“Plums” for Your Tongue: Chinese Children’s Literature for Language Learners

One question I repeatedly hear from Chinese immigrant parents and Chinese language teachers in America is, where can they find books that children would enjoy reading at the same time as improving their Chinese. As we know about literacy acquisition and language learning, continual and active engagement with texts, through either shared reading with caregivers or voluntary independent reading, is crucial to the expansion of vocabulary, mastery of grammar, and growth in comprehension and composition skills.

An oft-cited challenge is that children who grow up in the United States have found books published in China ill-fitting for various reasons. Perhaps the language was too difficult, partly because the stories were originally intended for native Chinese speakers. Perhaps the stories were overly didactic. Embedded morals and values can bore and occasionally alienate American children. At a K-8 Chinese immersion school I visited, a teacher shared with me that her class was once puzzled and offended by a Chinese story, in which bullying happens but is never confronted as an issue as if the behavior was normal and no cause for alarm. What appealed more to her students were Chinese translations of familiar American children’s books. Two caveats follow this choice. First, the quality of Chinese translation varies; second, readers miss the opportunity of learning about China and Chinese culture, and from a Chinese perspective, in most of these American titles.

For admirable parents who unfailingly drive their kids to Chinese language schools every weekend year after year and for teachers of Chinese language as a second language, I have two good resources to recommend. Incidentally, they are both named after beloved fruits native to China.

The Pipa Magazine

The Pipa magazine

The Pipa magazine, first launched in 2013, is a Chinese-language children’s magazine designed for young learners outside China to read for pleasure. The title, “Pipa,” refers to the loquat, which is a yellow-skinned fruit also known as Chinese plum. For those of you who have not tasted the fruit, the texture of fresh loquat resembles that of an apricot but is juicier and sweeter.

loquats

The title is a playful rebellion against the slur “banana” for ethnic Chinese living in a Western country. Regarded as having lost touch with their Chinese cultural heritage, identity, and values, they are compared to the fruit banana, which is “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” The flesh of loquat is as yellow as its skin, subtly reinforcing the magazine’s ambition of connecting Chinese American children with the culture of their ancestral land.

Each Pipa issue is neatly organized around a theme, be it a zodiac animal or Chinese art or mathematics, and offers columns that include illustrated stories, interviews, informational text, poetry, rhymes, craft, games, and children’s writings and art. All content, except for works submitted by children, is created by native Chinese writers but tailored for the limited language competency of children who are learning Chinese in an English-dominant environment. Chinese culture and the lives of Chinese in America are the main subject matter of the magazine. Still in its toddler years, Pipa has grown to publish free audio stories as well as to organize Chinese story time in multiple communities.

Bilingual Picture Books from Candied Plums

The second resource comes by way of the Chinese-English bilingual picture books published by Candied Plums, a publisher newly established in Seattle in 2016. The publisher’s name refers to candied Chinese hawthorn, a traditional snack typically sold by street vendors in Beijing. Known as bingtanghulu 冰糖葫芦, or tanghulu 糖葫芦, these are truly sweets of nostalgia! They look beautiful: like a skewer of tiny, perfectly round red apples dipped in sugar syrup. And just the thought of biting through the crisp clear sugar coating into the pleasantly sour fruit inside is enough to trigger happy memories!

candied haw berries

Candied Plums has selected some of the best new picture books by Chinese authors and artists and released bilingual or English editions for the American market. The layout of the bilingual books reflects the publisher’s sensitivity to the needs of Chinese language learners in English speaking countries. Children have been observed to skip Chinese altogether if bilingual texts are juxtaposed on the same page. With the Candied Plums books, the English translation is offered at the end of each book, alongside thumbnail illustrations. Other aids for learning the Chinese language include pinyin Romanization to guide the pronunciation of every character and a vocabulary list with English translations. Each book is assigned a proficiency level according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages guidelines.

I will highlight three titles that have been distinctly enriched by Chinese literary and artistic traditions.

