Like in Western developed countries, Chinese children’s reading habits are being threatened by television, video games and the Internet. In response to this, an unofficial movement has sprung up as writers and publishers of children’s literature, primary school teachers, and many others have taken up the cause of promoting children’s reading.
Lin Xiaoxi, who is known by the epithet A Jia, is pioneer of this movement. He runs a bookstore Hongnibacun, or Red Clay Village, in northern Beijing, which is entirely dedicated to children’s books. In its display area there are neither dictionaries nor collections of compositions and test questions that are bestsellers among Chinese children’s publications. Instead, the room is filled with thousands of titles of children’s literature.
Yet with so many books waiting to be read, the aisles at Red Clay Village are almost entirely devoid of people. During my visit, the only signs of life I saw were a couple of staff members sealing books into packages and one lone customer strolling between the shelves. This is normal for a weekday, as most sales are made on the store’s website. Only on the weekends does the bookstore fill with activity, when parents and children come in to read together at the reading club.
Organizing book clubs like this is just one of A Jia’s activities outside selling books. He also visits schools to give lectures, translates foreign children’s books into Chinese, and exchanges ideas online with parents, who he often advises to read stories to their children every day to form the habit of reading.“I’ve been encouraging parents and children to share their passions for years,” A Jia said.
Growing with Children
For years, Chinese bookstores have been in decline. Red Clay Village has been built into a thriving business since it was started from scratch 13 years ago. Today, the bookstore is prominent in the industry and many children’s book publishers from Taiwan and Hong Kong visit the store when they come to Beijing to find books not available anywhere else. A Jia himself has received attention from the press for his fame as a prestigious promoter of children’s reading.
With its hands-on approach to bringing books into people’s lives, Red Clay Village organizes two kinds of reading clubs – one where parents and children read books and play games together, and one where adults discuss books. From time to time the bookstore also organizes outdoor trips for member families.
However, of its several hundred thousand members, less than 20,000 buy books from the store and participate in its activities regularly. Many prefer to buy the books recommended to them from other online bookstores that often offer a discount. “I can’t stop them from buying books for sale on other online stores,” A Jia said. But he insisted that Red Clay Village offers parents more than just books. “Our project helps parents grow with their children. We discuss with them their children’s reading problems, archive children’s responses to reading, and recommend books that they may find interesting.”
A Jia’s own early life was full of books. His mother worked in a library, and much of A Jia’s childhood was spent there. He became an avid reader. Later in life, after graduating from the law school of Fudan University, A Jia worked as court clerk, lawyer, teacher and manager of a website providing information on lawyer licensing examinations. It was his daughter who finally led him to his current career, as it was through reading stories to her that A Jia developed a love of children’s literature. A Jia co-founded the website Red Clay Village in 2000. Two years later the other investors pulled out and he began managing the bookstore and book club full time with his brother. Together they selected the best children’s books and recommended them to parents and teachers.
At that time, few parents regularly spent time reading with their children and good children’s books were rare. Business was slow, and for the first 23 months, he could not even cover his own salary. But this gave him a lot time to scour the city for the best children’s books and to develop a better understanding of children’s literature and the theories around it. “My criterion for selecting books is whether I would read them to my daughter,” A Jia told me. “Just like a farmer of good conscience, the milk I sell you is the same milk I drink.”
As a well-educated man born in the 1970s, A Jia has an attachment to paper books. However, faced with the rise of e-books, the marginalization of the printed word seems inevitable. “If children grow up in circumstances dominated by television, Internet, and steel and concrete buildings, their perception of the world will be distorted. They might have no idea about the Earth and the universe. Instead, the world they see has been disguised, altered and formatted,” A Jia said. “Compared to television, which is intrusive and imparts information quickly, books are slower, but more natural. They leave readers a space to communicate and think.” A Jia compared reading to planting potatoes. Even if the potatoes fail to survive, the farmers have still gained experience.
Discovering the World Through Reading
From 2004 to early 2008, A Jia participated in a number of reading activities and lectures in nearly 20 libraries across Beijing. He hoped his efforts would plant the seeds of a love for reading in more families with young children.
