146. Ajia, the children’s book author, translator, researcher and promoter of reading – interviewed by Dong Haiya

Three years ago we interviewed Dr Dong Haiya 董海雅 of Shanghai International Studies University 上海外国语大学 (no. 80), while she was a visiting scholar at the University of Reading, in the UK. We have stayed in touch, and were delighted when she offered not only to interview Ajia for us, but to co-translate the interview with Helen as well. Thank you, Haiya!

Ajia 阿甲

Ajia 阿甲 is a well-known figure among the avid readers of children’s books in China. He has many roles rolled into one: a famous promoter of reading in childhood, a translator and researcher of children’s books, and an author of picture books. He was also on the panel of judges for The Best 10 Children’s Books Awards of 2021, announced during Shenzhen Reading Month (see no. 141)

Hi Ajia, please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?

Well, it’s a long story! After graduating from the Law Department of Fudan University in 1992, I went to Guangdong province, where I worked first in a court, then a law firm, and in 1994 I started teaching law at university. In 1998, I set up a website to share information about laws and regulations. After my daughter was born, I wanted to try something new and fun on the Internet – a website for children – and started working on it at the end of 1999. The website Hongniba (紅泥巴 “Red Mud Village”) was officially launched in May 2000. From then on, we started to contact Chinese writers of children’s books such as Yang Peng 杨鹏, and promoted reading through online activities. From 2001, I embarked on the road of promoting children’s reading in China.

During the past two decades, I’ve authored or co-authored several books relating to childhood reading, such as

  • “101 books that fascinate children” (co-authored with Luobu tanzhang/Inspector Turnip”) // 阿甲,萝卜探长 著:《让孩子着迷的101本书》(时代文艺出版社, 2013年) ISBN 9787538718454
  • “100 key questions to unlock childhood reading” (co-authored with Xu Fan and Tang Hong) // 阿甲、徐凡、唐洪著:《儿童阅读100个关键问题》(北京出版社, 2006年) ISBN 9787200062274
  • “Help children to love reading: A handbook on children’s reading promotion” //《帮助孩子爱上阅读:儿童阅读推广手册》(少年儿童出版社, 2007年) ISBN 9787532474455
  • “An enlightened childhood: Parents’ handbook for book selection for children aged 0-8” // 《阅读点亮童年》(北京出版社, 2015年) ISBN 9787200110616
  • “A little history of picture book” //《图画书小史》(江苏凤凰美术出版社, 2021年) ISBN 9787558079238

I’ve also translated more than 200 picture book classics from the UK and USA into Chinese, for example, Goodnight Moon (晚安,月亮), Little House (小房子), Stone Soup (石头汤), Through the Magic Mirror (穿越魔镜), Willy and One Cloud (威利和一朵云), Where the Wild things Are (野兽出没的地方), The World of Peter Rabbit (比得兔的世界),the Miffy books (米菲绘本) and Leo Lionni’s 李欧•李奥尼 books.

Besides picture books, I’ve also co-translated two books by Leonard S. Marcus 伦纳德·S.马库斯, the American expert on English language children’s literature. Since 2016, I’ve hosted a program on Radio Himalaya, called “Ajia Talks about Books” (阿甲说书) .

  • Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom // 《亲爱的天才》(河北少年儿童出版社, 2014 年)ISBN 978753 7670609 (co-translated by Ajia 阿甲 and Cao Yue 曹玥)
  • Show Me a Story!: Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators //《图画书为什么重要》(河北少年儿童出版社) ISBN 978753767060 (co-translated by Ajia 阿甲, Cao Yue 曹玥, Dong Haiya 董海雅, Huang Jianping 黄建萍, Ma Yunrong 马云荣, Yang Kuanghua 杨庆华, Yao Jingjing 姚晶晶, Yu Lijin 于丽锦 and Zeng Li 曾里)

In the past two years, I’ve authored four picture books, working with the renowned illustrators Dai Dunbang 戴敦邦, Zhu Chengliang 朱成梁, Liu Qi 刘琦 and Yu Rong 郁蓉:

  • Ajia, illus. Dai Dunbang, “Drawing a horse” // 阿甲编写,戴敦邦绘:《画马》(长江少年儿童出版社,  2019年) ISBN 9787556099122
  • Ajia, illus. Zhu Chengliang, “Five-colour stones” // 阿甲著,朱成梁绘 :《五色石》(长江少年儿童出版社, 2020年)ISBN 9787556099559
  • Ajia, illus. Liu Qi, “Nezha stirs up the sea” // 阿甲著, 刘琦绘:《哪吒闹海》( 天津人民出版社,2019 年) ISBN 978-7201149721 (pop-up book)
  • Ajia, illus. Yu Rong, “Li Na: Be an even better you” // 阿甲著,郁蓉图:《李娜:做更好的自己》(中国中福会出版社,2020年), 29787507229462

You’ve made a huge and unexpected leap in your career path from the legal profession to the field of children’s books. During the past two decades, you’ve been committed to promoting reading among Chinese children through various channels. Why is early reading so important to you?

