Words are not enough
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but most Hong Kong parents don't subscribe to that idea when buying books for their children. More often than not, they select volumes with considerable text, even for very young readers.
'They tend to look for books that are word heavy because they think that will improve [youngsters'] vocabulary,' says Melodie Wong Nga-man, editor at Cotton Tree Publishing. 'Abroad, there is an appreciation of the connection between words and pictures, but parents here tend to focus on how much their child can learn.'
Many parents don't realise that youngsters just starting to read are drawn to illustrations and graphics that stir the imagination. Just as well-crafted picture books can inspire a lifetime's love of reading, an overly wordy one can quash any blossoming interest.
'If a book doesn't have many words, parents will just read it to the child at the bookshop and walk off,' says Wong.
Hence the dearth of locally produced Chinese-language picture books. On the mainland and in Taiwan, by contrast, academic-led initiatives and government programmes have helped build flourishing businesses.
But prospects are looking up in Hong Kong as publishers have started introducing illustrated Chinese material designed to appeal to young readers. Sun Ya Publishing has a hit with its Geronimo Stilton series. Translated from the original Italian, the books about an investigative reporter mouse have been hugely popular since they were released in 2002.
Cotton Tree, which used to cater to readers eight years old and above, began publishing books aimed at younger children two years ago after a visit to a primary school opened Wong's eyes.
'The kids began complaining that there were too many words in the books and that they could not understand them,' she recalls. 'I realised that we need shorter stories and more pictures because the latter make the book interesting. For kids younger than Primary One, there should be even fewer words. I think we need to do a better job for them.'
Cotton Tree has released eight books for children between the ages of six and eight, but Wong admits the company is still exploring the niche. 'We are still very young so we don't have much experience but we're willing to try new things.'
Another company paying attention to general interest picture books is Wen Lin Publisher, which first produced illustrated books with moral themes for parents seeking to instil spiritual values in their children.
'Hong Kong parents and teachers are just starting to accept this kind of picture book. The government has recently started promoting reading and that has helped,' says Wen Lin editorial co-ordinator, Irene Ng Ka-wai.
Wen Lin's picture books catalogue consists mostly of translated works but the publisher recently signed with a Taiwan-based writer and illustrator to craft original stories and is now in talks with local authors to do the same.
Wen Lin has also conducted workshops to show how books can be read so that children enjoy them, Ng says. The attractive Chinese-language picture books displayed at the Hong Kong Book Fair last month were a revelation to some parents and teachers, she adds.
Ruth Wong Ming, who has a four-year-old daughter and a son aged nine, is among parents lamenting a limited range of picture books in Chinese.
'Most of the time I read to my children in English because I want to improve their vocabulary but also because it's hard to find Chinese-language books,' says Wong, a writer. 'My kids like simple books with lots of pictures and animal stories and I can't always find them.'
Publishers such as Cotton Tree sometimes struggle to find an appealing balance of words and pictures.
'Our illustrators are not quite sure how to tackle this because they are used to telling a story separately from the text,' says Melodie Wong. 'Although we have a number of good Chinese-language writers, they tend to hand me a complete story when what I need is a half-finished product or a simple storyline.'
Author and illustrator are equally important in creating picture books. Generally, a story is conceived either by the author or publisher. In Hong Kong, ideas for Chinese-language picture books tend to come from publishers that hire a writer to flesh out the story before bringing in an illustrator.
Books for toddlers feature simpler storylines with only a few characters and more rhymes, but illustrations remain important in books for older children even when they contain more words, says writer Mio Debnam, regional adviser to the local chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
'[The graphics] are usually the reason buyers are attracted to the book in the first place. However, the pictures should do more than just faithfully recreate the words; they should enrich the stories,' Debnam says. 'In some cases, the illustrations can show things going on which are not mentioned in the text, providing a whole other layer.'
Culturally relevant material has an advantage because kids love reading things they can relate to, Debnam says. 'Some experiences such as swimming in a pool may be very similar whether a child is in Hong Kong or in Canada, but others such as festival times and meal times may be extremely different. The easiest way to make a book culturally relevant is to set it in Asia and have some Chinese characters, although these characters should not be stereotypical,' she says.
That's not to say Hong Kong publishers should only put out material based on local life, Debnam adds. Children need to learn about different kinds of people and how they live.
Because the genre is only just emerging in Hong Kong, publishers have trouble finding good illustrators who can commit to a long-term project.
Wong of Cotton Tree concedes it's hard for illustrators to make a living simply from children's books. Her company often uses its children's magazine to try out different artists.
Even so, illustrator Mary Ma Lee was inspired to create children's picture books after coming across The Red Tree, a fable by Australian writer Shaun Tan that depicts, through rich imagery and minimal text, a young girl's encounters with frightening and bleak scenes before discovering hope.
'There's no story; it just conveys a feeling but that book really touched me,' she says. 'I wanted to create something like it.'
Ma's first offering, Little Blackie Mi, tells of a cat who cannot find its mother. 'It's really a story about love inspired by a stray cat I adopted,' she says.
As she develops a second book based on a Chinese poem, Ma says she is becoming more attuned to what children appreciate. 'They like details and fresh colours,' she says. 'I see childhood as an essentially happy time, so I tend to draw warm and beautiful images.'
Ed Young Tse-chun, a US-based writer and illustrator of children's books, cautions against underestimating children's capacity to grasp complex issues and to see hope where adults might not.
Indeed, his books don't always feature happy endings or cotton-candy images. Sadako, for example, is the story of a Japanese girl dying of leukaemia triggered by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Another popular book, The Hunter, is based on a Chinese folktale and is illustrated in brown hues.
'I am attracted to stories that are more serious than cute,' says Young, who has received several honours for his children's books, including the 1990 Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po: A Red Riding Hood Story from China. 'I'm not convinced that children are incapable of understanding deeper things. The challenge is convincing editors and the public of this.'
But with most parents still feeding young children text-heavy tomes, it will take commitment to create original picture books in Hong Kong.