2015 / 4月
Chang Chiung-fang /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Once children in Taiwan have finished with world-famous picture books such as A Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Little House, they typically move on to novels for children, such as the Harry Potter books. But some children find the move from pictures to long texts too great a chasm to leap.
The books that can serve to bridge this gap are ones that cultivate in children an ability to read independently by combining pictures with longer texts. In comparison to picture books, chapter books—or “bridge books” as they are known in Taiwan—reduce the space given to illustrations and increase the amount of text, offering children a smoother transition to handling larger blocks of text.
Chen Yu-chin, an adjunct assistant professor of language and creative writing at National Taipei University of Education, has conducted research on chapter books. She notes that in recent years Taiwan’s publishers of children’s books have put a big emphasis on targeting chapter books at children in the lower and middle grades. “The difficulty and amount of text is higher than in picture books, but it has been carefully designed so children don’t lose interest or find it too taxing, and the text is still matched with excellent illustrations.”A bridge between pictures and text
Chapter books comprise a wide-ranging category that includes essays, original fiction and traditional stories and folk tales.
Chen points out that early on chapter books did exist within Taiwan’s children’s literature, but there were relatively few of them. They received little attention outside the field and little fanfare in the marketplace.
In comparison, Taiwan’s publishers were translating large numbers of foreign picture books, and the mothers who would volunteer to read picture books in the schools only served to further popularize the genre.
But after a while it was discovered that although Taiwanese students were reading more, their scores on reading tests hadn’t improved much. Some wondered if spending so much time reading picture books—where words were secondary and could easily fade into the background—might be stunting Taiwanese children’s reading abilities.
Consequently, chapter books, as stepping stones between picture books and full-text books, attracted more attention and emerged as a field with room for growth.
Children’s book author Lin Zhezhang believes that in comparison to picture books, chapter books give local authors more space to stake out a place of their own. This is because there are low cultural barriers to entry for picture books, so local products must compete against books from around the world. But in the case of chapter books, “Children still lack a conception of the wider world, so foreign subject matter can be less accessible,” says Lin. “Furthermore every language has its own cultural background and character. Something’s bound to be lost in translation.”
Picture books are targeted at preschool children as well as at children in the early years of elementary school. Chapter books, with word counts of 5000–20,000 Chinese characters and a blend of text and illustrations, are better suited to children in the middle and upper grades of elementary schools. Lin points out that although these books have higher word counts than picture books, they still include illustrations. “Illustrations can allow readers to find joy outside of the text,” Lin says. “When you add words to illustrations, one plus one is greater than two.”Food for Thought School
Lin and illustrator BO2 have worked together on a series of books about a “Food for Thought School” that has dominated the top spots on Eslite’s chapter book bestseller list for the last two years. In February the sixth volume in the series, Fantastic White Rice, was released. The first volume in the series has already seen 30 printings.
The series is set at a school, and its characters are types of food. They get caught up in one amusing and thought-provoking adventure after another. White Rice Man appears in each book in the series, albeit always in a supporting role. Nevertheless his existence can’t be overlooked—whether by Chicken Drumstick, Pork Chop, or Barbecued Pork Lunch Box.
Lin makes particular mention of the virtues of Bitter Melon, who does his own thing without imposing his values on others. He’s a stand-up guy among vegetables, who doesn’t spread his bitter taste no matter which dish he is matched with.
In the book’s preface Arlene Hsing, the noted children’s book author, praises the series for creating characters out of food and finding value in their inherent natures. What’s more, adults who are hoping for their children to develop more adventurous palates will appreciate the wide range of flavors and ingredients that hereby enter their consciousness.The Tao of parallel batteries
Linguistic inventiveness is a hallmark of Lin’s books. “I don’t like to follow the herd,” he says, before citing an example: Everyone says “I love you.” After a while, it loses its emotional impact, but if you add “like a mouse loves rice” that enlivens the whole phrase.
Though a self-professed adherent of “simple language” in his art, Lin in fact uses language in a manner that isn’t simple in the least. The Chinese of his books is full of linguistic pyrotechnics, such as plays on words, inversions, idioms, paired phrases and so forth. But he doesn't see this as a problem for his young readers. “It’s like batteries connected in parallel in a light bulb circuit. If one is drained, you can still turn on the light with the other. It’s the same for words: So long as one doesn’t suffer from a reading disability, not understanding one or two vocabulary items won’t prevent a child from getting the gist of what’s written.”Setting children free, teaching adults
Lin has written another series, the Super Pipi series, which is set at the Mystery School. It describes various kinds of problems that children may encounter in school.
The lead character Super Pipi likes to eat a magical sweet potato, which allows him to fly on his farts. The Mystery School Principal, a supporting character in all the books in the series, likes to try to copy the children’s superpowers, often misapplying them to disastrous effect.
“All the children in the story have superpowers, whereas the adults need the children to help them,” says Lin, who has the heart of a child.
Emphasizing fun doesn’t necessarily mean being trivial or silly. Fun can still hold within it a deeper meaning. For instance, in Super Pipi and His Fart-Inflated Life Raft, the Golden Baby’s Wild Animal Dad and the Golden Baby’s Helicopter Mom are characters that bring to life issues in modern parenting.
Lin points out that making fun of or educating adults isn’t something that’s irrelevant to children, because children are future mothers and fathers. Children may one day become school principals. The seeds Lin plants may linger in their minds until germinating and growing strong at the appropriate time.
Lin says he hopes that his writing brings joy both to “future adults” and to “grown-up children.” It’s an approach that offers the broadest possible scope for children’s literature. Ultimately, one crosses countless bridges in one’s life, and the passage from childhood to adulthood isn’t necessarily a one-way journey.
There’s never anything totally new in the field of children’s literature. If authors of chapter books want children to sit still and linger with their books, then they will have to bring their own superpowers fully to bear. Their books have to be compelling enough to pry children loose from the bright lights and commotion of their electronic screens.