Bibbit Jumps, written and illustrated by Bei Lynn 林小杯, will be published in English by Gecko Press later this year. It’s a delightful book about Bibbit, a frog who loves to jump, and his little sister, who’s quite a lot braver than him. Of course, both of them were once tadpoles, and then grew into frogs.
We keep coming across Chinese picture books about tadpoles – see Minjie’s earlier post, including a link to “Little Tadpoles Look for their Mummy” 小蝌蚪找妈妈 books.
The original story, by Fang Huizhen 方惠珍 and Sheng Lude 盛璐德, was published in 1959. It’s about a group of tadpoles who go looking for their mother, but they don’t know what she looks like, so they ask several creatures along the way until they eventually find her. The story was made into a famous animation Where is Mama? 《小蝌蚪找妈妈》 (1960), under the artistic direction of Te Wei 特伟 (1915-2010). This was one of the earliest ink-wash animations (perhaps the first?), and was based on the paintings of Qi Baishi 齐白石 (1864-1957). You can watch it on Youtube here (it’s about 15 minutes long).
I decided to do a very quick survey of tadpole books in China and the UK. On Minjie’s link to the Chinese online bookseller douban there are almost 30 different titles.
For comparison, I took a quick look at tadpoles in English picture books – a search for “little tadpole” on amazon.co.uk and abebooks brought up these titles:
I guess from this very brief survey that the story of the little tadpoles (which even featured on postage stamps in 2013!) is one that’s known by almost all children in China, but by almost no children in the UK.
by Minjie Chen, Jongsun Wee, David Jacobson, and Reiko Nakaigawa Lee
During 2005 and 2006, amidst a sharp deterioration of Japan’s relations with her Asian neighbors, four Japanese picture book authors and illustrators called on their colleagues in China and Korea to address their mutual lack of trust–with picture books. Their intent was to “document the past honestly, share today’s sorrow, and create a peaceful tomorrow together.” The result was the Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project, comprising eleven titles – four from Japan, three from China, and four from Korea – to be translated and published in all three countries. This post will introduce the three Chinese picture books and one Korean title from the series. For details on the background of the collaborative publishing project and for summaries of more of the Japanese and Korean titles in the series, check out the guest post “The Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project” at A Fuse #8 Production, a children’s literature review blog by Elizabeth Bird.
Told in the format of illustrated story books (连环画), these Sino-Japanese War stories were immensely popular in China until the mid-1980s.
The three Chinese titles from the “China-Japan-Korea Picture Books for Peace” publishing project share distinct features. First, they join a growing body of Chinese children’s literature that moves away from idealizing heroic military combat in favor of depicting the civilian experience during World War II. Guerrilla warfare and combat stories used to dominate Chinese popular culture and juvenile literature about the Sino-Japanese War. With such telling titles as Little Soldier Chang Ka-tse and The Railway Guerrillas, these exciting stories suggested how Communist Party members—valiant, resilient, selfless, and typically male—seemingly single-handedly led Chinese people in defeating the Japanese invaders. Consequently, a whole generation of Chinese readers grew up with a cursory understanding of the impact of the war on civilians and everyday life. The years between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s saw initial endeavors to address the thematic gap in children’s reading materials. Notable among them were illustrated stories, graphic novels, and juvenile nonfiction about the challenging topics of the Nanjing Massacre, “comfort women,” and Japan’s biological warfare, as well as other wartime atrocities.
Second, all three picture books resulted from multigenerational story sharing and collaboration. All the authors and illustrators were of the postwar generation, but they drew heavily upon their own family oral/written narratives to reimagine wartime life. A Fan of Peking Opera, written and illustrated by Yao Hong, is a fictional story set shortly before the fall of Nanjing–then China’s capital city–based on interviews with the author’s mother and the latter’s essay memoirs. The Blazing City: 1938 is about the destruction of Changsha, Hunan Province by fire during the war. The book is written by Cai Gao, a native of Changsha, who blended her grandfather, uncle, and aunt’s accounts of the tragic fire with her own childhood memory of the city, and teamed up with her daughter Cai Aozi to illustrate the book. A Story About Two Old Photos, written and illustrated by Cen Long, is a fictional account based on the life of his father Cen Jiawu (岑家梧, 1912-1966), a pioneer Chinese anthropologist.
