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My Chinese Words: Part 3

This post is the final post of a three part series in which Perry Nodelman discusses the Chinese translation of his seminal text Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books. Please see earlier posts for part one and part two.


Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House in English and Chinese

On the other hand, though, it might seem equally foreign to Chinese readers. Before looking at these images in the Chinese Words, I had assumed that Chinese texts are conventionally to be read from top to bottom and then from left to right—but the texts in this Chinese version of The Little House looked as if they didn’t fit that pattern. So I made an inquiry on Facebook to see if anyone could tell me if the words in this book were meant to be read from left to right and then from top to bottom, as in the English version. My thanks to Johnson Chiang, who lives in Taiwan and who told me that they are--and that Chinese translations from European languages are often printed in this way. For Chinese readers, the layout of the text would then convey its origin in a different language and culture even if what it says did not. It would be marked as being as exotic for a Chinese reader as the Chinese characters make it look to me—as, apparently, so is the text of the Chinese Words, which also appear to be moving from left to right and top to bottom in what is, after all, a book about books in what for Chinese readers is a foreign language. I had been assuming that the choice of publishing a Chinese translation of Words about Pictures implied that the book might be useful not just in offering insights into originally English-language picture books like the ones I discuss but also into pictures books in China more generally—that just as the books I discussed in the original were examples of ways of making meaning found in a wide range of English language books, they might also offer insight into original Chinese books... But becoming aware of the foreignness implied by the left-to-right orientation of the Chinese texts made me begin to doubt that. I began to wonder if there are in fact all that many Chinese picture books for children, i.e., pictures books originally written in Chinese and illustrated and published by Chinese people in China? And if there were, would my generalizations in Words offer insights into them?

Candied Plum Picture Book

After reading about my publisher Dandelion’s mix of translations and original Chinese texts, I knew that some pictures books do originate in China. And as it happens, I was already aware of the picture books published by Candied Plums, a press devoted to making Chinese picture books available outside of China in bilingual editions including English and simplified Chinese text and pinyin phonetics. After reading about the Candied Plums books online, I had bought some of them for my granddaughter to share with her other set of grandparents, who are from China.

But otherwise, Chinese picture books are not often being republished in English translations, at least not by mainstream publishers, and I had no idea if the Candied Plums and Dandelion books represent a small part of a booming industry or a large part of a small one. An article I found online provided me with an answer: they represent an increasingly larger part of a growing industry. While the ratio of imported children’s books to Chinese ones was nine to one in 2000, it had decreased to six to four by 2011, and has continued to fall (Koetse).

So, then: Chinese picture books with original Chinese texts do exist, and in substantial numbers. But the other question remains: are these books enough like the picture books I am familiar with that my descriptions in Words about Pictures of the various ways in which pictures convey meaning and help to tell stories might usefully apply to them? Are the Chinese books meaningful in the same ways, or does their different cultural context change not just their cultural content but also the ways in which they express that cultural content?

Having been prompted by this Chinese edition of Words to think about it, I have to suspect that a lot of what I say there cannot possibly apply. I know now that what I claimed about the meanings of red objects or predominantly red pictures in picture books might not work in a Chinese context. And I’m pretty sure that my generalizations about how the meanings of implied movements from left to right and right to left in pictures depend on the standard left-to-right movement of the English words that they accompany might well not work for people used to reading Chinese.

Or wait: a sudden thought occurs. Maybe they would work, at least for people reading Chinese picture books. For it occurs to me that the picture book as a specific type of literature might possibly be inherently connected to the cultures of the language it first developed in.

Let me explain. The idea of a short book for children with a short text and one or two large pictures filling up most of the space on each opening emerged in Europe and America in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century in the context of specific emerging markets and specific related cultural assumptions about children, about books, and about the relationships of words and pictures. And I feel fairly certain that the conventions of the picture-book form that people like me tend to take for granted did not develop independently in China—that the existence of picture books that originate in China represents the adoption of this generic form from elsewhere.

One reason I suspect that happened emerges from my recent experience at a picture-book conference in Cambridge, where I’d been invited to give a keynote address. After some of the graduate students in the children’s literature program there asked me to write a blog entry about my response to my experience at the conference, I included the following:

In one of the sessions I attended, Ana Margarida Ramos suggested that the picture book is a specific form within the broader spectrum of texts that use both words and pictures—a form established as an editorial or publishing category and then used by those in the business to produce new texts that fit within the category. Ramos based her theory on her awareness of the brief history of the picture book in Portugal, where, she said, examples of the form have only been produced in the last few decades, but where, after Portuguese practitioners familiarized themselves with what editors and others internationally understood to be picture books, some of the books since produced have won international acclaim. (Nodelman, “So Long”)

Learning this history led me to wonder what it was about Portuguese ideas about children and/or literature that did not require the existence of the picture-book form before then. Is it a form alien to the original culture, which is now changed enough for picture books to make sense now? If so, what is true for Portugal might be equally true for China, which appears to have had no picture books (as someone like me understands the picture-book form) until Chinese people became aware of books published outside China and decided to produce their own examples of such books. Are the original picture books Dandelion publishes in Chinese modelled on the ones from other places they translate and republish? As examples of a kind of book that developed in a different cultural contexts, might these books be promoting a version of childhood at odds with Chinese culture?

If they are, then the mere existence of picture books produced by Chinese writers and illustrators might be a signal of an ongoing global homogenization of childhood, or at least of adult ideas about childhood. Might access to picture books and learning to read them make Chinese children more like non-Chinese ones? Is there an international brotherhood of children in the works, a utopian fellowship beyond national difference? Or might the growing influence of the picture-book form be an unintended form of Euro-American imperialism, a way of imposing a version of childhood at odds with what traditional Chinese values onto Chinese children that makes them more like children in Europe and America? And if so, is becoming less distinctly Chinese and more like the children in Canada or France a good thing or a bad one?

And, finally: in offering Chinese readers instructions about how to make sense of this previously alien form of children’s literature, might the Chinese Words about Pictures be part of this utopia-building or culture-destroying? Should I be feeling delighted by the translation’s possible good effect or horrified by its possible bad ones? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know I need to keep thinking about them, and I encourage others to do so also.


Burton, Virginia Lee. The Little House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942.

Fu, Wenzheng. Buddy is So Annoying, trans. Adam Lanphier. Candied Plums, 2017

Koetse, Manya. “Top 5 of Popular Children’s Books in China after Crackdown on Foreign Storybooks.” What’s On Weibo. <>

Nodelman, Perry. “So Long and Thanks for all the Fish: Some Words about Picturebooks.” Children’s Literature at the University of Cambridge: A Postgraduate Perpective. <>

- - - . Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. U of Georgia P, 1988.

Read Part 1 of the series

Perry Nodelman

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: In addition to Words About Pictures: the Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books, Perry Nodelman is the author of three other books about children's literature: The Pleasures of Children Literature (3d edition in collaboration with Mavis Reimer), The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature, and Alternating Narratives in Fiction for Young Readers: Twice Upon a Time, as well as about 150 essays and chapters in books about children's literature and a number of novels for young people. A Professor Emeritus at the University of Winnipeg, he occupies his time in retirement as a doting grandfather and volunteer guide and docent at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, Canada.

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