 華一兒童通俗文學 (“Chinese children’s popular literature”), of Chinese classic voyage/adventure stories like 鏡花緣. In middle/high school, it was just all adult novels by from Chiung Yao 瓊瑤 (Taiwanese author known for her romance novels) to Ni Kuang 倪框 (Hong Kong-American author known for his wuxia and science fiction novels). In English, I remember the sets like Encyclopedia Brown, Boxcar Children, and The Wizard of Oz. I didn’t read non-fiction till I was an adult!
Ed: For convenience, we’ve listed the 20 titles in the “Chinese children’s popular literature” series below, with links to Wikipedia:
Earlier this year I learned on Twitter of a song that had been inspired by a Chinese picture book. Naturally, I was intrigued. I listened to the song “Flowers Grow”, and asked for the title of the picture book – Mr Cat and the Little Girl, written and illustrated by Wang Yuwei. Still intrigued, I asked the musicians about the background story. What an amazing journey it turned out to be! Thank you, Heather Read and Jonny Miller, for kindly agreeing to an interview with us!
Please tell us about yourselves. What would you like our readers to know about you?
We are a singer/songwriter duo, and partners in life, based on Pender Island, a lushly forested and rocky shored island off the west coast of Canada. We met in 2019, and discovered the joy of singing together, which extended into songwriting. Our band is called Peach & Quiet, and we have just released our first album, Just Beyond the Shine.
The album was recorded during the depths of the pandemic shutdown. Thanks to modern technology, tracks were recorded in Nashville, Toronto and Vancouver, as well as Victoria and Pender Island, with musicians Steve Dawson, Adam Dobres and Jeremy Holmes were recruited, and the result is a gem of Americana, folk rock and country, with jangly guitars recalling the Byrds, whining steel guitar that could have graced George Jones and Tammy Wynette albums and vocal harmonies that bring to mind Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The album was mixed by Steve Dawson at Henhouse Studio in Nashville.
My (Heather’s) dad was a Hammond organ player well into his eighties, and played gigs 4 nights a week for over 70 years, even opening for an upcoming singer called Tom Jones in his native Wales, before emigrating to Canada when I was a baby. I sang with his band at legion halls when I was four, and started songwriting as a young child too. I have worked in publishing for over twenty years, and now run a book rep agency. I wrote my MA thesis (2013) on the potential influence of children’s books and children’s book publishing for social change, focusing on Tara Books in Chennai, India, whose activities go beyond an alternative business publishing model towards a new model for social change. I moved to Victoria, Canada, in 2013, and started several local folk bands.
Jonny was raised by his mom, who was the first female radio engineer in Western Canada and worked at Co-op Radio in Vancouver. His dad is a reggae DJ in the U.S. and introduced him to reggae and California rock. He has been a singer-songwriter for thirty years, and has won Vancouver Island Music Awards and a People’s Choice award for accompanying a video in the Victoria Film Festival. His song One In a Million was recently chosen for a Spotify Hot Release. Like me, he’s an avid reader and lover of books.
Our new album Just Beyond the Shine, has been lauded by media and radio worldwide (over 200 stations and outlets in Europe alone) and become a number one album on our local indie charts and it is currently in the top five on our indie radio national charts! Since both of us are sort of “late bloomers” in music, and we both work full time in other fields, it is a delight to have such a great response.
Could you tell us about the Chinese picture book that inspired you to write the song Flowers Grow?
The book is called Mr Cat and the Little Girl. It is a stunningly beautiful and moving picture book by Wang Yuwei, published by Clavis Books in New York. It is the story of a cat who is quite happy living in the woods, living a quiet solitary life as a painter. One day, while out walking in the snowy woods, he makes a discovery that will change his life. He finds a tiny little girl curled up under a leaf. To warm her, he brings her home and before long they have formed a unique friendship. When out walking together he notices that everywhere she walks there are flowers in her footsteps, which is a reference to the Buddha, I believe, as his first steps on land left lotus flowers in his wake. This is the reference to our song title. The cat also notices that the girl has an unusually strong effect on his plant and that the plant grows enormous as a result of her touch. One day, when reading a book, he is dismayed to learn that such magical girls stay in our lives for only a season, that they will one day disappear. He slams the book shut and tries to pretend it won’t happen to him. Except, one day, she does disappear. He looks everywhere for her but she is gone. He continues his life, which once seemed so full but is now so empty. He waters the plant. He sets the table for her at breakfast. The scenes in the book at this point are just heart-breaking. The seasons pass and though he never loses hope that he will see her again, he learns to accept that the grief of her loss is part of his new existence – the acceptance of the impermanence of life. This is such a beautiful metaphor. When I discovered the book, I loved it and immediately shared it with Jonny. We were both very deeply affected by it and have come to treasure it in our small children’s book collection.
How did you make the leap from a children’s picture book to a song?
After reading the book, we were each deeply moved by it, and spent a few days apart in our (then) respective homes. Unbeknownst to the other, we each began writing a song that was inspired by the book. It was the feeling of the book that we were both left with, a deep well tapped, and that is the feeling that as a songwriter one is always attempting to capture. When we were reunited a few days later, Jonny told me he had written a chorus but didn’t have a verse. I was astounded. I had written verses, but had no chorus! We tried playing them together and found, somewhat magically, that we had both written a song in the same key!! And it was only by putting them together that we had a complete song. It was surprising and delightful. Neither of us had experienced this before. Together, we then wrote a bridge and this is the song that we have: Flowers Grow.
You can listen to Flowers Grow on the links below. If you like it, please follow us on Spotify or apple music… or support us by purchasing the song on bandcamp:
I find nature to be an endless source of song creation. To me it can come on the wind, or in the sound of a bird calling, or in my interaction with a tree. Sometimes it is a phrase that I am electrified by – it just catches me by the throat or I can’t get it out of my head. Or it gives me a new perspective. My process is to write in situ, in the sense of I am in the world and in nature and in my life, and I write in my life, in small pieces.