It is worth pointing out that the vast majority of canonical Chinese works about the Sino-Japanese War are by male writers. Of the three picture books, two are the fruition of mother-daughter collaborations. Both feature a girl narrator, again a welcome break from the dominance of male protagonists in the canon.
A Fan of Peking Opera [迷戏], written and illustrated by Yao Hong姚红. Nanjing, China: Yilin Press, 2010. ISBN: 9787544715706 (Also available in Japanese and Korean translations)
The full title of the book is A Fan of Peking Opera: Qinhuai River, 1937. A nine-year-old girl is staying at her grandmother’s house next to the Qinhuai River in central Nanjing when a stranger moves into one of the spare rooms. Uncle Xiao, as the unnamed girl addresses him, is a Peking Opera star and is scheduled to perform for two months in the city. The little girl is dazzled by his show. On the stage Uncle Xiao transforms into beautiful women, playing a lonely consort in one song, a legendary woman warrior in the next, and a graceful dancing goddess in another. (Cross-dressing is a standard feature of traditional Chinese opera.) Even his vocal exercises by the river in the mornings attract a big crowd. This is the eve of the fall of Nanjing. The approaching enemy will rob the surreal beauty from the little girl’s life—but not from her tender memory.
Blazing City: 1938 [火城：一九三八], written by Cai Gao蔡皋, illustrated by Cai Gao and Aozi翱子. Nanjing, China: Yilin Press, 2013. ISBN: 9787544737227 (Also available in Japanese and Korean translations)
The year is 1938. Chinese cities have fallen one by one into the grip of the Japanese army. Residents in Changsha are packing and getting ready to evacuate. However, in the dead of night, fire tears through the city, blazing for days before reducing it to a vast expanse of scorched ruins. The story is narrated by a little girl who yearns to reunite with her soldier father but relishes her life in the bustling city. In accordance with the young narrator’s limited knowledge, the book does not delve into the cause of the tragic fire (The Chinese army planned the fire itself in a desperate attempt to minimize resources that might be seized by the advancing army, but apparently lost control in execution). Dark brown charcoal drawings present the city in busy panoramic views, capturing the comforting warmth of life before the disaster, the escalating chaos, and the nightmarish, unrecognizable ruin in the aftermath.
A Story About Two Old Photos [两张老照片的故事], written and illustrated by Cen Long岑龙. Nanjing, China: Yilin Press, 2015. ISBN: 9787544754804 (Also available in Japanese and Korean translations)
A Story About Two Old Photos is narrated by the son of the protagonist, Cen. While seeking education in Japan, Cen has befriended Yamamoto, a fellow Japanese classmate. Both are brought up by their widowed mothers and they bond like a family. When the Sino-Japanese War breaks out and Cen decides to return to China, he leaves Yamamoto with a treasured photo of himself and his mother (the narrator’s grandmother). After the fall of Guangzhou, Cen’s family makes its escape and they become refugees. When an air raid attacks the weary civilians, the grandma shields the toddler with her body. The boy is unscathed, but the grandma never wakes up from the pool of blood. After the end of the war, Cen receives a letter from Yamamoto’s mother, who tells him that her son had been drafted into the army and killed on the battlefield. She encloses Cen’s photo as well as gives one of herself and Yamamoto for keepsake.
The three books repeat the same message: that war is senseless; it destroys lives and damages what makes lives worth living–beauty, joy, and relationships. In these stories the heroes are not Communist fighters, but survivors who not only live to tell the stories, but also refuse to let war take away their capacity for appreciating beauty, experiencing joy, and choosing love over hate. One thing to be aware of regarding publishing practices in China is that children’s literature does not necessarily offer clear paratextual and publication information to distinguish fact from fiction. All three books are loosely based upon or inspired by the real wartime experience of the authors’ family members, but blend in enough personal information to be mistaken as works of nonfiction.
