Children's books stoke imagination, buoy publishers

Yao Minji
Children's books are more than just flights of fantasy for the young. They are also big business for authors and publishers.
Yao Minji
Children's books stoke imagination, buoy publishers
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

You’re never too young to start appreciating books, as a toddler at the book fair shows.

A magical white deer saves a fisherman from drowning. The fisherman then captures the deer and sells it to a monster. He is punished by the god of the mountain.

“Tale of the White Deer,” a modern retelling of a very ancient legend, was exhibited at the recent China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair. The book, illustrated by Ma Penghao, with text by author Zhang Jinjiang, feeds the imagination of children enchanted by stories of mythical beasts.

Last year, Ma, in collaboration with author Peng Xuejun, enchanted fair goers with “Granny Xiu and the Peach Blossom Fish,” a story drawn from the legends of elderly witches that fascinated Peng in her childhood in the mountains of Hunan Province.

Children’s books are more than just flights of fantasy for the young. They are also big business for authors and publishers, as the three-day fair reminded us.

Wrapping up this year with around 1,500 copyright and collaboration deals, the fair goes from strength to strength. The exhibition space was expanded, and there was a 30 percent rise in new exhibitors from countries such as Colombia, Iran, Latvia, Lebanon, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2022, the fair will celebrate its 10th anniversary with double exhibition space, according to Zeng Yuan, from the Shanghai Press and Publication Bureau.

“It’s a very ambitious vision,” Zeng, the newly appointed mastermind behind the fair, told Shanghai Daily.

China has become a big market for children’s books, and Shanghai’s prominence as a center of commerce and culture is promoting the trend. Many international publishers and agents visiting the city said they were impressed by the fair’s scope and the book business in the city.

“I’m seeing a very big difference here,” said Cecilia de la Campa, executive director for global licensing and domestic partnerships of American literary agency Writers House.

“Children’s books around the world have been a steady market, and the Chinese market is booming right now,” she said. “We sell almost everything available very quickly, and we are now pre-selling titles that will be published in the States in 2022.”

De la Campa was part of the SHVIP program with 11 other publishers from around the world. The program invites international publishers to visit local publishers, bookstores and the fair to take the pulse of the market.

She said she particularly noticed the heavy focus on picture books, the scope of Chinese talent and lack of young adult books.

“Picture books and the talent of Chinese authors are fascinating,” she said. “I’m very excited about what we can take back to publishing houses in the US. The exchange works both ways.”

Many Chinese publishers and authors have used the fair to introduce themselves to the international book market, with hundreds of copyrights sold across the world since the fair started seven years ago, especially in picture books.

Illustrator Ma said deals signed at the fair call for “Tale of the White Deer” to be published in Malaysia and Italy.

The book is part of a series that modernizes and reinterprets legends from “Classic of Mountains and Seas,” dating back to the 4th century BC. It gives a mythical geographical account that traces more than 500 mountains and 300 waterways and the fabulous beasts residing there. The tale of the white deer was recorded in classic text in only 27 characters.

“Many tales from this classic book, done more than 2,000 years ago, are not complete, but the fabulous accounts provide exciting details, wild imagination and vast amounts of material for us to expand on and modernize,” said Zhang, author of “Tale of the White Deer” and chief editor of the series.

Like many Chinese authors and illustrators, Zhang and Ma are drifting away from the traditional educational purpose of Chinese children’s books and focusing more on inspiring the imagination of the children.

In the last 10 years, children’s books have grown faster than the whole book market in China. According to publishing research company Beijing OpenBook Info, children’s books comprised only about 8 percent of the market back in 1999. Today, they account for a quarter. Retail sales of children’s books grew by 17 percent in the first nine months of this year, and rapid growth is expected to continue.

“We are confident in expansion in the next three years because books, especially children’s books, are no longer just books,” said Zeng. “They are about reading and a cultural lifestyle.”

At the forefront is the digitalization of children’s books, be it a simple e-book, an interactive digital edition or audio books. This may be one area where the Chinese market is ahead of the rest of the world, thanks to the vast number of Internet and mobile users.

Aksel Kole, chief executive of digital picture book library Piboco, said he finds it easier to convey his ideas to Chinese Internet companies than to companies back home in Europe.

Piboco is a subscription app pre-launching in Denmark and France with interactive picture books. Kole, who was also on the SHVIP program, was specifically here searching for Chinese partners ahead of a planned launch in China in two or three years.

Children's books stoke imagination, buoy publishers
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Book fair goers marvel over the range of children’s books.

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