Jonny, however, tends to write more immersively. He has a writing studio on our property and he sits down with his guitar and writes when he is captivated by a feeling. Once he finds it is really flowing for him, he can write an entire song in one session and it is complete (or mostly complete).
Our collaborations have run the gamut from this experience to having one person write and then the other making improvements, to each submitting a half. It changes with each song and no doubt will continue to evolve.
I find we are both constantly writing songs, but so many of them never see the light of day. So it is absolutely wonderful to have this one recorded and out in the world. It has some unusual flavours and melodic twists, and it is a little long (5 minutes) so it hasn’t been played as much as our other songs on the album. However, Irish radio hosts seem to love it, and have been playing it a lot. We are always a little bit surprised and delighted when it shows up on our press reports that another radio host has played it somewhere in the world. It has been called the “standout” track by a few critics. So it just depends what the listener likes!
Please tell us about your own childhood reading!?
Jonny and I grew up in different parts of Canada in the 70s and 80s, and enjoyed reading different books, but we both liked The Tao of Pooh as young people, though it is pretty western, no doubt!
I had a favourite book of illustrated fairy tales called Hilda Boswell’s Treasury of Children’s Stories which my family brought with us when we emigrated from Wales to Canada. It was my older sister’s book originally. But I still have it, battered and beaten up as it is, though it was recently re-spined. My favourite was the Narnia story, adapted for a kids’ picture book. There are worn sections of the book where this tale was re-read over and over.
I was a self-guided book nerd. My family didn’t read much and I would come home from the local bookmobile with armloads of books each week, from all sorts of sections of the library,, some of them from the librarians’ suggestions, but mostly my own discoveries. The librarians knew me by name. I found that every book led to another book. I was an avid Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton fanatic. Judy Blume was another favourite. I read A Tale of Two Cities when I was 11. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I discovered writers like Amy Tan and I now love Yan Lianke.
Jonny really adored books as a child as well. He still has some of his treasures from childhood and shared them with his son when he was a child. Jonny’s household had no TV, so books and music were his entertainment. It was an open-minded household and he was exposed to many progressive political ideas. He loved Buddhist comics as a young adult, and read Mao’s Little Red Book and various Buddhist texts as a teenager.
Honestly, I think our love of reading constantly informs us, and a sense of rhythm, poetry and the visual that comes from children’s books continually inform some of our songwriting to this day.
Stephanie Gou has written two reviews for us before, about Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, and Dragonfly Eyes. She also runs The Lit-Up Mandarin Book Group (小桔灯云书房) for families of Chinese communities in the UK. She told us about a Chinese picture book that had all the children giggling from first page to last, including those who know only a few words in Mandarin. We asked her to tell us about her book club and about this hilarious picture book. [We love that the name of the book club refers to Bing Xin’s 冰心 famous story, The Little Orange Lantern, and to lighting up the children’s interest!]
Stephanie, please tell us about the Lit-Up Mandarin Book Group
The Lit-Up Mandarin Book Club is a COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown “legacy”. It was set up in September 2020 to connect book-loving individuals/communities in the UK, support Chinese-English bilingual families and empower children and young adults who enjoy exploring the world via books. We meet up via zoom every week to share stories live. During the weekdays of the week-long half-term holiday and school lockdown, we ran a few workshops for EYFS and KS2 children respectively. We believe in child-led learning and there are interactive opportunities for children to discuss the story in both anguages. We have shared about 90 books so far, most of which are recommended and selected by the children. Our events are free and open to everyone, although we have some strict rules for e-safety and copyright protection. First, video/audio recordings in any format are prohibited. We request that all participants keep their cameras on – if a child feels shy, they can position their camera to show part of their face without having to make eye contact. This is especially important for us, the story-telling mums, as it allows us to observe if the children are fully engaged or not, and where we can improve in the future. We also limit participants to a reasonable number for the same reason.
Community involvement and a round-table approach (rather than a pyramid) is another key value we promote. We have a rota within the regular members, so that everyone can have a go. We started with grown-ups telling the stories, and the children (aged 5-9) joined in gradually. This approach distinguishes us from the traditional weekend Chinese schools. We share interesting Chinese picture books for enjoyment and friendship rather than learning in an adult-led environment.
What’s the story in this picture book?
“I beat the nightmare monsters with 32 farts is about a young boy who has the same nightmare night after night. He’s scared, but also embarrassed to keep asking if he can sleep in his Mum’s bed, so he decides it’s time to tackle the situation and beat the monsters. His methods are ingenious and hilarious: he wears his trainers in bed, so as to run faster in his dreams. He takes a torch to bed, to scare the monsters with bright lights. He takes a horrible smelling durian to bed, to use as a stink bomb to scare away the monsters. Finally, he beats the nightmare monster with 32 farts. The book is filled with brightly coloured monsters chasing or being chased. There are all kinds of silly, funny things that make eight-year-olds roll about giggling.
If you can manage to stop laughing, you might detect a reassuring message about tackling something you’re scared of. You might have to try a few different approaches, which might not work out as you imagine, but if you keep going and don’t give up, you never know what might happen!
Is farting a big thing in Chinese picture books?
Not at all! This is the first homegrown picture book that breaks the taboo of toilet humour. Although pre-schoolers tend to find anything to do with bottoms, poo, farting and toilets humorous, toilet humour was shunned (pooh-poohed!) in traditional society, where a Confucian upbringing focused on appropriate behaviour from an early age. “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety.” (The Analects of Confucius)
More recently, though, new parents born in the 1970s and 1980s, who had a better education than their parents, sought to educate themselves about parenting, and read up on parenting-related subjects, such as psychology, and learned, for example, about Freud’s 5 stages of psychosexual development, which explains why children find toilet humour so fascinating.
