Turning a page in the evolution of children's books in China

Many Chinese publishers are now investing heavily in finding and supporting local authors and illustrators, and in publishing high-quality books fit for export.
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

A family of three enjoys a pictorial at the Shanghai International Chilren's Book Fair.

In children’s literature not long ago, China imported 19 books for every one book published here and exported. In the business of copyright procurement, the commerce was tilted in favor of Chinese publishers buying rights for overseas titles.

Except for famous Chinese classics, parents here have long complained about lack of children’s books originating in China, especially in the category of illustrated books for preschoolers. Lacking that choice, they typically bought translated versions of popular global titles.

“A lot has changed in the past five years,” says Carolina Ballester, international program manager of the Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair. “Local content has reached a level where publishing rights can be sold abroad.”

Many local publishers, especially larger state-run entities, have invested heavily in finding and supporting local authors and illustrators, and in publishing high-quality books fit for export. The Chinese government has included books in its “export culture” initiative.

“It’s more expensive and time-consuming to produce good-quality original books than to translate international titles,” says Yao Lei, deputy general manager of Hubei Province-based Changjiang Children’s Publishing Group, one of the most influential players in the children’s book market.

“We founded an in-house team of illustrators about five years ago to work closely with our editors and produce the best pictures for content,” she adds. “We feel the social responsibility as a state-run publishing house. We truly want more countries and regions and their children to learn about our culture through our books.”

Efforts by Yao and fellow publishers across China are beginning to pay off. The import-to-export ratio has dropped most recently to about 2 to 1.

Yao’s company has published a series of illustrated children’s books called “Mr Ear.” The co-authors are a young illustrator, a musician and a children’s educational specialist. By scanning the QR code on the first page, children can access an online album of original music composed specially for the books. In some of the books, vivid shapes combine with music to help children learn basic music knowledge. In other books, the music creates a story atmosphere, similar to a film score.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Chinese parents wear special glasses to see three-dimensional pictures in a children's book.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Yang Hongying's pictorial "The House of Dreams" features 20 fairy tales.

Illustrated books require little translation for the export market. Pictures tell stories.

“Preschool kids all around the world have pretty much the same values,” says Alessandro Gelso, editor-in-chief for children’s books at the Mondadori Group, Italy’s largest publisher. “It’s only after they start school that culture begins to shape them.”

Gelso, who attended the recent children’s book fair in Shanghai, says he was intrigued by a new China illustrated book entitled “Journey Buddy,” a warm story about a father and child.

In the story, the father is preoccupied with finding gold and pays little attention to his son, who carries a large backpack around and keeps asking his father the names of everything they come across. One day, the father realizes how the backpack has swelled and asks his son what’s inside.

The child opens the bag and everything he learned from the father, from watches to the sun and moon, falls out. He has learned the world from his father, except for one word.

“What do I call you?” the son asks.

“Father” is the reply.

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Illustrator Ma Daishu

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Ma Daishu's internationally popular "Leaves" has more than 500 pictures but no text.

The book was illustrated by Ma Daishu, whose first work “Leaves” had more than 500 pictures but no text. Rights to the book have been sold to publishers in the United States, Canada, France, Italy and Sweden, with offers still coming in.

Ma, who holds a master’s degree in arts from Central Saint Martins in the UK, quit her teaching job at Shanghai Jiao Tong University to spend three years working on “Leaves.”

“We have always had many good illustrators in China,” Ma says, “but the environment wasn’t conducive for their talent to flourish. Chinese publishers have primarily focused on importing quality foreign books, but in the last recent five years that is beginning to shift and they are more willing to provide financial and editorial support for young illustrators like me.”

She adds, “I feel very fortunate to be able to do what I love most — draw and tell stories.”

The annual children’s book fair in Shanghai gives her a welcome platform to meet people in the publishing world and display her talent.

“It was very helpful for me to see young, talented Chinese artists in presentations alongside world-class illustrators like Rebecca Dautremer,” says Italy’s Gelso. “It intrigued me to think that these Chinese artists may be as good as more famous artists.”

Traditionally, most Chinese books have been exported to neighboring countries like Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. Now, domestic publishers are beginning to break into more challenging markets like North America, Europe and the Middle East.

Earlier this year, HarperCollins signed a deal to translate a series of 36 Chinese math textbooks for use in schools in the UK. That came after global academic test scores consistently ranked China’s math education the best in the world.

“Chinese parents look for educational value in books for their children,” says Yu Shu, a children’s book editor at Citic Press Group, one of the biggest Chinese privately owned publishing houses. “They are most interested in early education training, emotion management and similar self-improvement books for kids.”

But that’s not necessarily the fare that will grab the attention of children overseas, who generally prefer books for entertainment and like reading for fun.

Ti Gong

Australian author Graeme Base and his illustrations

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The cover of "Dragon Moon"

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Base's another popular work, "The Eleventh Hour"

Yao’s company has just released an illustrated book entitled “Dragon Moon,” a Chinese dragon version of the classic ugly duckling story by Australian author Graeme Base, best known for the international hits “Animalia” and “The Eleventh Hour.”

Base, who has shown great interest in dragons and pandas in his previous books, was inspired by his multiple trips in China. The English version of “Dragon Moon” is now underway and expected to be published some time next year.

Base’s Chinese publishers hope this new approach by the best-selling author and his distinct artistic style will become a popular page-turner and a breakthrough into the competitive Western children’s book market.

China is rich in folklore that lends itself to children’s books.

Author Peng Xuejun and young illustrator Ma Penghao have collaborated on “Granny Xiu and the Peach Blossom Fish,” a story drawn from the legends of elderly witches that filled Peng’s childhood in Hunan Province.

“The landscape there is amazing and is filled with folklore about elderly witches who poison people with dried bugs,” she says. “As children, we believed the stories and got scared whenever we saw an elderly woman. It was only after I grew up that I realized many of those women were good-hearted grannies, and that’s what inspired this story.”

The award-winning author in children’s literature collaborated with Ma in producing her first illustrated book.

“When I quit my job in 2009 and became a freelance illustrator, there wasn’t an environment for original children’s books,” says Ma, a Guangdong Province native in his early 30s. “Now, it’s like bamboo sprouting in the spring. The roots were planted years ago but only now are they rapidly emerging.”

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Young illustrator Ma Penghao (center) and author Peng Xuejun (lady next to Ma) talk to visitors at the Shanghai International Chilren's Book Fair.

Ti Gong

“Granny Xiu and the Peach Blossom Fish” is a story about the legends of elderly witches.


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