Much red reading books
The politics of children's stories
Once upon a time there was a loyal citizen
IN CHINA in Mao Zedong's day, frivolous childhood pursuits such as reading were frowned on. The few children's books that were tolerated told stories of revolution and class struggle. These days, toddlers are allowed to have more fun. But though the message has changed, parents and the state still believe the primary role of such works is to shape young minds, not amuse them.
Sales of children's literature have risen by double digits in most of the past ten years, much faster than the growth of book sales overall. The number of children's titles has more than tripled since 2005. This partly reflects a growing demand for products aimed at indulged only-children. A cost-conscious reluctance to have more offspring, which was reinforced by the country's recently relaxed one-child policy, helped fuel that demand. The richer parents are, the more they splash out on children's books.
Booksellers see a huge moneymaking opportunity. Most publishers of literature for adults now offer children's titles too. Around half of the 100 best-selling books last year were for youngsters—a higher share than in Britain or America. There is a growing variety of genres. Picture books for under-fives have been taking off; fiction for older teenagers is thriving.
Unsurprisingly, given the huge emphasis in China that is placed on passing exams, many titles aim purely to teach facts. Parents like to buy non-fiction, even for children still learning to read. Some books—printed on paperboard and intended mainly for under-twos—aim to teach the Roman alphabet to infants. Volumes for toddlers with titles such as “How to be a Meteorologist” and “Superstars of Science” do well.
The moral is often laid on thick. One provincial publisher (state-owned, like all of them) has titled a six-volume set of nursery rhymes “A Good Father is Better Than a Good Teacher”. Chinese-language versions of foreign classics often proclaim their didactic worth: Paddington, a marmalade-loving bear from darkest Peru, is a model of “thoughtfulness, modesty and self-discipline”, proclaims the blurb on the cover of a translation of Michael Bond's popular stories.
China's publishers remain profoundly conservative. They shun books with naughty or frivolous children, or where youngsters outsmart their elders. Cute animals vastly outnumber rebellious figures such as pirates. Few books depict siblings, aunts, uncles or cousins—relationships little understood by the young, thanks to the one-child policy.
Though far less visible than it was in Mao's day, politics still lurks. Publishers have internally appointed censors whose job is to ensure that the Communist Party's line is not transgressed. One executive says she avoids publishing history books for children where “the story does not match the narrative” approved by the party. Maps showing the island of Taiwan as a separate country are omitted from translations. Even a toddler's bedtime story is part of a bigger political picture.