A Jia believes picture books are the most suitable kinds of books for parents to read to children. A good picture book should, as Japanese author Tadashi Matsui once said, represent the world realistically, precisely and appropriately. A Jia’s favorite children’s books are Where the Wild Things Are and Charlotte’s Web. He feels particularly touched by the hero of Where the Wild Things Are, which has been held up as the first picture book to acknowledge the powerful emotions felt by children and brings back memories of his own childhood. Charlotte’s Web is another classic that tells the story of a spider’s love and sacrifice for friendship.
“Good children’s literature is a kind of idealism. It is supposed to be like a baptism. If you like Charlotte’s Web, you will understand the most delicate human sentiments – truth, goodness and beauty. Once you feel such emotions, you will never forget.” In A Jia’s opinion, good early childhood education should simply help children get closer to noble feelings, which are what good books and music are all about. But he cautioned that educators and parents have to be patient and persistent. Their endeavors to make reading a part of children’s everyday lives are competing with a deluge of more immediate and exciting entertainment. Still, A Jia believes that nurturing a child’s inner life is much more important than pressing the child to perform well academically. “We need to stay calm to face the frenzy of the modern world. I hope when a child reaches the age of 11 or 12, he or she can remain innocent, cherish his or her dreams, and believe in fairytales and miracles.”
Reading for Rural Children
Over the past decade, non-governmental organizations in large cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have done much to promote the trend for parent-child reading. However, in smaller cities, remote towns and rural areas, there is a long way to go.
Recreational reading for children is still hard to come across in these areas. Bookstores often sell school supplies rather than books children can enjoy in their spare time, and the only fiction easily available are pirate copies found on street stalls. In the countryside, parents are always busy making ends meet and seldom have time to encourage their children to read. A Jia is worried about this situation: “In the places where there is electricity, rural children spend most of their time watching television. If there is an Internet cafe nearby, older children will spend hours on end there.” This makes it difficult for those in rural areas to cultivate a reading habit. In recent years, A Jia has begun to work with nonprofit organizations. In late 2007, his bookstore launched “Seeds of Happiness,” a collaborative project funded by a charitable foundation designed to encourage reading in a school for children of migrant workers in Beijing’s Chaoyang District. Students there often have to change schools, following their parents from one location to another in pursuit of job opportunities. Running on a meager budget, the school depends on donations to fill its library, whose small collection doesn’t have many books appropriate for children. The project started by buying RMB 3,000 worth of books for the students and setting daily reading hours. A Jia trained several volunteers to guide the students and set up a system to evaluate the results. More importantly, he called on the schoolteachers to keep reading constantly.
“Two months later, we found that the students had started to read out in the sunny playground during their breaks,” A Jia said with delight. “What pleased us most was that when we revisited the school a year later, we saw that many students still read at break time. Once they become accustomed to reading, they no longer thought of libraries as alien. Instead, they learned to find reading resources to teach themselves.”
In 2010, A Jia worked with two artists to create a series of picture book called Green Child and, via some NGOs, distributed it to rural children. Currently, children in over 5,000 villages throughout 16 provinces have received this book. Whenever A Jia receives a response to Green Child from a young reader, he sends him or her the latest issue of the series. Prominent Chinese writers such as Zhou Zuoren, Lu Xun and Bing Xin did a lot to add to and encourage children’s literature in the 1920s and 30s, but later foreign invasions and the civil war brought an end to the movement, and there have been many barriers that stopped children’s literature from receiving due attention.
“People of my generation had little access to children’s books, especially picture books, during our childhood. I bet few people can name 10 children’s books they have read. But if you ask the same question to a Brit or an American, they will list at least 50,” A Jia said.
He hopes that through his efforts, reading with children will become a standard parental task. “When it becomes part of everyday life for parents and children to sit down with a book on their laps, there will be no need for advocates like me and our goal will have been achieved,” A Jia said with a smile, optimistic about the future.
Source: China Today