The Art of Speaking to Children
By Chen Yu-Chin (Children’s Literature Scholar) ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver
Jan 16, 2024

The Little Paper Boats That Went to See the Sea was written by the prolific children’s book author Lin Liang when he was over fifty years old and features a simple, lyrical writing style. The story describes how a small red paper boat flows from a small brook in the mountains into a larger stream then into big river where it meets a little white paper boat in the city and the two of them go to look at the sea together. They see lots of skyscrapers along the way and finally drift towards the edge of a dock where they see a big ship and go out to sea with it. Both of them are so happy and realize that something has changed: now they are two small paper boats that have seen the sea.

Cheng Ming-Chin was forty-three years old when he illustrated The Little Paper Boats That Went to See the Sea. He had taught art at primary schools for a long time and had looked carefully at the recurring traits in children’s drawings over the years. He included some of the traits in his own illustrations, especially those from the “pictorial stage” which children typically experience between the ages of four and eight. At that age, children often draw things from memory rather than sketching the relative shapes and sizes of objects in front of them.

In the book, Cheng uses exaggerated proportions when depicting the little paper boats as a way of emphasizing the contrast between the main characters and the scenery around them. For example, the little white and red boat on the water appear disproportionately large relative to the scenery around them in an attempt to show that although the boats are small, they have an important role to play in the story.

Lin described Cheng’s illustrations as a combination of two engaging components: overview and close-reading. “The overview lets you enjoy the picture as a whole, while the close-reading is about appreciating the many individual things that make up the image. Illustrations that feature this combination of overview and close-reading tend to be more figurative which makes it easier for children to relate to them,” said Lin. Cheng also employs techniques such as stone rubbing, tracing and blotting, as well as cutting and pasting, to enrich the details of his illustrations. Alongside the “pictorial stage” design elements, The Little Paper Boats That Went to See the Sea has other traits found in children’s drawings, including simple shapes and clumsily-drawn lines etc. which naturally bring a distinctive vitality to the scenes.


The Little Paper Boats That Went to See the Sea was first published in 1975 as part of the “New Generation of Childhood Discovery” series which also featured another collaboration between Lin and Cheng: Small Animal Nursery Rhymes. These two books have been read for nearly half a century and have been reprinted many times. Thanks to improvements in printing and bookbinding techniques, the illustrations have continued to become more detailed over the years and evoke a timelessness that has meant they still remain popular with young readers. This is because the book’s two creators, one of whom wrote for young readers using the art of plain language while the other embraced elements of children’s artwork in his illustrations, were both adults who knew how important it was to squat down and speak to children on their own level.