Corn [강냉이], written by Kwon Jung-seang권정생 and illustrated by Kim Hwan-young김환영. Paju, Korea: Sakyejul, 2018. ISBN: 9791160943610 (Also available in Japanese translation)
Corn, one of the Korean titles of the series, is an extended poem written from a young boy’s perspective about his experiences of war. On an ordinary day, the boy plants corn seeds with his mother and brother. He is so excited to see the corn grow. Having come from a family with very few material possessions, this is a great source of joy for the boy. Before he can harvest it, however, war breaks out. The boy and his family rush to escape. When the boy’s mother and father think about the hometown they left, the boy thinks about the corn–and happiness–he leaves behind.
Author Kwon Jung-saeng was born in Tokyo in 1937. He moved to Korea right after its liberation from Japan and was thirteen at the outbreak of the Korean War. One of Korea’s most beloved children’s authors, he wrote the poems in Corn when he was in elementary school. Despite his fame, Kwon suffered from poverty and ill health all his life. In his novels, he depicts children from marginalized groups, touching readers’ hearts.
Illustrator Kim Hwan-young amplifies the emotions in Kwon’s poetry with intense colors, rendered in thick brush strokes of oil paint. He depicts the horrific situation of the war with bright yellow and red flames, the boy’s sadness when he was forced to leave his home in melancholy blues and greens. The thick textures, rough brush strokes, and saturated color tones match well with the strong emotions the boy experiences in wartime.
Summaries of additional titles in the Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project, including Kwon Yoon-duck’s Flower Grandma (Korea), Seizo Tashima’s Can You Hear My Voice? (Japan), and Keiko Hamada’s What Is Peace? (Japan), can be found at A Fuse #8 Production.
Flower Grandma [꽃할머니], written and illustrated by Kwon Yoon-duck권윤덕. Paju, Korea: Sakyejul, 2010. ISBN: 9788958289098 Originally in Korean and also available in Chinese and Japanese translations.
When Spring Comes to the DMZ [비무장지대에 봄이 오면], by Yi Ŏk-pae 이억배. Paju, Korea: Sakyejul, 2010. ISBN: 9788958284918 Originally in Korean and also available in Chinese and Japanese translations.
Can You Hear My Voice? [ぼくのこえがきこえますか?], written and illustrated by Seizo Tashima. Tokyo: Doshinsha, 2011. ISBN: 9784494019670 Originally in Japanese and also available in Chinese and Korean translations.
What Is Peace? [へいわってどんななこと？], written and illustrated by Keiko Hamada浜田桂子. Tokyo: Doshinsha, 2011. ISBN: 9784494019649 Originally in Japanese and also available in Chinese and Korean translations.
The Shoes That Go [くつがいく], by Wakayama Shizuko和歌山静子. Tokyo: Doshinsha, 2013. ISBN: 9784494019694 Originally in Japanese and also available in Chinese and Korean translations.
“The Japan-China-Korea Peace Picture Book Project” by David Jacobson, Minjie Chen, Reiko Nakaigawa Lee, and Jongsun Wee, at A Fuse #8 Production.
Publisher Doshinsha’s listing of the Japanese edition [URL]
Publisher Sakyejul’s listing of the Korean edition [URL]
Jongsun Wee is associate professor of elementary and early childhood education at Winona State University in Winona, MN. In the summer of 2019, she studied picture books about war as a fellow at the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany.
David Jacobson is a writer, Japanese translator, and author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. A board member of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, he is currently researching the biographies of Beate Sirota Gordon and Jella Lepman.
Reiko Nakaigawa Lee specializes in translating children’s literature from English to Japanese. She co-translated Newbery Medal honor recipient Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow as well as titles in the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Wonder series. Now living in Hong Kong, she assisted with the 2019 translation and re-publication of Keiko Hamada’s What Is Peace? in Chinese.
Edited by Helen Wang. Thanks go to Faye Di for procuring copies of the Chinese titles reviewed in this post.
The fox seems to be regarded as a kind of trickster in every culture, a clever little thing both admirable and slightly dangerous. East Asian foxes are especially ingenious and can – after years of spiritual cultivation, and perhaps with the aid of some human essence – transform themselves into humans. This tradition is the starting point for Chen Jiatong’s 陈佳同 story White Fox 《白狐迪拉》 the first part in a series under translation into English.