That made it more acceptable for parents to buy picture books on this topic. At first, they bought foreign picture books translated into Chinese. An early favourite was The Little Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business, a funny book with facts about animal poo, that met the needs of Chinese parents – it was international, translated from another language, with educational content – and it met the children’s need for enjoyment.
However, few Chinese writers attempted to engage with toilet humour – perhaps they didn’t want to, or didn’t know how to. On 1 April 2019, Peng Yi broke the mould, and published his book “I beat the nightmare monsters with 32 farts”.
In addition to breaking the taboo on toilet humour, this book made another breakthrough – that of entertainment over education. In China, education is a priority, and formal education has always been rather didactic – typically, the teacher or senior person teaches, and the learner listens and learns. But in this book the silliness comes to the fore, and the message is in the background. When adults read this book with a child, they cannot expect the child to learn very much. They must listen with great patience, just as they have to listen to all the imaginary stories made up by children in this age.
Do you think it was daring of the publisher to go ahead with this book?
Jieli Publishing House tested it before they published it! They invited a group of pre-schoolers to take part in a survey called What Scares Children? As a result, the 32 nightmare monsters are distorted versions of familiar objects in children’s daily life: for example, a hairy spider, a nasty rat, a loud thunder, a mirror, granny’s false teeth, an alarm clock, and a toothbrush with strong-flavoured toothpaste.
Grown-ups might not understand the humour in this book, but children certainly do. Primary-school age readers in the Lit-up Mandarin Book Club LOVE it. Even those who don’t understand very much Mandarin giggle from the first page to the last. The publisher was clever to get exactly the right silliness for the target audience!
What has been the response to this book in China?
It’s been astonishing! A funny story loved by children doesn’t guarantee sales in China. Most books are purchased by grown-ups as gifts for children, because most bookstores, particularly in small towns, don’t normally welcome young readers to sit down and read. And, children’s libraries are not easy to access due to location, restricted opening hours and stock availability. However, there is a demand for high-quality picture books, which is met through commercial reading clubs, or subscription libraries, catering for child readers.
This is how “I beat the nightmare monsters with 32 farts” became so popular in China. A successful marketing strategy in 2019 resulted in more than 60,000 copies being sold. A week prior to the book launch, it was made available to buyers through the e-commerce company YourBay Growth Club, and 20,000 copies were sold that week! The audio version, available from the YourBay Picture Book Reading Club for one week, was downloaded more than 130,000 times. To date, sales have reached 110,000 copies, a record-breaking number for a homegrown picture book for pre-schoolers in China. Jieli’s experience with “I beat the nightmare monsters with 32 farts” provides a good business model for those seeking to enter the market.
On a personal level, I hope that parents who laugh together with their children when reading this book can learn to appreciate that reading is not just for education, but also for pleasure. I would love to translate this book into English!
Our recent post about international collaborations featured the book Nian and the Boy, written by Belgian author Wally De Doncker and illustrated by Chinese author-illustrator Xiong Liang 熊亮. We were delighted that they both agreed to be interviewed, to talk about their own work and their collaboration, and thank them both for taking the time to answer our questions. You can read Helen’s interview with Wally here. This is my interview with Xiong Liang.
Xiong Liang is an unassuming person. We had arranged to hold the interview online, and two minutes after we had agreed to meet, I heard him say hello, then saw him appear on screen, still in his winter coat, which he hadn’t had time to take off. He told me that the taxi driver had taken the wrong road, not once, but three times. When the car started going over a bridge, Xiong Liang had to ask the driver to stop and drop him right there. Then he’d run more than a kilometre back to his studio without stopping to catch his breath.
Xiong Liang, at the beginning of the 21st century you were the first Chinese children’s book writer to use the picture book format to create children’s books, and you quickly achieved success. At the time, picture books were still new and foreign, in China, and did not really appeal to consumers. But you had the courage to keep trying, and in 2005 your Little Stone Lion was the first Chinese picture book to achieve success internationally, in an English edition published by Heryin Books and distributed in the USA. What was it that drew you to picture books in the first place? Was there a particular book that opened your mind to this form of expression, left a deep impression, and inspired you to try to create your own?
I started out as an illustrator. Back then, books with colour illustrations were considered luxury items, and in places like Shanghai, where there was more disposal income, beautiful illustrations went down well. I started out illustrating children’s classics, which would be reprinted within the month, or even the week.
By 2002-2003, there were picture books circulating in China. I think I came across an English picture book, I can’t even remember what it was about, but I learned the standard picture book form from that book, I mean, the usual 32-page format. I became interested in this particular form of expression, and quite naturally started making picture books. I was born in 1975, and our parents’ generation, well, their cultural life was rather monotone. But when I was growing up, the country’s politics, economics and culture were going through all kinds of massive changes. I think there are lot of creative people in China who like me were born in the 1970s, who have a burning desire not to be like our parents’ generation, but to do some things for ourselves, to create for ourselves, and whether it’s music or video, or some other form, it’s very charged. I chose to express myself through picture books.
I started working on my first book The Little Stone Lion in 2003. Using the standard picture book format, I made 16 spreads. The Little Stone Lion was about my memories, but I couldn’t start by telling young readers “There’s a little stone lion in my home town, that I have deep feelings for, that I have wonderful memories of” or something like that, because that kind of writing is for grown-ups.
In picture books, characters usually move around, but the little stone lion is motionless. How do you portray such a character?
So, I changed the lens range. Changing the distance altered the size, which meant that I was able to play a game with my young readers. In the first spread, “I am a guardian spirit of a little town”, the stone lion is bigger than everything else. So, the reader’s response is “Wow, that’s a massive guardian spirit.”
In the second spread, “I am the only stone lion in this little town”, the lion is even larger, and takes up half the spread.
In the third spread, the only stone lion in the town takes up the whole spread.
