Now that both kids are reading, suddenly it seems that my Chinese Collection is no longer enough so meet their needs. I’ve been crossing my eyes the last few nights trying to find more level-appropriate books for the children. I think it’s time to document what we have in our library, what I really love and recommend, and what I’m looking to buy for my own reference. As much as I love Evernote, it’s hard to wade through months of bookmarks at a time.
I was all set to start listing books I really like and recommend, but then remembered where I was when I started buying books for Thumper, 8 years ago. I had no idea that children’s books are a field in itself. There’s also the issue that building a Chinese library for kids in the US is a difficult task. So this post is turning into a series of posts instead.
I will start with a background on the books (this post), then talk about local and not so local libraries, some popular authors and publishers if you had a limited time to find books, then basically go shelf by shelf, category by category, in my current collection, Maybe end with where and how to buy books for the budget conscious.
Before I start, I want to advocate for building a Chinese Home Library for the kids. Articles abound when you Google why it’s good to have a home library. I’ve started using my local library as a resource when I realized that I obviously cannot buy everything under the sun, it’s too expensive. But, nothing beats having books available when your child has a question about the world and you can go to your home library to look up the answer, in Chinese! Or just a variety of books available to them when they’re bored at home with nothing to do.
[Updated 2/5/16] Here are the posts in this series so far:
- Background on types of Chinese books and How to Choose Them
- Survey of Local Libraries’ Chinese Collection
- Survey of Some Famous Taiwanese Publishers and Authors
- Chinese Board Books 翻翻書
- Chinese Picture Books (0-6)
- Chinese Books for Beginning Readers 橋樑書 (K-1st)
- Chinese Books for Lower Elementary Kids 中低級橋樑書, Part 1 (1st-3rd)
- Check out the Chinese Books menu link, where I keep a list of books and index of this series.
Different Types of Books
My first set of books for Thumper in utero, other than Harry Potter, was Windmill Publishing’s 幼兒故事小屋, with stories like Little Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs. I didn’t know about Board Books vs Picture Books, or about choosing quality books then. Now, I wouldn’t buy these books.
I have also learned since then that the Taiwanese book market is slightly different from the American one. Remember, in Taiwan they don’t teach zhuyin till first grade. But zhuyin is so easy to learn, you learn it in 3 months and then that’s it, you start reading. Until recently, it appears that books jumped from picture books to long chapter books. (Could be wrong there, I have terrible memories of my childhood.) My mother poopoo’ed me reading to the kids. She never did that. But I remember reading a lot of great stories in lower elementary. In the last generation, a lot of books got translated into Chinese and they introduced the concept of reading to children from birth and early readers.
So here are the terms you may come across if you’re searching for Children’s books（童書）in Taiwan.
Board Books (0-3) 翻翻書 (fan fan shu)
Particularly suited for really young children because they are thick books that can handle young children roughly flipping through them. They often have cut outs, inserts, moveable, and touchable parts. Each page is often only one sentence long. Eric Carle is a prime example and his sets are in Chinese. Many other board books are Japanese translated. Most of these books, you will find, have no zhuyin in them because they’re meant for parents to read to children.
Picture Books (0-8) 繪本 (hui4 ben3)
Like Board Books, they’re meant for young children who cannot read yet. They range from a couple of sentences to long passages like 我愛瑪婷 Love Martine. I think once kids start reading in the US, they move onto Early Readers that have pictures still but the text gets longer. The content and word usage is also very simple so kids can practice reading.
Picture books aren’t necessarily designed for early readers, the word usage can be more mature. Sometimes they don’t have zhuyin in them. They tend to have tiny fonts instead of the big ones designed for the early reader. However, you can find some great Chinese picture books for the kids that have learned zhuyin or lots of characters before 6. It can be a better option than jumping straight into Early Readers. Thumper still likes reading picture books. So you can say these books are appropriate for reading to from 0-6 and reading from from 4-8 years old.
Early Readers, Beginning Readers (7+) 橋樑書 (qiao2 liang2 shu)
Since the Chinese name has the character 橋 I like to call them Bridge Books. Like its name suggests, it bridges between regular children’s fiction and picture books and it’s there for the child who has learned how to read but cannot read super long text-only books yet. Unlike picture books, where pictures help tell the story and the text can sometimes be secondary, in Bridge Books, the pictures are secondary. They also get progressively smaller or fewer the higher level they get.
