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MEETING LITTLE FLOWER
By Liao Hung-Chi
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
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  • Feelings that Transcend Species – An Interview with the Author and the Illustrator of FOX HATCHES AN EGG
    Jan 21, 2021 / By Anting Lu ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver

    We’ve all read Aesop’s Fables and closed the book with a knowing smile, moved by the love, courage, and humour in the stories. However, many of the fables feature one animal who is never very likable: a solitary fox with sharp fangs who is always labelled as cunning and treacherous. As a lover of fables, children’s book author Sun Chyng-Feng noticed that the fox had been treated “unfairly” over the years and decided to write Fox Hatches an Egg to gently invert the role.

     

     

    Reversing the Character’s Image and Shaping Its Ideal Values

    In the interview with Sun Chyng-Feng, we started by discussing the fox’s traditional role as a villain. She talked about how she started writing fairy tales in her third year of university and how she wanted to subvert the traditional way of thinking by challenging the various stereotypes surrounding widely-held gender and class distinctions. As topics like these are very important to her, Sun Chyng-Feng’s typical creative process is to start by deciding on the story’s main notion or subject matter, and then running with a story to express it. For example, Fox Hatches an Egg discusses the process of transforming from “selfish” to “selfless”.

     

    Since Sun Chyng-Feng has lived in the US for many years, collaborating with illustrator Nan Jun on Fox Hatches an Egg was more like a relay race than co-creation. First, Sun Chyng-Feng completed the manuscript and then Nan Jun came up with the image concepts and drew the illustrations. This process gave both author and illustrator the most space for creativity. Talking about the content of the illustrations, Sun Chyng-Feng said there was one image which left a particularly deep impression on her: a white duck egg which takes up almost an entire page. This simple, bold composition captures that moment when Fox suddenly sees the duck egg in the undergrowth and he’s so excited that everything else in his mind goes blank, as if the egg takes up the entire universe.

     

          

     

    Love Between Species and the Warm Life of Companionship

    For illustrator Nan Jun, the most moving part of the story was the cross-species friendship between Fox and the duck which was brought about by chance but eventually became inevitable. He recalls his own childhood home where his kind-hearted father would sometimes look after stray animals and even adopted piglets, ducklings, and other unusual “pets” by modern day standards. When reading Fox Hatches an Egg he could completely understand how after Fox and duck kept each other company, Fox can no longer see the duck as food and instead feels a wave of affection towards it.

     

    This is why when we asked Nan Jun which image was his favourite, he immediately said the cover: a picture of Fox curled up around the egg and sleeping soundly, with the two characters framed by the shape of a house. Nan Jun admits that the painting process means that you can’t always capture one hundred percent of the scene you imagined, but once he saw the completed cover he felt it had come out even better than he could have hoped. It really captured the warmth between Fox and the duck.

     

     

    In addition to the subtly revealed affection between the two characters, Nan Jun set the book during autumn and meticulously planned the detailed settings. “The special thing about setting it during autumn was that even though the weather would be cold, the pictures would be filled with the kind of colours which would make readers feel that sense of warmth.” He added that this all tied back in with the feelings between Fox and the duck.

     

          

     

    True Feelings Can Transcend Languages and Borders

    At the end of the interview, we chatted about the potential for Fox Hatches an Egg to reach an international readership and Nan Jun stated he was particularly confident in the book’s portrayal of the closeness between the characters: “Fox Hatches an Egg will resonate easily with people of all ages and races because emotions are a universal language. It’s a book you can fall in love with as soon as you read it.”

     

    Sun Chyng-Feng also believes that the book tells a universal story about love, and that there are no specific cultural or geographical limitations to it. In the end, Fox is so upset by his actions that he becomes a vegetarian and is more than happy to make that sacrifice. These bittersweet sentiments are what makes this the perfect fable, and also bring a touch of real emotion to the story. This may be why the book resonates so much with readers. 

  • A Thirty-Minute Story that Took Five Years to Complete – An Interview with the Author and the Illustrator of SLEEPWALKING
    Jan 21, 2021 / By Bernie Yang ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver

    At first glance, the large full moon on the front cover of Sleepwalking may remind you of the classic film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial which also features a young boy who goes on a big adventure, but the picture book’s plot twists and the pervading ingenuity of its illustrations help make readers feel the warmth of the affection that permeates its pages.

    Stories Born from Childhood Memories

    Sleepwalking is based on author Yen Chih Hao’s own experience as he often sleepwalked when he was a child and it was something his father worried about constantly. Looking back on it as an adult, Yen Chih Hao wanted to thank his father and cherish the memory of his grandparents who had passed away, so he picked up a pen and composed this story which only took him thirty minutes to write. The publisher introduced him to illustrator Hsueh Hui-Yin and the way they collaborated was quite interesting: once Yen Chih Hao finished writing, he gave Hsueh Hui-Yin full responsibility and the two of them had zero contact until the draft was completed.