It’s only in the fourth spread that you discover the stone lion is actually smaller than the cat. The illusion was created by playing with the focal distance of the lens.
After making The Little Stone Lion, I had a totally new understanding of picture books. A picture books has to have a concept and inspiration, a graphic structure and poetic language. It can be a lot of fun interacting with children. I’m a quiet person and am not very good at chatting with children, but I find that if there are a lot of children making a lot of noise, all I have to do is take out a book and start telling the story in it. Every turn of the page and twist in the story brings a happy squeal of delight.
Actually, I wasn’t very successful at first. The books I had illustrated sold quite well, and I was still in demand. But when I started creating my own picture books, people stopped asking for me. I was very struck by this. “It will be lonely up there,” they said, “higher notes means fewer singers”. In other words, if I went for higher art, I wouldn’t be popular in art terms or commercial terms. But I had an idea. Back then, some picture books had been introduced in China, and there were Jimmy Liao’s books, and once these new genres were published, more people would start to make these genres. The form might be new, but once there were influential authors working in these forms, and books had been published, everyone would take them for granted, and accept them as normal. I thought that if I could make ten picture books, everyone would know that there was such things as Chinese picture books. And if ten books wasn’t enough to catch their attention, then I’d make twenty.
The Little Stone Lion was first published in Taiwan in 2005, which was useful for promoting it. Two years later, in 2007, it was published on the mainland. There was no feedback, until one day, someone asked me to take part in a picture book event. I was painting in my studio at the time, in my paint-spattered, crumpled trousers. I thought it was just a gathering for chit-chat, so I went. I suddenly discovered that picture books were really popular, and that everyone there was interested in picture books, and had started to take them seriously. It had taken me almost twenty picture books to get published, and they are long sellers rather than bestsellers.
You collaborated with the Belgian author Wally De Doncker on the book Nian and the Boy 年和男孩. You have also written and illustrated your own picture book Little Nian Monster 小年兽. How are these two books different? What was your first response when you read the story Wally De Doncker had written? Did you each work completely separately and independently on the book, or was it more of a collaborative process? How did you deal with any differences of opinion?
My picture book Little Nian Monster was based on the traditional Chinese story, in which a monster called Nian comes once a year to try and hurt us, and we scare it off with firecrackers and such-like. The message is that “if it’s not one of us, it must be out to get us”. I don’t agree with this otherness, and was trying to think why the Nian monster still comes? Was there something painful for him about New Year?
I think of New Year as an opportunity to renew ourselves. We all wish for a better new year, yet what’s more important than wishing for more money is relationships with our friends and community. In the picture book, a lonely person is swallowed up in the bad mood that represents the Nian monster, but the story doesn’t end there. I goad the young reader and say, “This outcome is terrible! You don’t want to end up like this! So let’s do it again.” Then, I’ll tell the same part of the story with the opposite mood: when the lonely person is proactive about greeting everyone, his mood shifts in a positive direction, and eventually affects even the terrible Nian monster, and it turns into a lovely New Year.
In Wally De Doncker’s story Nian and the Boy, the place where the monster lives is invaded by humans who keep breeding, and the cherries that the monster loves to eat are harvested by the humans. Eventually, the monster is driven into the lake, but it still wants to eat cherries, so it comes back every year in the cherry season. It finds itself at war with the humans, and is always beaten back by the humans’ fences, fireballs and all kinds of injuries. Only one little boy shares his cherries with the monster and protects it.
I met Wally when he was the President of IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People). We worked independently, and he said I could interpret the story however I liked.
When Zhang Mingzhou 张明舟, who took over from Wally as President of IBBY, introduced this book to me, I happened to be at a friend’s farm in Canada. My friend is a scientist, and we were out every day, working on the land, going to the farmers’ market to sell vegetables, and buy fruit. The produce at the farmers’ market is grown from heirloom seeds. I bought a punnet of dark cherries, and the taste was so strong. We weren’t far from an Indian reservation. Inside the reservation the land was naturally uncultivated, whereas everywhere outside the reservation was kept artificially neat and tidy. I went to their bar, and saw tall, silent Indians smoking. Based on this experience, I read Nian and the Boy as a story about native peoples and intruders who take their land and resources.
Another cover of the book, for a foreign language edition of Nian and the Boy, merges artistic elements of Chinese and Western culture. Here, Xiong Liang uses the rainbow – the symbol of contract in The Bible – as a metaphor for agreements to repair relationships between indigenous peoples and the governments of those who occupied their lands.
Which of your picture books have you found the most exciting and satisfying to work on?
Moon, Moon, Won’t you Stop, a book that I co-edited, was illustrated by young readers themselves. It’s a story about the moon, and weaves together the famous Tang dynasty poem “Spring river blossom on a moonlit night” 春江花月夜 (a very beautiful and evocative poem of yearning, by Zhang Ruoxu 張若虛, c.660-c.720) and the story of a little bear floating on the river, and missing its mother.
Then there is the “Nick the Knight” series that I have just finished. It took me three years to write the series. It’s actually a novel, but split into six books with illustrations on every page. The story takes place in the Peach Blossom Spring 桃花源 (the fabled land of harmony in Tao Yuanming’s 陶淵明 famous essay, written in 421), and involves a variety of ethnic groups and beliefs. A good fairy tale has a belief system and social structure as metaphor and support, echoing reality. I am keen to do more of this kind of work.
[Minjie’s note: the title of the series 游侠小木客 can be loosely translated as “The Knight Errant Woody” or “Little Man of the Forest, the Knight Errant,” which almost conjures up a shadow of Don Quixote, the titular character of the classic Xiong illustrated years ago.]
Could you tell us about some of the illustrated books that had a strong influence on you?
