The Only Child by Guojing was published to great acclaim in 2015. The following year it was published in China (郭婧: 《独生小孩》). This “silent book” (wordless picture book) tells the story of a little girl and her deep feeling of loneliness. The title and the setting – Guojing’s memory of her own childhood in China – makes an English reader immediately think of The One Child Policy in China. Introduced in 1979, the phasing out of this policy began in 2015, and families are now allowed two children. Li Xiaocui, a young professional in Beijing, has been reading The Only Child with her three-year-old daughter, and very kindly agreed to an interview. She is known to some of us as Lisa, who does a phenomenal job at Candied Plums, sharing the best of China’s new picture books with readers around the world.
Hi Lisa, please tell us a little about yourself and your daughter.
I come from China and am one of the “post-80s parents” (born in the 1980s). My daughter is three years and seven months. Born and raised in a small village in northern China, I only got to read a few lianhuanhua borrowed from relatives. It may be safe to say that post-80s parents are “educated” about the importance of exposing young children to picture books to develop their ability to appreciate art and understand the world. I started reading and buying picture books for my daughter when she was only six months old. Almost all my coworkers do the same thing. I used to work at one of the large-scale publishing houses in Beijing. One of the benefits of working there were the free coupons to buy books from the bookstore affiliated to the publishing house. That’s how I got to see lots of translated picture books from Germany, the United States and the UK. Of all the books I have bought, more than 90% are translated titles.
Did you choose to read this book with your daughter? Or did she choose it herself? What attracted you/her to it?
I first heard of The Only Child from Roxanne Feldman, the publishing consultant for Candied Plums. It won the New York Times Best Illustrated Books 2015. Not long after, the Chinese edition was published and I immediately bought a copy for me and my daughter. Most Chinese parents prefer translated works to works by Chinese authors and illustrators, especially award-winning imported titles. It’s partly to do with confidence and aspiration (all parents want the best for their offspring) and partly to do with the choice of books available to them. If a title has won a prestigious award outside of China, chances are great that the Chinese edition will soon be available and immediately result in considerable sales to Chinese parents.
How did you respond to this book? How did your daughter respond? Did she respond as you imagined she might?
I was almost in tears after my first reading. It’s a heartwarming story with amazing illustrations and a little mystery. It’s wordless but the story is told through pictures in a stunning way. I particularly love the last few pages where the young child says goodbye to the stag at the end of their magical journey. The facial expressions are so vivid and exquisite that you feel you are standing right there with them, that if you stretch out your hands, you could actually touch them and hug them. The setting of the story is not modern China as you can tell from the buildings, people’s dress and street scenes, but the China of Guojing’s childhood, as she remembers it.
My daughter was only two when she first read the book. I think she was too little to understand the strong emotions back then. She only showed interest in the funny parts. However, as she grows and her cognitive ability develops, I can see her love and appreciation of the book grow rapidly.
Both my daughter and I can easily relate ourselves to the story. She does exactly the same thing as the young child in the first few spreads, clinging to my hands every morning, begging me to stay at home with her, dressing up – putting on my shoes and clothes to look like an adult, sometimes lipstick and cosmetics too – playing with her toys and watching TV.
As the book is wordless, when reading it to my daughter, I’ve given the main characters each a name. For example, the young child is “Emma” (my daughter’s English name), the stag “Xiaolu 小鹿” (“Little Deer”), the little buddy she ran into “Wangzai 旺仔” (a famous brand of children’s food from Taiwan). The way “Emma” interacts with Xiaolu is one of her favorite parts of the book, I guess that partially she associates it with the happiness she feels when playing with her father. She really enjoys it when they play together and says it’s the happiest time of the day. One time when I read the story , when we came to the part where Xiaolu leaves after “Emma” falls asleep (to help find her parents), my Emma suddenly burst into tears, couldn’t stop crying and refused to talk to me. I explained that Xiaolu would come back later and take her to see her Mommy and only then did she agree to move on. At the end, when “Emma” has to say goodbye to Xiaolu, my Emma couldn’t help crying again. Even seeing “Emma” falling asleep with the tag toy in her hands wouldn’t reassure her. I didn’t expect such a strong reaction from such a young child . But that’s what happened. With a wordless book,a young child can “read” the story by simply reading the pictures. Sometimes I’ll invite my Emma to tell the story in her own words.
Although the title is “The Only Child”, I don’t think the loneliness and longing for parents’ or friends’ company is peculiar to children without siblings. I grew up in a big family: my parents, two elder sisters and a younger brother (my parents and grandparents were desperate for a son, and paid the fines, as did many families where I grew up). My parents were busy all day long working to support the whole family, with little time to spend with us. I remember one afternoon after leaving my grandparents’ home, I held the keys in my hand but didn’t know where to go as no one was at my own home. My parents were working, my sisters were attending boarding school and only came home at weekends and my brother was staying at his friend’s home. Walking in the street, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of isolation and lack of sense of belonging.
Children who grow up during the period of Two Child Policy may also experience the same kind of feeling as well, because like it or not, we have to learn to live with loneliness at some time.
You say that you were surprised by the strength of your daughter’s response to particular scenes in the book. Are there any scenes that you responded to very strongly yourself?
I’m a very emotional person, and what touches me the most is the scene where “Emma” says goodbye to Xiaolu and holds on to her tag toy as she falls asleep, as if Xiaolu were still with her. I don’t know whether I would offer a different answer if I had been asked this question last year. Back then, my daughter would cry every morning when she sensed that I was getting ready to work. There was nothing I could do to make the brief separation any easier. Somehow as she grows up, both she and I get used to it. She no longer cries when I leave, only asks me to buy something such as fruit or a lollipop for her after work.
In English, “Only Child” is not a neutral term. Could you share with us a few examples of Chinese expressions? (I’m thinking that you are a Chinese mother, who grew up during the period of the One Child Policy, with a young daughter who will grow up during the Two Child Policy and that you may talk about it from time to time.)
Some Chinese expressions of “Only Child” are 独生子 [“only child (boy)”], 独生女 [“only child (girl)”], 独苗儿 [”only cat” (as in Only Cat Syndrome)] , 小皇帝 [“little emperor”], 小公主 [“little princess”], 被宠坏的一代 [“the spoilt generation”]. In fact, I seldom talk about this topic with my family or friends.
As you work in children’s publishing, have you noticed any changes in children’s books since the change in policy?
Not so much. Chinese post-80 parents, especially mothers, are still unbelievably keen on translated picture books from the States, the UK, Germany, France and many other countries. As there isn’t a policy change in those countries, I don’t expect to see any big changes in the children’s publishing industry any time soon. However, one change I’ve noticed is that when deciding which titles to import, rights managers and editors in China may have extra thoughts on books about brothers and sisters, sibling rivalry, etc.