     

    Hsueh Hui-Yin thought that it wouldn’t take much time since the plot was simple and Yen Chih Hao had provided preliminary concepts for the images. She certainly hadn’t expected her progress to be hampered by multiple factors, and the author didn’t push her too much for the sake of quality. Thus, a story which was written in thirty minutes ended up taking five years to illustrate. In fact, it took so long that the editor who’d originally been responsible for the project had gotten married and had children in that time. 

     

    The turning point came when the two of them met after the rough drawings were completed. Yen Chih Hao thought the middle of the story was lacking an important turning point: a scene where the father hugs his son. The editor thought it could be omitted, but Yen Chih Hao persisted and decided to discuss it with Hsueh Hui-Yin in person. To his surprise, he found that Hsueh Hui-Yin also felt that they should add this scene and they both regretted not having met sooner.  

     

     

    Conveying Profound Issues in Picture Books 

    Sleepwalking describes a young boy who sleepwalks out of his house in the middle of the night and embarks on a great adventure. He travels far and wide, his anxious father by his side and protecting him along the way before it transpires that the boy had been going to lay flowers at his grandparents’ graves all along. The father and son embrace and the sleepwalking spell is broken, then their journey home is filled with warm father-son interactions. In the end, the boy returns to his bed and falls back into a peaceful sleep.

     

    At the beginning it seems like an adventure story, but in the middle there’s such an unexpected plot twist and the book ends with an affectionate note between father and son. When asked whether he deliberately planned it this way, Yen Chih Hao quickly replied that a common motive in life is to supplement our inner selves and as we slowly accumulate this material over time it naturally reveals itself so there’s no need to purposely construct something new.

     

    Surprisingly for someone who had already written many works over the course of his career, Yen Chih Hao’s appreciation for children’s literature occurred relatively late. It wasn’t until he pursued a graduate degree in children’s literature that he really came into contact with it and began to slowly figure out his own creative path. It could be said that children’s literature is his safe haven and that he wants to give children hope and spark their imaginations through his works, and that this is where he finds his own creative joy.

     

    While the book explores profound issues such as death and parent-child interactions which might seem a bit serious or difficult for young children to understand, Yen Chih Hao tries to tell the story in the style of a fairy tale. He takes a warm approach to reflecting on life and makes the child’s thoughts the main highlight, which he particularly emphasises by having the father stay silent on the journey. It’s not just about hoping that parents can let their children fly, it’s about wanting children to always have that strong backing and support.

     

     

    The Shared Dance Between Author and Illustrator

    In terms of matching an author and illustrator, Yen Chih Hao believes that an illustrator should respond to the text and the pictures should bring an additional layer of creativity. With Sleepwalking, Yen Chih Hao left Hsueh Hui-Yin a lot of space for expression: “It’s like two people dancing together, it’s just that I danced the first half then stepped aside so my partner could dance the second half.” He hoped that by having their two life stories intertwine, they could create an even more beautiful third story. A good picture book should be like a film, where the text gets the ball rolling and the images immerse the reader in the story.

     

    The book contains relatively few words and the latter half of the return journey is told entirely through images which gives the narrative a unique style of its own, although this lack of text also puts the illustrator’s storytelling ability to the test. Hsueh Hui-Yin initially painted the images by hand but discovered the pictures looked too crowded so she did the illustrations digitally to reach the perfect balance. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the pictures contain a lot of hidden details which Hsueh Hui-Yin deftly uses to bring the images to life, including the boy’s stuffed animals, the way the moon moves across the night sky to signify the passage of time, and the illustrations in the second half which are in the opposite direction to show that they’re on the return journey.

     

     

    Hsueh Hui-Yin believes that relative to creating a single illustration or a book cover, illustrating a picture book is more like making an album. A picture book is a complete story, so it is important to pay close attention to the narrative structure and cohesion between plots. The composition and arrangement of images need to be carefully considered and the pictures must convey what cannot be expressed by words.

     

    Sleepwalking’s landscapes are often filled with features that are distinctly Taiwanese, such as its wind turbines, trains, and convex traffic mirrors, all of which remind readers of the island’s beauty. Combining this with the universal feelings conveyed by the story itself and the straightforward illustrations will surely help the book transcend language barriers and impress readers from all over the world.    

  • CommonWealth Education Media and Publishing: For Better Education, Better Parenting and a Better Generation
    Jan 05, 2021 / By April Chen ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver

    When CommonWealth Education Media and Publishing was founded, its goal was to serve as an educational community for parents and children, to provide “a knowledgeable support system, a platform for exchanging methods, and a community where people can share their feelings.” Books and magazines are currently one of the most efficient tools for learning, and CommonWealth Education hopes that it will have the flexibility to provide children with everything they need to develop healthy reading habits while simultaneously helping parents and teachers enrich themselves in the process.  

     

    The Early Stages of the Taiwanese Children’s Book Market: The Predicament of Developing Domestically Produced Books

    From a publishing context, the Taiwanese children’s book market was severely dependent on imported works during the early years and it was virtually impossible for Taiwanese authors to make it onto the bookstores’ general bestseller lists. However, right from the beginning CommonWealth Education has insisted that at least 50% of the titles it publishes each year must be by local authors. It’s hoped that the content of these locally-produced works is a reflection of the environment the children grow up in, which helps give young Taiwanese readers a deeper sense of recognition and emotional connection to the place while they’re reading, and in turn this nurtures their growth. It’s also hoped that parents can connect with their children through these reading materials about life and child-rearing, and that they can ultimately be used to resolve all kinds of everyday problems.