As a boy, I spent a lot of time looking at books with visual content, for example, books that discussed Chinese painting. I liked the work of Xiao Yuncong 萧云从 (1596-1673) of the late Ming/early Qing, Gu Kaizhi 顾恺之 of the Eastern Jin, and Guan Xiu 贯休 (832-912) of the Five Dynasties – these artists’ work is so strange, and it had an influence on me, which probably explains why my books don’t sell particularly well. I especially like the work of William Blake, and absorbed some of his artistic style – the colours in my work are quite strong and dark.
As for literary works, I still enjoy Ye Junjian’s translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. However, I tend to prefer the less well-known stories, like “The Shoes of Fortune.” There is a lot of mud in his stories, so I imagined Denmark would be a dark and muddy place. But when I visited Denmark, the colours there were so bright and lively, and completely different from how I had imagined it as a child.
I grew up in a multi-cultural family, and I believe in gods and spirits, and came into contact with Buddhism and Christianity. So I also read Kierkegaard (Søren Aabye Kierkegaard) and Christian philosophy, which is part of the faith. This Eastern and Western thinking is intertwined and reflected in my work.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
When we read stories from other cultures, it’s not out of rabid curiosity. When we read other people’s culture, we see ourselves from a different angle. We all need to discover ourselves from new perspectives. With new discoveries every day we find new possibilities and will not be fettered.
There is a sense of homogeneity about many Chinese illustrators’ works. Everyone is communicating on the same platform and their styles converge. We need to look around us and notice what’s local and unique. It’s crucial that our artistic creations are diverse.
Wally De Doncker is a Belgian author of children’s books – including two collaborations with Chinese illustrators – and a very active person in the world of children’s literature. Until recently he was the president of IBBY, the International Board on Books for Young Readers, 2014-2018. He very kindly agreed to an interview with us. Thank you, Wally!
[We also interviewed Xiong Liang, who illustrated one of Wally’s books, and asked about his experience of the collaboration. You can read Minjie’s interview with Xiong Liang here]
Wally, please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?
Already as a young child, I wanted to change things. I organized an environmental group for kids from my neighbourhood so we could protect nature. In my late teens I started a campaign with a number of friends because at the time, the children in my village had nowhere to go to relax and have fun. When I was studying to be a teacher, I organized joint activities with the female students at the teacher-training institute for girls. At the time, Flanders was a conservative place, and something like this was not yet self-evident. As a teacher, I fought to give teachers a say in school policy, because at the time this was virtually unheard of. I was elected chairperson of our regional teachers’ association, and this put me in a position to make a great many changes. Together with my wife, I later campaigned for co-education. We fought long and hard for this. Looking back, it’s incredible that even in the Belgian education system of the 1990s, girls were not considered to be equal to boys.
I have continued this fight through my involvement with IBBY [International Board on Books for Young Readers]. Sadly, there are still countries that consider girls to be inferior. There are still countries where more than 90 per cent of girls and women are unable to read or write. I find it inconceivable that my children and grandchildren could be discriminated against based solely on their gender. As IBBY president (2014-2018) I couldn’t just sit back and watch when I heard that girls are not allowed to read. IBBY is a non-profit organization which represents an international network of people from all over the world who are committed to bringing books and children together. Promoting international understanding between people remains IBBY’s focus. Every child everywhere in the world must have access to books and the opportunity to become a reader in the fullest sense. IBBY sees this as a fundamental right and the doorway to empowerment for every child. It is also my personal goal. A person who has access to reading has the opportunity to learn, to enjoy and to shape his or her own future. Whatever, however and wherever people read, one thing is clear: the power that books hold within them can change the path of a life.
In 2003, Kim Reynolds invited me to go to the University of Roehampton to give a talk about my literary work to leading international authorities on children’s books. The philosophical and surrealistic nature of my picture books had already drawn the attention of a number of such experts. To this very day, the interest and encouragement I received there from literary scholars like Kim Reynolds, Lissa Paul, Rod McGillis, and Lynne Vallone continue to serve as an inspiration to me as a writer.
From 2003 to 2009 I was a member of the editorial board of the critical journal of children’s literature, The Lion and the Unicorn which is published in the USA.
International museums have also drawn attention to my books: the Labyrinth Children’s Museum (Berlin) has focused on Ahum and the Dutch Children’s Books Museum on Het begint ergens (“It Starts Somewhere”). Ik mis me (“I miss me”) has received attention in France at many national exhibitions and philosophy conferences. In 2013 and 2017 I was shortlisted (one of three writers) for the Belgian SABAM Awards for Children’s and Youth Literature.
As a song writer I work together with different Belgian composers.
The film Us Three / Nous Trois (2019, Blauwhuis productions, Ghent) was inspired by my book Ik Mis Me and was awarded Best Film at the Fic Autor Filmfestival in Mexico 2019 and the Bronze Award at the Queen Palm International Film Festival 2019 in Florida (USA).
You’ve partnered with two Chinese artists: Xu Kaiyun 徐开云and Xiong Liang 熊亮. Could you tell us how these projects came about and how they developed?
From the start I applauded the unique initiative of CCPPG in which authors and illustrators from different continents collaborate on universal themes. It is a big step to publish a Chinese artist who has illustrated a story by an author from a different culture, or to publish the works of Chinese authors with illustrations by artists from different continents.
My books were already known in China. In 2004 my picture book “I wish I were a doll” was published in Chinese. It caught the attention of the Chinese reader. I remember that the book was mentioned in a list of the top 100 books in Chinese education. A Chinese reviewer wrote: “This book allows children to consider a more complex view of life. It reminds them, for example, that they should care about lonely old people in society’s hidden corners… As a person, what is the most valuable thing in our lives? As months and years pass, what will remain in our hearts and minds as a ‘never disappearing’ memory?”