First of all, I’m a father and an omnivorous reader. When my daughter was born I wanted to raise her as a book lover like myself. I started by reading aloud to her, and went looking for good-quality children’s books. But, at that time (in the 1990s-2000s) there wasn’t much choice in China, and there basically weren’t any picture books. So, in my search for good books for my daughter, I gradually became the owner of a specialist children’s bookshop, a consultant in children’s book publishing and a promoter of excellent children’s books. During this process, I found that families, communities, kindergartens and schools knew very little about how to help a child fall in love with reading. I became a volunteer at a library, trained storytellers, and reading consultant for kindergartens and schools. The most influential reading-promotion project I was engaged in was the Stone Soup Happy Reading Alliance (SSHRA) 石头汤悦读校园联盟in Hefei, which was formally launched in 2012, funded by the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation 陈一心基金会. Over 40 schools are now members of the SSHRA.

Why is childhood reading so important to me? My initial aim was to cultivate my own daughter’s interest in reading (she’s about to graduate from university, and is indeed a great reader). But, in my opinion, readers also need a good quality reading ecosystem, so I want to do everything I can to get more and more children to love reading.

Among all your translations, are there any particular books that you and your daughter hold dear in your hearts?

When my daughter was little, she helped in the translation process. For example, the last sentence of Stone Soup (by Jon J. Muth) is “to be happy is as simple as making stone soup”. The Chinese translation of that sentence was by my daughter, because I thought it was necessary for that sentence to read as a child would say it and understand it, not as an adult might write it. She was even more involved in Courage (by Bernard Wabe), for which we discussed every sentence. When it was published, someone asked me to sign a copy, and she very happily signed her name after mine and added a little drawing of her dog Henry, because she thought he had contributed to the translation as well (there are a number of places in the book that mention the courage of dogs).

阿甲: 《图画书小史》江蘇鳳凰美術出版社, 2021 年
Ajia, A little History of Picture Book (Jiangsu Phoenix Arts Publishing House, 2021) ISBN 9787558079238

A few months ago you published A little History of Picture Book 图画书小史. How did the idea of writing such a book come to you?

I remember a writer once said something like “if you can’t find the book you want to read, then write it yourself”. I first came across a picture book in 2001, and I was amazed that such wonderful books existed! After that I read a lot of picture books for and with my daughter, translated a great number of them, and was part of the early process of introducing foreign picture books to China. I also started to help young artists in China create picture books. I felt a growing urgency to learn as much as possible about picture books, which I think everyone in China should know more about. After reading a lot of reference books from English-speaking countries, I still couldn’t find one that gave a comprehensive overview of the development of picture books. The children’s book market in China is very dynamic, and actually very open. In less than twenty years almost all the best children’s books in the world have been translated into Chinese. This provided me with an opportunity to put together a more comprehensive overview. But, I didn’t want it to be an academic work, rather a book that a lover of picture books would enjoy reading, so for the main part I wrote it in the Chinese way of telling stories, and tried to make it a storybook in its own right.

You’ve met many famous authors and illustrators of children’s books from other countries at various book events. Have you had any particularly interesting or illuminating experiences you’d like to share with our readers?

In 2015, I was invited to attend the USBBY Conference held in New York, and it was a very special experience to meet so many authors and illustrators of children’s books at the same time. But as there were so many of them, I didn’t have much opportunity for deep conversation. I remember talking to them about a book I’d translated, The Funny Little Woman 丢饭团的笑婆子by Arlene Mosel. We talked about how to make the ghostly laughs in the book, and for a moment it was like we’d all become children. I also remember talking with Paul O. Zelinsky 保罗·泽林斯基 about Maurice Sendak, who’d been his teacher, and he spoke with such warmth that I was deeply touched. There was also Lizbeth Zwerger 莉丝白·茨威格 from Austria, whose works I really love, but due to the tight schedule, I only had time to say a brief hello. She struck me as quite serious and not very approachable, but that first impression changed when we met again at the 2019 Shanghai Children’s Book Fair, when I hosted her live book talk event “The Imaginary World of Andersen Award-Winner Lisbeth Zwerger”, and found she was actually very warm and witty. When we talked about her hobbies, she mentioned shopping, going to concerts and so on. When I noted that she didn’t mention reading, she was surprised, and said that reading was a habit she’d had since she was a little girl, it was like eating and sleeping, something you did every day, so why would it be considered a hobby?

You are a very experienced translator of picture books. Would you share your usual process of translating a picture book?

