Youngster who writes to inspire and help others

Thirteen-year-old student Zhang Zhouchen told Shanghai Daily recently how he had written two English novels and donated the sales to build two football fields in rural China.

In China, parents sometimes use the term of “other people’s children” to describe those outstanding students who overshadow their own. Zhang Zhouchen is obviously one of those “other people’s children.”

When most teenagers in China are struggling to learn English, Zhang has already published two novels in English and donated the book sales to build two football fields in rural China.

“Most people would read to learn English, but my secret is to write,” he said. “Reading is a way of taking in. But only when you use it in writing, can you fully assimilate what you have read into your own language ability and use that.”

Youngster who writes to inspire and help others
Ti Gong

Zhang Zhouchen loves music and plays the guitar for his friends.

As his parents both work in foreign-invested ventures, they believe English is an important skill as a world language.

Zhang was sent to a private kindergarten with both Chinese and foreign kids to mix with native English speakers. He later entered Pinghe Bilingual School in Shanghai as his parents planned to enroll him in an American high school in the future.

His English competence has been outstanding as he won the primary school category champion in a national English speaking competition when he was a fourth grader. From fourth grade, he got exemption from English classes and spent the time in library, reading and writing. When he was in sixth grade, the school arranged a teacher to teach him one-to-one English for 7th and 8th graders.

Zhang said that he read many English books, such as the Newbery Medal Award winning book “Maniac Magee” and the children’s books written by Lucy and Stephen Hawking, but he read no more than his peers.

“It’s not important how much you read, but how you read,” he said. “I never take notes or check a dictionary when reading. I read for enjoying the story, not for learning English. Such a utilitarian attitude might lower reading efficiency and let your ‘mountain of labor’ bring forth a mouse. But when you read with enjoyment, your language skill improves naturally.


Youngster who writes to inspire and help others
Ti Gong

Early writings by Zhang Zhouchen

Happiness in writing

“Taking notes and checking a dictionary would dissatisfy my happiness and interest in reading, which are best teachers for me.”

Meanwhile, he practices writing.

“Reading can not only increase your vocabulary, but also help you develop your writing style,” he said. “You’re unconsciously learning the writing styles of the stories when you are reading them.”

Zhang emphasizes he writes for happiness.

His first writing was in fact written when he was a second grader retelling the BBC’s DVD called “Planet Dinosaur,” which he had watched many times. His parents printed it out as books and distributed them to his classmates as gifts.

It was not his original writing, but it inspired his interest in writing, leading to four original short stories in the series of “Searching Treasures.”

His parents also printed them out and the father even wrote prefaces.

Zhang began writing his first novel, “Time Travelers: The Journey to the Ice Age,” at the end of 2014 and spent a year to finish it. It’s about a boy, Mike, who was sent back in time to the Ice Age after being mysteriously sucked into a mirror that was given by his grandma. He met a girl named Annie with same fate and they survived many dangers together.

Zhang did not mean to publish it at first. But a special experience intervened.

He was elected by his school to be a volunteer to a Hope primary school that Pinghe sponsored in Chongqing Municipality. Every volunteer was asked to bring a gift for children in the Hope school and Zhang brought a football as he loved the game.

“But I was embarrassed and surprised there because most of them had never heard of football and there was no football field on campus,” he said. “So I had a wish to help them build a football field so that they can enjoy my favorite game.”

So how to achieve that? The novel came into Zhang’s mind suddenly and he launched a charity program called “Let’s Play Soccer Together.”

“I gathered three classmates to translate the book into Chinese and talked to a publishing house to publish a bilingual book,” he said. It was rejected at first as it was too short at only slightly over 100 pages.

It did not bother Zhang for long. He decided to add popular scientific information about the Ice Age, put illustrations for each chapter which was completed by his friend Tian Haoran and expanded the whole book to nearly 200 pages and persuaded the publisher to print it.

The book finally came out in summer last year.

Youngster who writes to inspire and help others
Ti Gong

Zhang Zhouchen’s first novel

Charity bazaars at the school gate and in public squares eventually raised about 100,000 yuan (US$15,000.) 

But the money did not bring a football field to the Hope school as the terrain was too steep. The boys’ parents helped them find another school in remote Qingzhen Village in Shaanxi Province and contracted a construction company to build a soccer field there.

“I can never forget the smiles on the faces of the students, who were keen to enjoy playing soccer on the new field,” said Zhang. “It motivates us to continue our efforts to help more poor children enjoy the fun of soccer as much as we do.”

He believes that such a charity program was much more meaningful than giving the poor students food, clothes or even cash.

“Food, clothes and cash may play out in one or two years, but a soccer field may give them the most wonderful experience and memory that will everlasting throughout their life,” he said.

So he made his decision to write the second novel, “Time Travelers II: The Mystery of 1100,” while he as at the Fay School in Massachusetts, US.

The third book is on the way

His enrolment into the American boarding school was an accidental decision. The family attended a campus open day at the school in October 2015, when they were traveling nearby.

They visited the campus and talked to teachers there but gave up the opportunity of an interview at first, believing that he was too young to study abroad. But when they were having lunch in a restaurant, the parents decided to let him have a try to get familiar with the procedure of applying for an American school.

They returned to the school but were told no officials were available and booked a time for an interview through Skype after their return to China. Zhang’s performance proved excellent and was soon offered a place.

Academic study in America is not a big problem. He got the school’s Top Scholar Award in seventh grade with the highest cumulative average.

But he missed his family badly, which was a huge distraction for him to write the second novel.

“I usually fell homesick at night, when I began to write,” he said. “If there was no charity program, I would not write so diligently. But with the program, I do have the pressure to finish one novel each year.”

To finish the book in time, sometimes he had to spend the weekends in the dorm writing while his classmates went out for fun.

Whenever he finished a chapter, he sent it to his former classmates in Pinghe to translate it into Chinese. And they finished the book in May. This time, the main characters are two boys — Peter Becker and Chris Becker — who were sent across time and space to Europe and China in 1100 respectively.

This year, the boys raised about 130,000 yuan and built a football field for the Yuanbao Elementary School in Guizhou Province.

Youngster who writes to inspire and help others
Ti Gong

The original playground of the Yuanbao Elementary School in Guizhou Province

Zhang and his friends went to the school in Guizhou at the end of June and played a match with students there. He was also happy to witness the wedding of two voluntary teachers on the football field, the most beautiful place in the school.

With more than 40,000 yuan left from the previous two book sales, Zhang and his friends now plan to build a third football field before the end of year.

Zhang told Shanghai Daily that his third book, “Time Traveller III: A Race Against Time,” is being drafted.

Youngster who writes to inspire and help others
Ti Gong

The football field at the Yuanbao Elementary School donated by Zhang Zhouchen 

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