    Over the last twenty years, a whole new world of locally-produced works has opened up. Take picture books for example, CommonWealth Education has republished new editions of many of Lai Ma’s classic works including I’m Breathing Fire!, The Day I Got Up Early, The Monster of Palapala Mountain, Mr Hurry and Guess Who I Am? in the hope of bringing these classic stories to a new generation of children. CommonWealth Education has also expanded on Lai Ma’s works and designed lots of spin-off merchandise based on the picture book characters, to help the author go beyond picture books and take their products in a more varied direction. After the success of Lai Ma, CommonWealth Education hopes to continue to create diversified spaces and platforms for other high-quality IP and help Taiwan keep reaching new creative milestones, that by trying more varied and innovative methods it will break through the framework of traditional media and publishing to build a new content industry in the digital age.

    Demand-Based Reading Material Created Exclusively for Children

    In terms of publishing for school-age children, CommonWealth Education uses its existing interest in educational fields to provide age-appropriate books for the child’s reading needs. Reading 123 is a series designed for children in the early years of elementary school who have crossed over into reading chapter books. The series helps children become independent readers by designing the book to have a certain number of words, vocabulary that’s not too difficult, and supplementing the story with lots of illustrations. The books are 100% locally produced and serve as a bridge by developing a space where children can read word-based books unhindered and creating a lot of characters who are beloved by elementary school children, such as the little fire dragon and Captain Fart.

     

     

    CommonWealth Education provides different reading materials for children as they get older. During the critical phases in their reading journeys, it becomes more important to help children connect with guides so that by the time they’re teenagers and entering the rigid life of secondary school, they’ve been able to read a wide range of books which have given them an appetite for reading. CommonWealth is keen to create works which contain Eastern elements so that children can learn about the region’s rich literary history alongside the Western culture they already absorb.  

    In this vein, Jay Yeh’s classic series The Little Deputy of Sun Dynasty guides the reader through the history of traditional Chinese monsters and contains a rich selection of legends and folk tales, as well as interesting stories and poetry. Kevin Cheung’s light martial arts series Young Kitchen Warriors retains the chivalrous spirit of the genre and incorporates the Eight Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine, introducing the interesting stories behind famous dishes and building important historical bridges which allow children to experience thousands of years of food culture through reading. Chen Yuru is the first female Chinese author of fantasy for younger readers and wrote the Legends of the Immortal Spirits series which uses classical literature to construct a fantasy kingdom. She takes Tang and Song Dynasty poems and converts them into brilliant adventure settings which the protagonists have to travel within to solve mysteries, giving the reader a real sense of the beauty of classical literature. These middle-grade texts capture the depth of the stories without being difficult, which gives children the ability to use their reading to grow.  

     

     

    Laying the Foundation for Children’s Reading Literacy by Integrating Educational Expertise

    As well as publishing children’s books, CommonWealth Education is deeply engaged in publishing titles on education and parenting. This year, the most avidly discussed topics among parents and teachers are the “108 Curriculum (officially called “Master Framework for the 12-year Basic Education Curriculum Guidelines”)” and “Reading Literacy”. Children are facing exam questions that are significantly longer than they were before and with far more complicated narrative context. Every subject now tests for “literacy”, whether it be in Chinese language, mathematics, social sciences, natural sciences and so on. The content is all-encompassing and it’s expected that the school will guide the children towards knowledge, so they can apply it to resolve issues in all areas of their lives.

    However, from a child’s perspective these kinds of “open-ended” literacy questions are extremely testing. They must read the text and have a comprehensive understanding of what the piece is ultimately talking about before they have the chance to use their own knowledge to come up with a corresponding solution. CommonWealth Education plays to its strengths by taking a thematic approach and putting complicated subject-matters in simple terms to provide “digestible” content. In response to this modern societal trend that values literacy, reasoning ability, integrated understanding and practical application, there should be a strong emphasis on children reading “a diverse range of interdisciplinary texts” as part of their daily extracurriculars and they should gradually progress from short stories to longer texts, giving them the opportunity to make up for the deficiencies in classroom learning and textbooks.

    Zeng Shijie’s Comics for Chinese Language and Literature: A Story Collection uses structured, story-like texts and comic-strip reading exercises to help children quickly grasp the key points and structure of an article. The series also gives them the chance to practice reading long texts and increases their ability to understand, repeat and summarise, all of which lays a strong foundation for reading literacy.

     

     

    In the past, CommonWealth Education has watched education and parenting trends then used this information to help Taiwanese educators look at directions for the future. It also put a series of plans in place to assist local creators in developing a supply of diverse content to meet the reading needs of children of all ages. Going forward, CommonWealth Education hopes to use these core goals as the basis for broadening the horizons of Taiwanese education and children’s books.