When I’m commissioned to translate a picture book, I don’t translate or even look up words in the dictionary straight away. I prefer to start by reading the pictures. It’s a habit I developed in order to train my eye. So I read the pictures first, and see what kind of story it is, and form a strong first impression. Then, I read the text and pictures together, and ponder over the details. Usually, I’ll do some research first as well, about the author and the work, the period in which it was created, the backgrounds of the author and illustrator, their intentions, the style of language, the key points and challenges, etc. I’d also like to stress here that picture books are meant to be read aloud to children, so I try to read my translation to children and see how they respond. When my daughter was little, I used to read aloud to her. Generally speaking, I’ll do all the research before putting pen to paper. To be honest, after the first draft, I don’t have to do much in the way of revision. Finally, the editor and I will discuss it, and make any final changes. I find that it’s extremely important to prepare well before starting any translation.

You’ve also started to try your hand at writing picture books, most recently Li Na: Be an Even Better You (2021), illustrated by Yu Rong 郁蓉. It must be a totally different experience for you. Could you tell us briefly about how this book came into being? What insights have your gained from the collaboration with Yu Rong?

To make a good picture book, both the author and the illustrator need to keep polishing and refining. When I’d written the text Li Na: Be the Best You Can Be, an image of Yu Rong popped into my mind, and I had a hunch that she’d be the perfect illustrator for the book. First of all, her line drawing is exceptionally good, and the way she does collage creates an ambiance. Besides, she’s lived abroad for a long time, and has a global vision, and wouldn’t limit herself to a Chinese perspective of an internationally renowned tennis player. But it wasn’t easy to persuade her because she was so busy and didn’t have much time.

When I contacted her, she had just finished illustrating the book I am Hua Mulan (我是花木兰, see no. 33) and had new collaborative projects with Cao Wenxuan and other writers. I asked her, “since you just illustrated a story about a strong woman of the past, would you be interested in illustrating one about a strong women of today?”  She was actually quite interested in picture books with female themes. While she was considering it, she discovered that her children’s music teacher admired Li Na very much, and asked Yu Rong to pass on her best wishes. Yu Rong suddenly felt a connection with the project, and later accepted my invitation.

But during the creative process, it was difficult to meet and communicate face to face. I prepared the text step by step, and provided her with information as to how I imagined each page might be. In fact, the best illustrators prefer not to have too many restrictions, so I said they were just for reference. Yu Rong worked very hard, and put aside her other work to focus on this book. Fortunately, it was her children’s school summer holiday, so she had long stretches of time to work on the illustrations. Miao Hui 苗辉, the editor at Grindstone Planet 磨铁星球, and I went all the way from Beijing to Cambridge to discuss the details, and brought back a lot of the paper she was using in the illustrations, so we could ask the printing house to match the printed colours to her original artwork, to avoid discrepancies by referring only to digital colours.

Publication was originally planned for November 2019, the same time as the movie Li Na 李娜, directed by Peter Chan (Chen Kexin 陈可辛). Then the movie was delayed, which gave us time to continue improving the book. Lü Jingren 吕敬人, the master book designer, saw the first proofs and made many helpful suggestions. He thought there was too much text in some places, and that it was affecting the story told in the pictures, so I cut the text from over 3500 characters to just over 2000. Deleting is much harder than writing. For example, the final match is the climax of the book, but as many readers won’t have been to a tennis match, I thought they wouldn’t be able to feel the excitement from just one or two pages of illustrations, and tried to describe the atmosphere in words. In the end, I listened to Mr Lü, and deleted it, although that was quite a painful decision to make.

Do you plan to create more picture books for children in the future?

Yes, I’m currently writing more stories for picture books. I’m fascinated by folk tales from different countries. I like borrowing the ideas in folktales to tell stories about life today. An illustrator is working on one of these stories right now, and I hope it will be published in 2022.

Finally, could you tell us about your own childhood reading? Any favourite books? Any special places and people you associate with your early reading?

  • “King Lear” //《李尔王》 (湖北人民出版社, 1981-08)
  • “Fantastic number 9” by Yang Yongxian // 杨勇先:《奇妙的9》(中国少年儿童出版社, 1979)

In fact, I was born in a high school library! It was during the Cultural Revolution, and my mother was a middle school teacher who also ran the school library. As the school didn’t provide accommodation for my family and the library had virtually been abandoned by then, our family of five squeezed into the library, a single room piled high with old books. I probably knew the smell of old books before I was born. To this day, that smell still makes me happy, though my mother says that smell makes her want to throw up. I didn’t read any children’s books before I went to school, and at primary school I only had one linked picture book (lianhuanhua 连环画) and one popular science book “Fantastic Number 9” (奇妙的9). Most of the books I read at that time were rented from street stalls or books in the children’s reading room at my parents’ work-unit. They were mostly linked picture books – I remember reading King Lear 李尔王, which made me cry. I didn’t know until I was a grown-up that it was originally written by Shakespeare. My love for Shakespeare remains to this day.

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