Billie’s Factory is an autobiographical story. My father owned a small contracting firm. He spent a lot of his free time in his hangar.. If you were looking for him, you were certain to find him there. Many years after he died, the hangar burnt down. I witnessed it. Within the flames, I saw the memories of my childhood. The building was burnt to ashes but the stories of my father live on through this book. Xu Kaiyun’s illustrations show perfectly how a collaboration between artists from different cultures can be enriching. He asked me for pictures about old factories and familiarized himself with street scenes in Belgium to create mental images of the setting. He used a lot of warm colors to make the artwork child-friendly and to illustrate the heart-warming effects of nostalgia.
The book attracted the attention of many Chinese magazines. It has become an international success. After the original Chinese version it has been (or will be) translated into English, Dutch, Arabic and Indonesian.
Following the success of Billie’s Factory, CCPPG asked me to deliver a new manuscript, this time inspired by a traditional Chinese story. This was a challenge. I read many different classic Chinese stories and eventually I chose to work on the story of Nian.
While reading the story of Nian in different Chinese versions, I was faced with some difficult questions and thoughts. In my previous books (6 of them were published in Chinese by Shandong Publishing House in 2018) I was always looking for the why of things. My picture book “I Miss Me” is about a boy who looks at himself in the mirror. He asks himself what the world would be like if he had not been born. What would his mother be like? What would the house be like? His cuddle? Would the walls miss him? The film version of the book (“Nous Trois”, Blauwhuis Productions, Gent, Belgium, 2018) follows the same track and shows how we all influence each other just by our existence. It indicates which traces we leave in our life and the life of others. My book Ik ben heel veel liefde (“I am lots of love”, Davidsfonds/ Infodok, Antwerpen (Belgium), 2017) indicates the traces of love our ancestors have given us over thousands of years. The awareness of being a product of all the people before you is therefore also a very hopeful message. The book was the theme of different Belgian literature festivals.
I tried to explain the why of things in “Nian and the Boy”. It was something I did not find in the traditional versions of Nian. I also tried to empathize with the emotions of Nian. Why is the Nian monster so vindictive? How would I feel if my living space was taken away from my parents and me? How would I react to that? How do certain traumas extend into a life? Why does Nian want to destroy the villages in a bloodthirsty way?
In the traditional Nian story the old man emerges as a Deus Ex Machina. How does the old man know that the monster is afraid of the three elements: fire, noise and the red color? This knowledge must come from somewhere. Why is the old man in solidarity with the monster that destroys villages? There must be a deeper cause for this.
Everything happens for a reason. Everything has a ground. Sometimes it’s easy to explain or to find out. Sometimes we have to go back to our deepest selves: to our unconscious. I tried to search for the answer within myself. I think that the old man and the monster had met before. There was a certain unspoken connection between them. I found the explanation in the shared childhood of the old man and the Nian monster.
The book got a lot of attention. It has been reviewed and praised by many reviewers, including in my own country.
Could you tell us about the reception of these books in China, in Belgium, and elsewhere?
I have been lucky enough to observe how Chinese schools (in Shanghai) work with my books. For me personally it is heartening to see how my readers on the other side of the world love my stories. Billie’s Factory, for example, is an autobiographical story about myself as a child. The kid I was then could never have imagined this book might fascinate children in China. It’s almost a philosophical thought.
During a seminar about my books at the Beijing Book Fair in August 2016, I had the opportunity to talk to a large audience of readers about the origin and meaning of the manuscript “Nian and the boy”. The enthusiasm of the audience towards my version of Nian was quite striking. The moderator, from a university in Beijing, even tried to come up with a scientific meaning behind my book. The audience was very curious about how I had come up with my interpretation. Questions like these may be the ultimate proof of how different cultures are able to enrich one another. Also, in Bologna, everyone who had read it praised the manuscript. My Chinese publishers, editors and literary agent have a very professional approach, which I appreciate.
In 2020 “Nian and the Boy” was nominated for different awards and the book received an “Outstanding Work” award by the Chinese Institute for Picture Book Research and the Fu Lanya Picture Book Museum.
During a lecture tour in Belgium earlier this year, I read Billie’s Factory in my own language whilst projecting the illustrations on a big screen. By doing so, I could experience how my Flemish readers reacted to this cultural teamwork. The surprising illustrations by Xu Kaiyun were welcomed with open arms. Although in Belgium, our young readers are confronted with many different styles of illustrations, this book was different for them. The biggest difference was the way in which the Chinese characters were depicted. The murals of the tortoise and the cat on the facades of the houses in Brussels differed from anything they had seen before. Some of the faces of the employees looked East Asian to them. Most of the reactions to the book were positive.
This is what Belgian reviewer Bart Medaer wrote about the Dutch version of “Nian and the Boy” ((Magazine Pluizer): “Breathtaking, beautiful, a pearl… Once there were mainly monsters and not so many human beings. Here, a family of monsters – a mom, a dad and their child Nian – live in nature. Nian loves cherries and when the cherries are ripe, daddy crawls into the tree and makes cherries rain. Daddy, Mom and Nian are then super cheerful and happy. One day the peace (and silence) is disturbed and a family of people comes to live nearby. They build a house and start breeding animals and plants. The peaceful family of monsters retreats to the mountains and they accept that people take up more and more space and that the cherry trees must also be shared. But will there be enough cherries for both families? What happens if more and more people come? How will they share the cherries?
“This is an incredible ‘outside the comfort zone’ book. The East Asian tinted drawings are powerful, expressive, rough and catchy. The first feeling is not comfortable. After the first few pages I thought it was breathtakingly beautiful. A pearl, art to really enjoy. The story itself is catchy and known. Who enters which world? The monstrous creatures interact with the equally “amorphous” human beings. The tension between the two clans results in aggression. The monster family is being repressed. The relationship with today is clear: more and more walls are being built, we no longer understand each other and people are increasingly excluded. Fortunately, there is the beautiful relationship between Nian and a human child. The lyrics are whimsical and do not follow a line. The story is a fluid succession of colors, figures, images and texts. The book reads smoothly and gives peace, despite the irregular design. This is an extraordinary, overwhelming and monstrous book.”
