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The fifth China Shanghai International Children's Book Fair will be held at Shanghai World Expo Exhibition & Convention Center from Friday through Sunday, with over 60,000 books from China and abroad being displayed. Since 2013, the fair has developed into an international gala and the biggest international exhibition platform focusing on the 0-16 age group in the Asia Pacific region. The three-day event is expected to attract over tens of thousands of visitors, including lay readers, representatives of the publishing industry and hundreds of children's book authors participating in readings, signings, talks and workshops.

A mother reads to her son at the China Shanghai International Children's Book Fair. Photos: Courtesy of the book fair organizer

The golden age of Chinese children's books

The growing success and attendance of the China Shanghai International Children's Book Fair reflects China's booming children's book market, which has been described by industry professionals as currently enjoying a "golden era." Children's literature in China has indeed entered a period of prosperity with the emergence of a number of outstanding local writers and the transformation of Chinese publishing houses.

According to Xinhua News Agency, each year 600 million copies of children's books are printed and 200,000 kinds of books are available on the market, reaching 10 billion yuan ($1.51 billion) in sales, making children's literature the most vibrant, promising, fast-growing and competitive section of China's publishing industry.

Yan Xiaoli, editor in chief of Beijing Dandelion Children's Book House Co, sees this growth as an outcome of a rising reading consciousness in Chinese society. "It is the combined effort of parents with better educational backgrounds, a stronger national economy and public appeals from society and schools for more reading," Yan told the Global Times.

Lu Jun, vice president of CITIC Press Group, believes that since 2015, China's children's book scene has seen three stages of development. In the first, Chinese parents asked their friends and family traveling abroad to purchase foreign children's books, as domestic children's books in terms of creativity, design and fun could not compare.

The second stage saw Chinese publishing houses sparing no effort translating and introducing imported children's book in order to meet the increasing demands of Chinese parents. Now, currently in the third stage, Lu believes that Chinese parents are no longer satisfied with Western stories, as they hope their children will grow up with more cultural self-confidence.

This rapid change and taste in Chinese parents' choice of books for their children has resulted in massive growth in original Chinese works. After years of exploration, the Chinese publishing industry is ready to produce original books that tell Chinese stories which carry the Chinese cultural gene.

A variety of children's books

Changing Chinese tastes

A recent report from online book selling website revealed that sales of original Chinese children's books has surged. From January to November of this year, Dangdang reported selling 170 million children's books, one-third of which were Chinese and original.

From January to August of 2017, original Chinese children's books accounted for 40 percent of the top-100 bestselling books on Dangdang, with four reaching the top-10 bestseller's list, a record high.

In addition to the overall change in tastes among Chinese parents, content in imported books seems to be too alien for many Chinese children. For example, Yan once received a letter from a parent about an illustrated book about plants imported from Japan, in which the parent said that many of the plants in the book are not found in China.

To change this situation, publishing houses such as Beijing Dandelion Children's Book House are now working on original content specifically for China and the Chinese.

Asked about how to win back young local readers who are used to reading imported books, Yan believes children will fall in love with any story so long as it is interesting and entertaining.

Beijing Dandelion Children's Book House's latest release, Granny Xiu and Peach Blossom Fish, is a story about a mysterious grandmother who appears stern but really has a kind heart. "Nowadays, Chinese children's books have become more fun, less educational," Yan said.

Parents and children at the China Shanghai International Children's Book Fair

China's rising influence

The biggest challenges she sees to publishing good, original Chinese children's book are the higher costs and the lack of outstanding writers, creative illustrators and experienced editors.

Yan said it usually takes 18 months to get a Chinese writer, illustrator and editor to complete a new book, much longer than simply importing a book from abroad. Royalties that must be paid to Chinese authors are also higher than what is paid to foreign authors.

Nonetheless, original Chinese children's books are finding success in overseas markets, for example Bronze and Sunflower, published by Phoenix Juvenile and Children's Publishing, has been exported to 14 counties and regions, including the UK, France, Italy, Germany and Australia. It was written by Cao Wenxuan, winner of the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award.

Wang Yongbo, president of Phoenix Juvenile and Children's Publishing, told the Global Times that their publishing house first started exporting its children's books in 2006. Looking back over the past decade, he believes that it was much harder at the beginning to export original Chinese children's books.

However, in his observation, the situation is getting better now that China plays a bigger role on the world stage. "The export of original Chinese children's books and China's rising influence go hand in hand and coordinate with each other," Wang said.

A foreign exhibitor introduces children's books to visitors.

Lost in translation

A good story, a knowledgeable translator and active cooperation with leading foreign international publishing houses are key elements to help Chinese children's books find overseas readership. Bronze and Sunflower, for example, tells a moving story of a friendship between two orphaned Chinese children.

"The story is simple but it carries universal emotions, thus is understood by all people," Wang said.

Yan believes stories with Chinese cultural backgrounds, particularly Chinese food, are favored by foreign readers. The Magic Granny (tentative title), a forthcoming book about Sichuan cuisine and food fairies, has aroused interest from foreign publishers, according to Yan.

There's Always a Reason to Have Buns, published by Beijing Dandelion Children's Book House, tells the story of a Chinese boy who finds himself craving stuffed steamed buns while studying abroad. This book has already been exported to the US.

However, successfully translating a Chinese book into foreign languages is still a major barrier. Yan said Chinese publishing houses usually have original works translated by a native speaker before pitching them to foreign publishing houses. However, many cultural, social and symbolic meanings are often lost in translation during this process.

For instance, she recalled that one translator translated the phrase "yuanyang" (a term in Putonghua to express love birds) simply to "China ducks."

"In that case, the deeper meaning behind the phrase was lost," Yan said.

A foreign exhibitor introduces a children's book.

The global stage

Active participation in international book fairs or professional industry forums also helps China export its literature. In recent years, Chinese publishing houses have started attending more and more events alongside their international counterparts.

The annual Frankfurt Book Fair and the Bologna Children's Book Fair are prime examples of this attendance. "The international publishing industry is getting more interested in the Chinese market," Wang said after attending many global book fairs this year.

In addition to exporting Chinese children's books, another new trend is to co-publish with foreign publishing houses or commission internationally renowned writers to author a new series of books.

Wang's publishing house is currently working on a new series to be compiled by a dozen writers from different countries and regions including Italy, New Zealand, Hungary and India, under the theme of childhood growth within different cultural contexts.

Next year, China will be the country of honor at the 2018 Bologna Children's Book Fair, which will provide a very important opportunity for Chinese literature by giving it a global showcase.

Big deals are expected to be made there, which in turn will promote the unique charm of Chinese culture and improve the international influence of China's children's book publishing industry.