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For Kids, Foreign Writers Tell Better Tale

With the country further opening up to the world, the Chinese are reading more and more international best-sellers.

Children's books, such as the Goosebumps series and the Harry Potter series, account for a large proportion.

On the first day the Goosebumps series appeared on the Beijing market in March, more than 400 books were sold in the Wangfujing Bookstore alone, one of the country's biggest bookstores.

The Harry Potter series, published by Beijing-based People's Literature Publishing House, sold nearly 180,000 sets nationwide in only three days after the books hit major cities 18 months ago. In a country where the average press-run for children's books is 20,000, it was an amazing figure.

Since then, newspapers have printed scattered reports on how the Harry Potter series has affected Chinese children. A father in Xi'an and a number of teachers in Beijing have told the public not to encourage children to read Harry Potter, saying that the stories about the magic boy wizard, written by British author J.K. Rowling, advocate things that are "deceptive" and would lead children astray.

However, many children still fall for Harry Potter.

"I borrowed a Harry Potter book from a classmate and found it interesting. So I decided to buy them for my own," said Li Weibai, a pimpled 16-year-old high- school senior poring over a set of four Goosebumps books. He said he had already devoured Harry Potter and "was deeply attracted by it."

The first-edition press-run for the Harry Potter series was 200,000 copies. By early this year, seven editions of the book had been published with a total of 600,000 copies. Even the most popular domestic children's writers sell much less.

"A Boy Named Jia Li," by Shanghai-based writer Qin Wenjun, and "The Thatched House," by Beijing-based Cao Wenxuan, sold fewer than 100,000 copies each.

Few other domestic titles have created any buzz in recent years, though there are more than 3,000 self-styled children's writers in the country.

Quite a few books by Chinese writers are removed from book shelves before making any impression on young readers.

Because international authors seem to captivate Chinese children more, the public may wonder what happened to the domestic market and to Chinese children's writers.

Although Chinese teenagers are busy with a heavy academic load, they would not begrudge time for reading if there were interesting books to read.

According to Hai Fei, director of the China Children Publishing House, the market for children's books has expanded dramatically over the past half a century, and especially since 1978 when reform was initiated.

In 2000, more than 7,000 children-oriented titles were published, up from just 2,446 in 1980.

In 1978, there were only two publishing houses dedicated to children's books. Now there are more than 30 such companies on the Chinese mainland, with at least one each in most provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions.

Between 1996 and 2000, more than 1 billion children's books were sold nationwide, with an average of 200 million being sold every year.

The market is huge but it is the content that sells.

What doesn't sell is content deemed uninteresting by children or their parents.

The Chinese people have a long tradition of literature rich in imagination.

"Xi You Ji," or "Journey to the West," is the most popular fairy tale written by Wu Cheng'en of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The tale follows the adventures of several characters, including a magical monkey king (Sun Wukong), a monk (Tang Seng) and a mischievous, lustful do-nothing pig.

The classic novel is the pride of the Chinese.

"But Chinese literature nowadays lacks imagination," said Wang Ruiqin, editor of the Chinese Harry Potter series. "You can not easily find a book as good as Harry Potter." The book series also draws a large number of adult readers.

Readers, critics and editors all say that children's writers are no longer telling stories but indulging in social sermon. As a result, their story-telling vigor has suffered.

"Stine (the author of Goosebumps) is a wise story-teller. Instead of being sloppy, as are many local children's novels, Goosebumps stories are full of suspense which gets readers deeply involved," said Peng Yi, a Beijing-based children's literature critic.

Peng said he has "read few better stories than Goosebumps.".

Sun Yuan, a 15-year-old with steel-rimmed glasses and short spiky hair, made a similar comparison.

"There are few books written by Chinese authors that are as interesting as Harry Potter," he said.

The boy has devoured children's books since childhood, and admitted that he would be more willing to choose Chinese writers' books if they were interesting enough.

The golden period of Chinese children's literature occurred in the 1990s, when many good books such as "A Boy Named Jia Li," and "The Third Corps" enjoyed great success.

Zheng Yuanjie, a famous writer of fairy tales, is another success story. In the early 1990s Zheng established a monthly in Taiyuan, the capital of North China's Shanxi Province, which published his fairy tales. His works were so full of wild imagination that they became quite popular among primary and middle school students.

With the transformation of Chinese society, the artistic tastes of children have changed a lot in the past several years.

Writers however, have not followed the trends, but are still producing old-style stories which seem somewhat funny and awkward to today's children in this fast-developing world.

Critics also point out that local writers also have failed because of inept marketing strategies.

When selling the Harry Potter series, the People's Literature Publishing House gave away colorful Harry Potter ballpoint pens to entice buyers.

Meanwhile, the popularity of a movie adapted from the novel also helped promote sales of the books.

For local writers, there is simply no such marketing. While a press release may be issued, many books are never marketed beyond that.

Despite this, insiders are optimistic about the development of the sector and have confidence in local children's writers.

Bai Bing, editor-in-chief of Jieli Publishing House which is based in South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, said that "Although they still have much to learn from their international counterparts, Chinese writers have made huge progress over the past years."

Jieli is the publisher of "Jipi Geda," or the Chinese Goosebumps series.

Bai Bing believes that by introducing more overseas best-sellers to China, they can give local writers some enlightenment.

(China Daily May 31, 2002)

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