1. Little Rabbit’s Questions

Little Rabbit’s Questions (小兔的问题) by Dayong Gan (甘大勇); translated by Helen Wang. Candied Plums, 2016.

Little Rabbit’s Questions is made up of a series of dialog between Mama Rabbit and Little Rabbit. Their interlocution reminds us of the loving contest between Little Nutbrown Hare and its daddy in Guess How Much I Love You, and is also a warm twist to the familiar, yet sinister Q and A between Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. Here is an excerpt from Little Rabbit’s Questions:

“Mama, why is your mouth so big?”
“So I can speak loudly.”
“Why do you need to speak loudly?”
“So I can talk to you when you leave home.”
“Won’t I hear you if you don’t speak loudly?”
“If you go far, far away, you might not hear me.” (Gan n. pag.)

Mama Rabbit explains why she has strong legs (to run after Little Rabbit when she misses the child); big eyes (to be able to see Little Rabbit when the latter grows up and “fly far away”); and other powers that will allow her to keep in touch with the child. At times Mama might have been perceived as being a tad too close to separation anxiety about a child who is growing up fast. In the era of helicopter parents and boomerang children, however, who are we to judge this loving mother? Father Rabbit is absent except appearing in family photos. The story may also reflect the exceptionally strong bond between a child and his/her single mother.

“One day you’ll grow up, but whatever you become, I will always recognize you by your scent.” Little Rabbit’s Questions.

The real treat that Little Rabbit’s Questions offers is illustrations that are influenced by the brush-pen cartoon art of Feng Zikai (丰子恺, 1898-1975), after whom the Chinese Children’s Picture Book Award is named. Feng applied Chinese brush painting to cartoon work, breathing liveliness into the tradition of high art and injecting a distinct Chinese flavor into a format that was introduced from the West. Feng’s favorite subject matter appears to be children. Portraits of Children (儿童相), a collection of cartoons first published in 1931, captures amusing and endearing moments in the lives of the artist’s own toddler children. Feng’s cartoons were so popular before World War II that, immediately after Japan’s defeat, his publisher received fervent requests to reissue Feng’s cartoon series. (His manuscripts and publisher’s printing blocks were both destroyed during the war, but luckily Feng was still in his prime years and able to re-do the drawings for the new edition.)

Feng Zikai’s depiction of his son and daughter in brush-pen cartoons, collected in Portraits of Children (儿童相).

Gan’s paintings not only conjure up Feng’s brush-pen work, but they are also deliberately set during Republican China (1912-1949), the era when Feng created his signature style. Mama Rabbit dons the qipao dress that was popular among Chinese women during the first half of the twentieth century. Little Rabbit’s room is lighted by a cone-shaped pendant lamp with a rope switch, another giveaway of the setting. It was the plainest type of lamp that urban Chinese households owned as their first electrical appliance in the past century.

Little Rabbit’s Questions is set in the Republic of China (1912-1949), the time period when Feng Zikai established his Chinese brush-pen style of cartoon drawings.

2. Borrowing a Tail

Borrowing a Tail (借尾巴) by Songying Lin (林颂英); illustrated by Le Zhang; translated by Duncan Poupard. Candied Plums, 2016.

Borrowing a Tail by Songying Lin is a story that is familiar to every Chinese school child, because it has been taught in elementary Chinese language classes for decades. Lin, a Shanghai-based children’s author who was disabled in teenage years, has been active since the 1950s and specializes in science stories. In Borrowing a Tail, a little gecko narrowly escapes a snake, but not before the predator bites off its tail for dinner. A distressed gecko asks around to see if it can borrow a tail from another animal. Nobody has a tail to spare, and instead each animal informs the gecko what important functions they are depending on their tails to perform. The cat needs its tail for balance; the woodpecker needs one for support; the fish needs a tail to push its body forward; and so on. When the gecko reaches home, sad and disappointed, it discovers that its tail has grown back! (The author conveniently neglects to tell young readers that the wandering gecko must have spent a month or two chitchatting with animal friends and soliciting tails before heading home.)