Do you have any advice to share with other writers who might wish to do a similar collaboration?
Wishing is not enough, of course. I don’t know if you can do something as a writer to attract interest from foreign publishers. Write good books and try to be authentic, I think. And try to be published by good publishers in your own country and work together with a good international literary agent. Be open-minded to the international children’s books world. Open your own borders. It is a process, you can’t force it. You also need a bit of luck to be selected by foreign publishers. Your book has to be different from other books.
During my reading tour in Japan, literature experts told me that my philosophical thinking is similar with eastern philosophy. I never heard this before, maybe this is the trigger. I don’t know.
Could you tell us about your own childhood reading?
As a child I read a lot of Flemish children’s comics. They were very popular in that time. My favourite children’s book was The Voyage to the Moon by Jules Verne. As a child I read books everywhere: in my bedroom, living room, bathroom, on the veranda, even in the car… I still do! It hasn’t changed.
My passion for children’s and young adult literature emerged when I was still a very young child. Unfortunately until I was ten years old, my village didn’t have a library. Once in a while my mother would buy a children’s book from the newsagent’s. Or our schoolteacher would place a number of books on the steps and we would then be allowed to pick one out to take home with us. At the end of my fourth school year a tiny library finally opened up, and that’s when the world opened up for me too. From then on, I could read whatever I wanted. It might be an audacious assertion, but I would state that I have become who I am today by reading many books. Books have often broadened my perspective and opened up my world.
I remember one Chinese story that I read at different times during my childhood. On my tenth birthday my mother took me to a bookshop. I was delighted that I could choose my own book. It was so special that I can even remember it now, after so many years. The title of the book was ‘The Golden Book of the World’ – it was a book with different world stories: fiction and non-fiction. I read it many times. There was a Chinese story in the book: “The little dog of the Princess of Mu”. The dog lived a luxurious life in a rich palace. He bragged to the other animals that he was the princess’s dog. However, no one paid any attention to him. One day he fled the palace. He ended up in real life. He ran through busy streets. He ran from children who wanted to catch him. He was hungry. Other dogs wanted to cheat on him. He eventually wanted to go back to the palace, but he had learned that his previous status as a princess’s dog was no longer that important. His experiences, however, were more important than anything. A story with a lesson. It is strange that I still remember it.
Cao Wenxuan’s novel Dragonfly Eyes, tr. Helen Wang, was published by Walker Books in January this year. We’ll list below the reviews that have appeared so far, and include an unexpected, and interesting, letter from an older reader, Alistair Henderson (husband of Helen’s Spanish teacher, Ann Henderson, in the 1980s).
From Alistair Henderson (7 March 2021) :
Dear Helen, I am writing to you regarding your excellent book Dragonfly Eyes, which Ann passed on to me to read. By about Chapter 3 or 4 I said to Ann “this sounds like Patons and Baldwins Ltd, could it be?” It had some similarities. My working life was spent at Patons and Baldwins Ltd, starting as a Management Trainee and ending up as Managing Director when we merged with J & P Coats Paisley Sewing Threads and other Textiles. We were yarn spinners, primarily hand knitting yarns.
We had a factory in Shanghai for several years just before the Revolution and the 2nd World War – similar problems to your book. I knew 3 of the management who were sent there for 1939: Stowell Kenyon, who was the MD in the UK for some years before me. I remember meeting the Chinese engineer who was responsible for machinery maintenance and on his retirement was invited to visit our headquarters in Darlington. A second person was Ted Creasey, a large man, who worked for us as Sales Manager South Africa – now retired but always claimed to have been the last man to leave Shanghai with two large leather suitcases of money and other papers. Thirdly, a foreman with whom I did my spinning training in Darlington, Albert Bond. I met him initially in Galgate at our spinning mill, the second last in the UK. It was a happy community in Shanghai of many international companies. … Best wishes, Alistair
Review by Nicky Harman, Asian Books Blog, 16 Dec 2021 – link
Review by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, The Times Literary Supplement, 19 Feb 2021 – link
Review by Nanette McGuinness, Global Literature in Libraries, 10 Mar 2021 – link
Nanette McGuinness Interviews Award-winner Helen Wang on the Translation of “Dragonfly Eyes” by Cao Wenxuan (Winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Children’s Writing), SCBWI The Blog, 4 Mar 2021 – link
Stephanie Gou, Chinese Books for Young Readers, 23 Mar 2021 – link
In June 2017, children’s book-reviewer Stephanie Gou 勾尧 told us how Cao Wenxuan’s novel Bronze and Sunflower opened a door to her memories. So, when Cao’s novel Dragonfly Eyes was published in January this year, we hoped she would review it and give us her perspective on this book too. Thank you, Stephanie, for such an eye-opening review!
Cao Wenxuan has a Disney-like magic. With his lyrical writing, he can turn suffering and tears into soap bubbles that float away in the sky. His main characters are like the bright sun shining on those bubbles, giving them an iridescence, and creating such a beautiful scene that the reader almost forgets that the soapy water is inherently bitter. In the same way, I was captivated as I watched Queen Elsa in her floaty silk dress, dancing in the blizzard, completely forgetting the pain of the winter wind that used to slash my face in my hometown near Siberia.
Written in that same beautiful style, and focussing on the close relationship between Nainai and her grand-daughter Ah Mei, Dragonfly Eyes tells the bitter-sweet story of one family from the 1930s to the 1960s. Particularly poignant are the two red umbrellas that run through the story, symbols of joy and strength: from Nainai’s beautiful memories of being a young woman; to Ah Mei’s blissful childhood, to their resilience when everyone in the family is bowing under pressure; and as the final gift to Nainai. These bright red umbrellas are like two beating hearts. Although the story darkens with the passage of time, the umbrellas do not fade, but reflect the life force and dignity of the main characters. The purity and kindness of human nature permeates through the elegant writing, bringing readers a beautiful reading experience.