Books designed as Early Readers usually have bigger fonts and always have zhuyin. In Taiwan, some publishers designate level by the number of total characters. Early Readers are books that under 20,000 characters. For example, the 閱讀123 (Reading 123) series is between 5000-10K. But not every publisher is going to list this. Obviously since the books are designed as early readers, the vocabulary is also very age appropriate. Sometimes much easier than what you’d see in picture books.
Children’s Literature 兒童文學 (er2 tong2 wen2 xue2)
This basically covers elementary from 6-12. Often, books are graded by publishers into 中低級 / Lower Elementary (1st-3rd) or 中高級 / Upper elementary (4th-6th). Early Readers are often lower elementary level books. Zhuyin starts getting phased out in the upper elementary books.
Teen Literatue 青少年文學 (qing shao4 nian2 wen2 xue2)
This is for kids 10-15.
Age Appropriate Books
During my research I also learned about what types of books are appropriate for what age. There are various ways you can look at age appropriateness. With cognitive development, some Japanese researcher divided into the following range:
- 故事 Stories (4-6yrs)
- 寓言 Moral Stories (6-8)
- 童話 Fairy Tales (8-10)
- 小說 Fiction (10-15)
When kids are between 10-15, they can read book that reflect the real world. I’m inferring by this they mean books that make them reflect on the issues in real life. What I find interesting is that from a Montessori philosophy standpoint, 6-12, especially 6-9, is the time when kids are very preoccupied with what’s right and wrong. This goes well with the idea that they should be reading moral stories during this time.
With physical development you can divide it into years 0-3, 3-6, 6-11, 11-15. This really mimics the Montessori concept of a 3 year development cycle. A researcher, K.D. Cather, proposes that teenagers like to read adventure type stories such as Tom Sawyer and Robinson Crusoe.
It goes on. But what I got out of the article is that there is no reason to get abridged books just so the kids can learn about Romeo and Juliet or Tom Sawyer at an earlier age. These are not books we read so we can check it off a list. There are tons of those types of books in Chinese. It is more appropriate to get books that meet children’s developmental needs than to have them read higher grade level books. Just because they can read it doesn’t mean they can understand and appreciate the content. I’m rethinking about the books I want Thumper to read right now after reading this.
How I Pick Books
There are certain unique issues with us learning Chinese in the US that requires books to be mindfully purchased. One is the fact that we’re a bilingual household. I’m also limited by money and time. A 20kg of books costs around $250-$400 total after sea shipping.
On a different note, sometimes I’m really tempted to buy books that I don’t consider of quality because I know the children will definitely enjoy them. But I try to remember that books are like junk food; jacket covers and content are designed to entice someone to pick it up to read. But just because the child likes to read them, it doesn’t mean it’s good for them.
I typically buy books that:
Get multiple reads.
It’s a waste of money otherwise to buy a book that the kids only enjoy once. Obviously it’s hard to know just by browsing the book cover. So I try and look for blogger reviews and buy highly recommended books. I haven’t gone too wrong with the books recommended by ZoZo YoYo. The majority of the picture books I have are definitely multi-read books. I consider it a good deal when the kids will read it from 2-8yrs as the kids do with the Bam and Kero series.
Have good illustrations if it’s a picture book or early reader.
Apparently there’s an art to selecting picture books. In picture books, the pictures help tell a story, they embellish what is not said. Terrible picture books, and I’ve definitely seen quite a few, sometimes don’t even illustrate what’s written. There’s also the idea that children unconsciously imitate how things are drawn in picture books. So it behooves the parent to expose them to good illustrations. I’ve gone to a few talks about early childhood art education. One thing people always say is that parents shouldn’t show kids how to draw at all. But then these same speakers will always lament that even if you don’t, children get their ideas from picture books that are read to them.
I’ve always been picky about illustrations because I grew up with cute manga style ones and have a real problem with very ugly illustrations. So it’s been easy not to buy those. It’s why I never bought Elephant and Piggie. Though I’ve come to love the Lai Ma 賴馬 books despite his strange drawings.
In the end, I think it goes with the time constraint issue. There is only so much time in the day to read and there are tons of picture books to choose from. The logical person in me says, might as well just have the kids only read books with good illustrations since I don’t otherwise spend too much time on their art education.
