It All Started with a Hobby: An Interview with Editorial Director Chou Hui-Lin
By Itzel Hsu ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver
Jan 16, 2024

When you type “Southeast Asia” into the search engine of Taiwan’s biggest online bookshop, Books.com.tw, and set the criteria to children’s books, you get two results: one is a title that’s out of print, and the other is Stamps Tell You Stories: The Legends and Cuisines of Southeast Asia which was published less than a year ago. In other words, it’s the only children’s title about Southeast Asia in the current Taiwan book market, as well as the only collection of folk stories written by immigrants to Taiwan from Southeast Asia, and the only book that introduces young readers to Southeast Asian stamps. This uniqueness wasn’t the result of an intentional creative effort but was caused by what Chou Hui-Lin calls “things coincidentally coming together”, with this serendipity facilitated by the shared passion to help young readers see the wider world.

The Legends and Cuisines of Southeast Asia is actually the fifth book in the Stamps Tell You Stories series, which is the first series of children’s books about stamps currently on the market to be published by a local Taiwan publisher.

Making Stamps a Window to the World

When Chou proposed creating the series, Wang Jung-wen, the publisher of Yuan-Liou Publishing, wondered: do children these days still have any contact with stamps? Fortunately, even though the company anticipated that the book might be potentially difficult to promote, they chose to believe that Chou’s passion would generate sales opportunities.

During the creative process, Chou learnt from one of the authors that Chunghwa Post (Taiwan’s postal service) had worked with over two hundred primary schools to set up stamp collecting sessions and trained teachers to help promote knowledge about stamps. Since the book was published, Chou and the authors have received a lot of collaboration proposals from schools, libraries, and museums. For example, they collaborated with the National Museum of Taiwan History to organize two parent-child activities which were combined with city tours. Chou also showed off the medal that the book had won at the stamp exhibition. Thinking back to the children and crowds she saw at the exhibition, Chou believes that while stamp collecting seems like a slightly obscure hobby at first glance, there are still definitely a number of people who enjoy it today.

Of course, Chou had the idea for the series mainly because she is a stamp collector herself. More than twenty years ago, she was editing a book series called Selected Masterpieces by Winners of the Hans Christian Anderson Award and someone she was working with gave her a set of stamps featuring American fairy tales which helped revive her childhood hobby and embark on the path to becoming a more professional collector. However, as a children’s literature researcher, her interest in stamp collecting is mostly tied to her focus on children’s books. Her fellow stamp-collecting friend (and one of the authors of the series) Wang Shu-Fen observed that the story used on each country’s stamp was often the story which was most representative of that country. This meant that with the right illustrations, the tiny postal stamps could be windows into foreign cultures for young readers.

Designing a Journey on Paper

When readers open the contents page of any books in the Stamps Tell You Stories series, they’re always deeply impressed by the non-linear graphic design based on the concept “What You See Is What You Get”. Chou opens the first volume in the series, Taiwanese Children’s Stories, and points to the small world map with Taiwan labeled in red: “First and foremost, I wanted to let readers know where we are in the world.” In the subsequent books in the series, the world map features a blue bird, and readers can follow its arrows as it flies so they can understand the locations of these stories relative to Taiwan. There is a pull-out map on the next page, so in The Legends and Cuisines of Southeast Asia for example, readers can see a more detailed map of Southeast Asia with the region indicating the location for each story and its corresponding stamp and page number. “I wanted to incorporate the concept of traveling”, so that readers can travel to the stories and regions they want to experience without having to read the pages in order. Even just the design of the contents pages alone let Chou demonstrate what she learned during her master’s degree in multimedia design.

As well as the two main content themes of stamp stories and folk legends, Chou has tried to include other elements in the hope of creating more connections with readers. She happily shares that a lot of little girls have been fascinated by the haiku in Japanese Folklore and Haiku, the fourth book in the series. The food in The Legends and Cuisines of Southeast Asia was inspired by discussions with the author group. “The first story we decided to include was the ‘Watermelon Legend’ from Vietnam, and then I asked them if they had any more stories like that.” However, adding this new element to the book also brought new possibilities to the creative process, and Chou, who had previously just collected stamps involving children’s stories, now had to search for food-related stamps too.

Additional Puzzles in the Works

The Stamps Tell You Stories series is still in progress, but Chou admits the publication timing and what theme they go with is still largely down to chance since the choice of authors, work schedule, stamp content, market trends, and company strategy are all factors which can have an influence on the completion of the book. Pointing to the main illustration on the lower half of the cover, Chou explains that the design is based on the concept of the classic board game Sugoroku. She was inspired by the album artwork on one of the records in her shellac collection, so she invited the artist, Huang Tzu-chin, to be the art designer for the book since he has an in-depth collection of Sugoroku and has conducted research on the subject. The image of the Sugoroku is often blocked by the partial dust jacket, so readers might not see it on first glance. However, Chou perseveres and imagines a future where the series reaches ten or more volumes so she can put the illustrations from each of the covers together and create a giant picture of a Sugoroku game for readers. One can’t help but wonder what other surprises might be in store for readers thanks to Chou’s ingenuity.