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

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

Aizenman summarises the results for the general reader, and draws attention to two of the Chinese books considered in the study: The Cat That Eats Letters《吃字的猫咪》 and The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountain《愚公移山》.

Aizenman writes:

For a taste of their findings, take a typical book in China: The Cat That Eats Letters.

Ostensibly it’s about a cat that has an appetite for sloppy letters — ‘written too large or too small, or if the letter is missing a stroke,’ explains one of the researchers, psychologist Cecilia Cheung, a professor at University of California Riverside. ‘So the only way children can stop their letters from being eaten is to write really carefully and practice every day.’

But the underlying point is clear: ‘This is really instilling the idea of effort — that children have to learn to consistently practice in order to achieve a certain level,’ says Cheung. And that idea, she says, is a core tenet of Chinese culture.

The book is one of dozens of storybooks from a list recommended by the education agencies of China, the United States and Mexico that Cheung and her collaborators analyzed for the study.

They created a list of ‘learning-related’ values and checked to see how often the books promoted them. The values included setting a goal to achieve something difficult, putting in a lot effort to complete the task and generally viewing intelligence as a trait that can be acquired through hard work rather than a quality that you’re born with.

The results — published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology: The storybooks from China stress those values about twice as frequently as the books from the U.S. and Mexico.

Take another typical example from China — The Foolish Old Man Who Removed The Mountain, which recounts a folktale about a man who is literally trying to remove a mountain that’s blocking the path from his village to the city.

‘Every day he has to dig some dirt from the mountain,’ says Cheung.

The book celebrates perseverance, of course — but also another value Cheung and her collaborators tracked: steering clear of bad influences. As Cheung puts it, ‘avoiding a negative person and staying on track and not being distracted by things that would derail you from achieving your goals.’

In this case the man keeps on digging ‘even as he has to endure criticism from his fellow villagers who call him silly. And in the end he actually removes the mountain.”

Let’s take a closer look at these two books:

The Cat That Eats Letters is a collection of stories by Ge Jing 葛竞, and is part of a series of 10 books by 10 influential authors of children’s books (中国当代实力派儿童文学作家精品书系).

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葛竟:《吃字的猫咪》( 山东教育出版社,2013)  (image: amazon.cn) – The Cat that Eats Letters 

Ge Jing was born in Beijing in 1977, published her first writing at the age of nine, and attended the middle school attached to Peking University. She graduated from the Literature Department at the Beijing Film Academy (BFA), and now works at the BFA”s Animation School. A member of the China Writers Association since 2000, she has published more than twenty books, as well as film scripts and cartoon scripts. Her books include The Dog That Didn’t Eat Meat 《肉肉狗》(a collection of stories), Sugarsnap Pea and the Little Witch《小豌豆和小魔女》, The Wizard in the Cat’s Ear 《猫耳朵里的魔法师》, and The Magic School series 《魔法学校》.

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蔡峰:《愚公移山》(上海人民美术出版社, 2017) (image: amazon.cn)  –  The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountain

The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountain is an old fable from the Liezi, the fourth-century Daoist text, but is better known as one of the “Three Constantly Read Articles” (lao san pian 老三篇) of the Cultural Revolution, as Mao had referred to this fable in his speech at Yan’an, on 11 June 1945.  The current drive to promote red genes in students probably contributes to this story being on the recommended reading list.

The illustrator of this edition is Cai Feng 蔡峰 , known internationally as Chaiko. Born in 1981, he is an independent illustrator, manga artist, cartoon director, with experience also in game design and advertising, and for his work in Europe. Although he works on children’s books, Chaiko is better known in Europe for his graphic novels, such as Chronicle of the Immortals, and The Jade Door (a collection of erotic stories).

Below is the abstract for the article by Cheung et al:

This research examined the prevalence of learning-related values in children’s storybooks in the United States, China, and Mexico. Storybooks (N = 157) were randomly selected from government-recommended booklists in each country. Trained coders assessed the prevalence of learning-related beliefs (e.g., malleability of ability), motivated cognitions (e.g., achievement orientation), and behaviors (e.g., effort) in the storybooks. A set of MANOVAs revealed that Chinese (vs. American and Mexican) storybooks contained more instances of learning-related beliefs and behaviors. For example, Chinese storybooks included more instances of achievement-related goals and behaviors, relative to storybooks in the United States and Mexico. With the exception of achievement goals and helplessness, the prevalence of learning-related qualities was largely similar in the United States and Mexico.


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

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

List of Chinese-Themed Books for Kids and Teens – by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre

The Canadian Children’s Book Centre, in Toronto, offers a selection of helpful themed lists of books on its website (thank you, CCBC!) including a List of Chinese-Themed Books for Kids and Teens (look under Resources). These books were published between 1989 and 2013, suggesting that the list was compiled in 2013/2014. If you can add any titles to this list, please leave a comment below. Continue reading

David Jacobson’s survey of translations of children’s and YA Literature translated from Chinese, Japanese and Korean

David Jacobson, editorial consultant at Chin Music Press, and author of Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, contacted us recently, asking if there are any lists of children’s and YA books translated from Chinese into English. He wanted to do a survey of translations from Chinese, Japanese and Korean in preparation for the 12th IBBY Regional Conference, at the University of Washington, Seattle, 19-22 October 2017. He will be on the panel “Asian American Experiences in Children’s Books” (Panel presentation: David Jacobson, Uma Krishnaswami, Philip Lee, Linda Sue Park). Continue reading

12 Books for the Holidays

Earlier this week, Tomorrow Publishing House (Tiantian chubanshe 天天出版社) posted a piece recommending some good reads for children during this holiday week in China. If you need a rest from National Day, moon-gazing, mooncakes and so on, try these: Continue reading

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival 2017

Meng Yanan’s picture book Happy Mid-Autumn Festival  (孟亚楠:《中秋节快乐》) won the gold prize in the 2016 Bronze and Sunflower Picture Book Awards 青铜葵花图画书奖. Congratulations to Meng Yanan, and Happy Mid-Autumn Festival to everyone! Continue reading

Little Soldier Zhang Ga

As part of the China Changing Festival at the Southbank Centre in London, there will be a performance of Little Soldier Zhang Ga on Saturday 7 October. Continue reading

CFP: Asian Festival of Children’s Content

Call For Papers: for the 9th Asian Festival of Children’s Content 亚洲少儿读物节 , to be held in Singapore, 5-9 September 2018 (details here). Deadline: 15 September 2017. Continue reading

The Only Child, by Guojing

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. Continue reading