Cao Wenxuan has made a very bold move with this book, taking his readers with him as he moves beyond the comfort zone of his other works, away from the Jiangnan wetlands he knows so well, and into the city, and not just any Chinese city, but the rich life of the Bund in Shanghai. For China, indeed for the world, Shanghai is a unique city. I love the humorous comment by American columnist Patricia Mars that “New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Shanghai doesn’t even sit down, and not just because there is no room.” If the characters in Cao’s earlier books face hardship brought by nature, the threats to daily life in this book are more indirect. For example, while the villagers in Bronze and Sunflower have to deal with horrendous floods and skies full of locusts, those in the city see a shortage of food in the shops, or are forced by soaring inflation to pawn their favourite possessions. The only thing that a city never worries about is a shortage of people, and the different kinds of issues and troubles caused by people. The uniqueness of this period in history only makes the challenge greater. Cao is used to writing about natural disasters, and he does not shy away from the man-made problems in Dragonfly Eyes: the last-minute cancellation of Ah Mei’s place in the piano competition; the prejudice against her cousin on account of his appearance; the mutilation of the apricot tree that Yeye planted specially for Nainai; the premeditated snatching of the “dragonfly eye” beads that are Nainai’s treasured heirlooms.
As in Snow White, where the handsome prince undoes the damage of the evil stepmother’s poisoned apple and brings Snow White back to life with a single kiss, Cao Wenxuan writes with a magic wand that enables the power of love for home and family to reduce all man-made disasters to insignificance. Yeye and Nainai’s home, “The Blue House”, is a three-storey villa, designed by a German architect – “the roof tiles, doors and windows were blue, the colour of the sea” – with the aroma of freshly made coffee inside, and the apricot tree full of blossom outside, and the happy sound of laughter mixing and mingling with music from the piano and the gramophone.
I was glad, before reading Dragonfly Eyes, to have read the picture book The House Baba Built, in which Chinese-American illustrator Ed Young 杨志成 uses photographs and collage to show his own happy childhood in a western-style house in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s. This helped me to visualise The Blue House, and to understand that a house in the cramped city could still be beautiful and have warmth and charm. The Blue House was not just a building to shelter the family against wind and rain, it was the home created by the wonderfully elegant and kind Frenchwoman Océane. Creating a mixed race household was the second challenge the author set himself.
The novel starts with Yeye and Nainai’s romantic encounter in a café in Marseille, and traces, from Ah Mei’s perspective, the young Frenchwoman’s fate with China. One by one, the other members of the family and household are brought in: the little girl’s nanny, her aunt, her cousin, her parents, her other grandfather, all have a soft spot for this remarkable little girl, the princess in this fairy tale. Family relationships are to Chinese people what love is to Hollywood, a theme that will never go out of date. The care and dedication for family members is just so important. When O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi 欧·亨利 : 麦琪的礼物 appeared in Chinese school textbooks in the 20th century, teachers would focus on the virtues of the man and wife and their dedication to family. In junior high school, I was moved to tears by their sacrificial gifts of love to each other, and it was only as a grown-up that I wondered if the story might have other implications. Similarly, there are many sacrificial gifts in Dragonfly Eyes: in order to knit new jumpers for their ten grandchildren, Nainai unravels her own, and Yeye’s, beautiful jumpers; in order to soothe Nainai’s homesickness, Yeye swaps his Rolex for a French apricot tree; in order to pay for Nainai’s medical treatment, Ah Mei’s parents pawn her special piano; in order to redeem the piano, Nainai does not quibble about cashing in the diamond ring her mother gave her; Yeye risks being arrested, and offers up his beloved piece of jade, in order to get a bottle of perfume from an unfamiliar foreign woman; Ah Mei’s other grandfather hands over six of his favourite paintings to recover the priceless dragonfly eye beads from the greedy thief that had snatched them. With scenes such as these, the story unfolds with a warmth and harmony resonates with Chinese readers.
We know that when Disney fans love China’s Mulan or Polynesia’s Moana, it is really the Disney princess series as a whole that they like, rather than the specificity of each princess. I believe that while the production team thinks respectfully about each princess- or girl-story, its aim is to work with the diverse examples to make more positive role models for children. In this regard, Cao Wenxuan’s Dragonfly Eyes is different: it is a work of children’s literature that introduces political movements, giving young readers a completely new perspective on diversity, one that demands more of them than the Disney team’s productions. That this book could be published at all shows the greatest respect and confidence in young readers. And the writing itself is impeccable.
If this book review was like Ice Bucket Challenge, and I could nominate two people to add their thoughts, I would choose Anaïs Martane 安娜伊思.马田 and Mei Sifan 梅思繁. Both are women knowing children well and have unique life experiences in France and China. Like Océane, Ana (as she is known in China) is French, and lives and works in Beijing with her Chinese husband, the celebrity and actor Liu Ye 刘烨, and their children. Her son and husband attended a reality show, which brought the family to the spotlight. Mei Sifan, the daughter of the acclaimed children’s book author, Professor Mei Zihan 梅子涵, grew up in Shanghai, and now lives in France, where she is a children’s book author and translator. Her father’s award-winning picture book Sparrows 麻雀, illustrated by Man Tao 满涛, is set in his childhood in the lanes of Shanghai during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962). It is another excellent and thought-provoking work.
Of course, I should clarify that I write this review as an adult who has never lived in Shanghai, and as someone who is interested in knowing more about the background of those times and is curious about the relationships between the characters. I believe that young readers will not only enjoy Dragonfly Eyes as a beautiful story, like a fairy tale, but will also have the courage to seek for truth and to learn about reality. Perhaps this is the primary aim of all writers of children’s books, and their gift to the next generation.
Read Stephanie’s review in Chinese on Weixin — 曹文轩《蜻蜓眼》：用爱打败苦难 — here