Dilah, a young arctic fox, and his parents live somewhere in northern Finland. There are humans close by, and in spite of his parents’ warnings Dilah is fascinated by them and tries to imagine what it would be like to be human. Dilah has no friends, for his family is constantly on the move, pursued by other foxes. He has no idea why. In spite of this, he’s quite a happy little fox – until one evening, when his parents’ don’t come home. Late at night his mother staggers into the cave, mortally wounded and covered in blood. Dilah’s father is dead, shot by human hunters. On her deathbed, Dilah’s mother tells him a secret: the story of Ulla, patron saint of the arctic foxes, who has the ability to turn animals into humans. She also tells him where to find a small package with a hidden treasure that can lead him to Ulla.
The package contains a marvellous gem that Dilah calls “The Moonstone”. Hunted by a group of blue foxes who are also searching for Ulla, Dilah runs south. Alone he is unable to figure out how to use the stone, but fortunately he makes friends who help him to work it out and to handle the perils he meets on his journey: Egbert the seal, Ankel the weasel, Kassel the horse and Little Bean, who is a rabbit. He meets good humans who feed him, and bad humans who try to kill him. And all the time his path is illuminated by the magical light of the Moonstone. The book ends with a true cliffhanger, as Dilah, Ankel and Little Bean are trapped in a cave, when a shining white fox appears outside …
White Fox is exciting and full of dramatic and even tragic scenes. Dilah’s doubts about his quest are understandable: why would anyone want to become human when humans are so mean? But the book is also great fun and the main characters are truly endearing. Personally, I especially appreciate the way the translator, Jennifer Feeley, has managed to capture the author’s sense of humor and give the animals a new English language that really captures their personalities. There are many clever translations of names and expressions – for instance “classical Animalese”, the mysterious language that contains information on how to use the Moonstone.
Time and place are rather vague in White Fox – there’s nothing strange about the book beginning in Finnish Lapland, but what is a giant turtle doing in the Arctic Ocean? And if you travel south from Lapland, will you really run into evil lumberjacks ready to kill peaceful citizens for timber? White Fox is a fairy tale, a fantasy novel, so I guess one shouldn’t dwell too much on these things. Better to think that it all takes place in an alternate version of our world.
Chen Jiatong, the author, is a trained engineer, a great fan of Harry Potter, and wrote the Dilah series in his spare time. The Chinese version of the series has six volumes, and the second has already been translated into English and will be published in April 2021. If you want to find out more about Chen Jiatong, there’s a short interview with him here.
The wonderful illustrations are created by Viola Wang, who was born in China but lives in London. She’s got an MA in Children’s Books Illustration from Cambridge School of Art, and you’ll find more of her work here, at her blog.
As Christmas 2019 draws to a close, the decorations come down, and the Christmas books go back on the shelf for a few months. In this post, we’ll look back on five different blog/web posts: Continue reading →
The “My Favourite Children’s Books” (我最喜爱的童书) titles of 2019 have just been announced. The winning books are selected by children (the first award of its kind in China). [The awards are similar to the annual Children’s Book Awards in the UK – if you’d like to compare, the UK list starts with 50, is shortlisted to 10 – here’s the 2019 list, which has 3 winners and 7 runners-up.] Continue reading →
Natasha Heller is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, and studies Chinese Buddhism—past and present—in the context of cultural and intellectual history. She’s currently completing a book tentatively titled Raising Bodhisattvas: Picture Books and Parenting in Modern Taiwan, which looks at children’s literature published by Buddhist organizations in Taiwan in the context of global parenting. We’re delighted that she agreed to share some of her work with us here; you can also follow her on Twitter: @nheller Continue reading →
I’ve just returned from the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, in Singapore. It was the 10th AFCC, and my 1st time to the AFCC or Singapore. I’m so grateful to the Singapore Book Council – in particular William Phuan, Caroline Wan and Chloe Tong and their team – for inviting me (I gave a keynote, was on a panel, gave a lecture, and a masterclass). Continue reading →
When we think of China and Chinese culture we tend to think of paddy fields, bamboo, poetry, and other southern things – or perhaps of the Great Wall or the terracotta army in Xi’an. Few will think of snow and skiing and reindeer. But that too, is part of China. Continue reading →