Are not translated
It’s really hard to explain, I like books written by Chinese authors because they write them a different way than translated books. They use different types of words, words that I consider more poetic and advanced. There’s also the fact that in young children’s books, there are often lots of rhyming, poems, songs, or word play. These get lost in the hands of a mediocre translator. For example, think about the songs in Charley and Chocolate Factory or the poems in Alice in Wonderland. How do you translate that into good Chinese, with rhymes, and yet still retain its meaning?
I once the compared English version of The Witches by Roald Dahl with a traditional Chinese version and a simplified Chinese version. There’s a certain tone to the original writing that gets slightly lost in the translation, and each Chinese translation also gives off a certain tone. The general story is there but each version is a different flavor.
Reversely, Chinese books often have cultural references or uses a lot of idioms (成語), they can reference famous poems or historical figures. For example, when you read the Monkey King or 床母娘的寶貝 from Reading 123 Series, you have to understand the cultural references or you have no idea what they’re talking about. Reading in Chinese then, is also a way to learn about Chinese culture. Something that kids back in Asia would be repeatedly exposed to through their environment rather than just through books.
So, going back to limited time for studying Chinese, the books should be doing 2-3 jobs at the same time. One is to expose them to good Chinese writing and the other is Chinese culture. For this reason, I recently decided that I am not going to buy the translated Newbury Medal books for now. The children would get so much more out of it reading the original English version.
Are bilingual and well translated
I know, I just said I prefer non-translated books.
The requirement is that the books have to be very well written and well translated (and therefore will get multiple reads) to start with. I will get the translation in those cases. This way, both parents can read to the kids. Some examples are books written by Taro Gomi and Chen Chih-Yuan 陳致元. These have the English translations in the books themselves.
We also have quite a few English translated books in Chinese. You have to be careful with these. Not all of them are well translated unfortunately. Two examples are Franklin series and The Little Engine that Could, as much as the children love them. However, others such as Eric Carle, Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell, Where’s Spot series are okay. Then there’s 火車快跑 Freight Trains by Donald Crews, which was masterly translated. I can go on and on. But will detail these and others in another post.
The problem with translations is that sometimes the tone is lost and other times it just feels choppy when you read it. It isn’t as big a deal with board books and picture books so I have a lot of those. But, if the only way the kids are going to get Chinese is through one parent, namely me, I have to make sure they’re exposed to well written Chinese. Thumper loves reading a book in Chinese and then being read to in English. So I’ve been getting many translated books. But I have to continue to be mindful that I should expose her to quality Chinese literature as well.
Come with Audio CDs
This is essential for the bilingual household or parents who don’t speak a lot of Chinese. Unfortunately, many audio CDs that come with books are in English only. With audio CDs, I can outsource reading to a CD player. It really helps the children’s Chinese to repeatedly listen to a story. But I don’t have the patience to read it 5000 times myself. An added benefit is that they can learn to read that way. They memorize the whole story through listening, and then can follow along and (maybe) learn to recognize a few characters that way.
Parents in Taiwan are Buying
I like to check the best sellers list in Taiwan to see what to buy sometimes. Sometimes I feel it’s really unfair that the books available to parents here through local Chinese bookstores or online bookstores are not the quality books parents in Taiwan are buying. Often they’re filled with the cheap, brightly illustrated books.
A local bookstore owner told me once that they don’t even bring out the more expensive quality hardbacks unless you ask because they don’t want customers ruining the books through browsing. The good news is that book availability has changed a lot in the last 5-6 years. Mandarin Mama has a list of Chinese bookstores.
Are well written
By this I mean a bit more literary than simply for enjoyment. I limit my selections in English for the same reason. It really comes down to lack of time for me. If I want the kids to spend time and read in both English and Chinese, they need to also teach what good Chinese and English writing is and be a bit more thought provoking.
For example, I pick classics like Charlotte’s Web, The Rats of Nimh, Raold Dahl, Wizard of Oz and yes do bypass Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Ivy & Bean, etc. I know Thumper would enjoy them. Heck I enjoyed or would enjoy those types of books too. But for now, there are enough good classics to preoccupy us. She can choose these books (within limits) herself when she starts picking books at the library.
It hasn’t been too applicable for picture books, I just pick what’s well illustrated and gets multiple reads for those. But now that we’re starting to go higher level, it’s something I definitely keep in the back of my mind. This is probably why I keep getting translated books, because there are many well known English classics.
Whew. Now that I’ve detailed the types of books available and how to pick books, it’s time to do a survey of local libraries, where you can check out books before you buy, or check out books that aren’t good enough to buy but still a good read.