The surprising ending delights beginning readers, who easily empathize with a forlorn young fellow who has lost something and wishes to have it back. It also conveys a heartwarming message to all ages: after surviving losses and suffering rejections, you may learn something new about yourself–that you have underestimated your own capacity and resilience. Such is the enduring appeal of a simple tale, written at the level of second-grade Chinese, to generations of school kids. We could only guess if the story gave hope to the author himself, who, with disabled limbs since age sixteen, might identify with a powerless gecko searching far and wide for a replacement tail.

Chinese ink wash paintings in Borrowing a Tail.

Chinese ink wash paintings grace this fresh edition of the old story, which has rarely been offered as a stand-alone picture book. The two animals that are depicted mainly in monochrome shades–gecko and fish–best exemplify the effectiveness of minimalist ink wash painting. The big-eyed gecko looks helpless, persistent, and ultimately likable. The nimble fish has a classic look of how the subject is portrayed in Chinese painting. In fact, enamel wash basins made in China used to have fish like this painted on the inner base and gave the illusion of a live fish when water was poured in.

Borrowing a Tail is the type of story that I like most–it invites you to read twice in a row. The moment you finish, you want to flip to the beginning and start again, this time looking for the gecko’s tail on every page–how has it transformed over the course of the reptile’s quest? It is a perfect book to pair with Steve Jenkins’s visually stunning paper collage art in What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?, a nonfiction picture book on the function of animals’ tails.

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

3. Who Wants Candied Hawberries?

Who Wants Candied Hawberries? (冰糖葫芦谁买?) by Dongni Bao (保冬妮); illustrated by Di Wu; translated by Adam Lanphier. Candied Plums, 2016.

I do not know if this book inspired the publisher’s name, Candied Plums, or if it is a coincidence. The main character of the story is an old man, a peddler of candied haw berries, who tries to sell enough of the sweets so that he can pay for wife’s medicine. The peddler dozes off in an eerily quiet, narrow alley named “Cat’s Eye Lane,” where he likes to leave food scraps for cats, and wakes up to find a flock of children scrambling to buy candied fruit from him. They seem to have appeared out of nowhere, and all wear what the old man takes to be a new fashion, with a fluffy tail hanging underneath each child’s winter coat. As the happy peddler leaves the alley with an emptied rack and a pocket full of coins, (spoiler alert) he catches sight of a clowder of cats sitting on the rooftops, each munching a stick of candied haw berries.

Who Wants Candied Hawberries? adapts familiar motifs from Chinese supernatural stories about encounters between humans (typically a young scholar or a weary traveler) and fox spirits, whose identity is given away by the tails they are unable to transform very well. Numerous stories about fox spirits can be found in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (聊斋志异) written by Pu Songling (1640-1715) in the Qing dynasty. Fox spirits, like ghosts, are variously kind, helpful, deceitful, malicious, and vengeful in Pu’s imagination. The cat-loving old man and helpful kittens with a sweet tooth are an interesting twist to old tales, which often relate romantic or erotic relationships with fox spirits.

How many kittens do you spot in Who Wants Candied Hawberries?

The illustrations of the picture book make an excellent “spot-the-kitten” game. Images of cats and feline associations are everywhere on the pages, some straightforward, others whimsical, subtle, and occasionally requiring knowledge of the Chinese language. I have a quiz for you when you peruse the book: why are the children wearing cold weather mask over their mouths–is it solely because of the freezing day? What happens when one of them forgets to do so?!

The Pipa magazine and Candied Plums (more of its titles are listed in this post) have offered delicious “plums” for your Chinese tongue. I would highly recommend them to families who are raising young learners of Chinese as a second language, school libraries that support Chinese language classes, and public libraries which serve Chinese immigrant communities. They open a window to rich Chinese literary and artistic traditions and innovations for all young minds.

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