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LIFE

How high-quality picture books can encourage kids to read more

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 4:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 4:00am

High-quality children's picture books are the building blocks to a lifelong love of reading. When I disparage commercial products in book form that are based on cartoon characters, my friends protest, insisting their children love storybook versions of their favourite animated TV series.

I counter that recognising and enjoying stories about familiar television characters is not the same as filling one's mind with the artful words and drawings of quality picture books. The difference is that children who are fed a diet of Peppa Pig and Henry Hugglemonster may one day no longer want reading time when they outgrow these characters.

What will keep children wanting to read more are stories that evoke emotions ranging from sheer joy to profound sadness, from belly-aching laughter to fear.

Max, the boy with the furry wolf suit in Where the Wild Things Are, may be just as recognisable as any cartoon character, but this picture book will be etched in the memories of every child who has come across it because of Maurice Sendak's choice narrative, flawless wording and visceral illustrations.

When children are exposed to quality picture books, they will inhale the rich language and complex themes, they will increase their understanding of the world around them, and their lives will be enriched as a result. They will progress from Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline to Philip Stead's A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Thereafter, when they become independent readers, they will be able to enjoy Charlotte's Web as well as Captain Underpants.

Children's picture books in the English language have a long and revered history, but this is not the case for Chinese-language ones. Thus, the Feng Zikai Chinese Children's Picture Book Award was formed, in order to promote them in the Chinese language and encourage authors, illustrators and publishers to create quality picture books. The award has two components: a biennial award for the best Chinese publications, and an accompanying conference and forum to share and enhance knowledge and understanding of Chinese children's picture books.

The winner of the 4th Feng Zikai Chinese Children's Picture Book Award is Kata Kata Kata, written and illustrated by Bei Lynn. It is joined by four honour books. Interestingly, although all five books have different styles and storylines, I would describe them all as "poignant", touching upon the themes of love and longing. While some of the stories have amusing moments, their humour is approached with tenderness rather than comicality.

Next month, these winning authors and illustrators will be feted at an award ceremony, which will be followed by a two-day forum. The theme of the forum is "Just For Fun! - Humour in Picture Books", and the keynote speaker will be award-winning author and illustrator Jon Klassen.

I cannot think of anyone in a better position to speak about humour than Klassen, whose picture books have been described as subversive and "charmingly wicked". This is Not My Hat won Klassen both the Caldecott Medal in the US and the Kate Greenaway Medal in Great Britain, and he is the first person to win both awards for the same work.

Klassen will be in Hong Kong for an author talk and book signing on November 19. Registration and details at bringmeabook.org.hk For a complete list of Feng Zikai award-winning titles, visit fengzikaibookaward.org

Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong