The Early Childhood Development Industrial Complex in China

I would say I’m just back from this year’s tour, but it’s been almost three weeks. My lungs are still a little tender from the pollution, and I haven’t organized all my notes yet, but all of my pictures are sorted, and I think I have downloaded all of the photos that others shared with me during the trip.

After my first two trips, falling back into the regular work routine was always the first step of perpetually procrastinating transcribing recordings, asking follow-up questions, and sharing all of the information that librarians and parents shared with me. This tendancy to procrastinate is also the reason that after 6 years of knowing about the phenomenon of private children’s libraries in China, I only completed my first article in December.

Gogo Polly Storytime

This time, I have managed to carve out a little bit of time almost every single day since returning. Yes, sometimes I was just sorting photos, but I have also touched base with quite a few people who I met along the way. I have made a careful list of each interview, and I’m pretty sure I know exactly which WeChat contact was at each place—as opposed to all of the people from 2014 and 15 that I have no idea where I met them.

Setting aside a few minutes a day is good practice. Another good practice is to share out notes as I compile them. This is the natural next step to the live field notes that I shared on Instagram along the way. I won’t claim that those were spontaneous thoughts. Some of them were—I stopped dead on the street after taking the photo. But more often, there are perplexing questions in my private notes. Moving forward, I want to share observations, but also some of those perplexing questions.

So here is the first shot.

What am I doing out there? What is the point of this whole endeavor? While the macro goal of ReadingEverywhere is to encourage recreational reading, and I firmly believe that my very presence does at least a little bit of this (‘What did you learn in school today honey?’ ‘This weird American librarian visited my class and read a book about stinky poop and told us it doesn’t matter what we read as long as it’s fun.’), my personal goals for these trips is constantly shifting as the Chinese people I meet tell me more about their lives. I talk to a lot of parents and small business owners (who are mostly parents of young children themselves). They present an every more complicated picture—rapidly changing economic situations; limited room in public kindergartens; a growing array of private education options; an overwhelming number of private businesses advertising in every subway station and on the side of every mall.

The average Chinese parent is flooded with marketing pitches from what I have taken to calling the early childhood development industrial complex.

Baby spas. Behavioral consultants. International-style schools. Private kindergartens. It’s amazing the picture book libraries are able to squeeze in there at all.

Yet there they are. With many of them devoting quiet corners to parent-child co-reading. With many of them offering a social environment with organized activities, in clean, well-lit places where you can take a pile of books home with you after each visit. Every library I visit offers some new complication. Every conversation teaches me that beyond storytime, there are an infinite number of cultural differences and an infinite number of similarities in child rearing between China and the West.

Guangzhou neighborhood reading room

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Again! This time with homework.

I’m pleased to announce another visit to China!  This time we are going to try something a little bit different.  We would like to organize small groups of children’s library enthusiasts to gather together after reading the same essay.  Call it an international book club!

We are currently looking for engaging essays that are available in both English and Chinese.  Comment below or contact us directly if you have a suggestion or would like to participate.  I will be traveling in late March and early April to the following cities:

  • Beijing
  • Wuhan
  • Chongqing
  • Chengdu
  • Xi’an
  • Guangzhou (tentative)

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We bring gifts for discussion.

I swore I wouldn’t post until I polished off a piece for publication, but it’s been months and months and the authors deserve this.
During my trip last November, I brought two books as gifts for the my librarian and parent friends.  I wanted to discuss the themes of the books with them and get some perspective on how Chinese parents and librarians feel about body books and non-Euro-American themes.
I was partially inspired by seeing 故事的小鸡鸡 in a whole bunch of libraries and stores in 2014.  At the Poplar Children’s Republic bookstore (蒲蒲兰绘本馆), I learned that it was a Japanese import, and I amused and embarrassed my translator by translating it out loud: both little boys and little girls like to play ball.  Both little boys and little girls play with dolls.  Little boys look different than little boys with their clothes off.  Through her giggles, she said my Chinese was way better than I let on, but I explained the story was pretty self explanatory via the pictures.
In one library, a little boy clung to it possessively through my whole presentation.  It was a charming book, full of pictures of naked babies.  Lots of little penises.  When I returned to the States, I sought out an equivalent American title.  Pretty much the same story, but not a single cartoon of a naked baby.  On the last couple pages were cutaway anatomical diagrams.  I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t make any sense to a 4 or 5 year old.
So when I found Sex is a Funny Word, I was entranced.  It’s for an older crowd yes, but it was the first time I’ve ever seen a fun, cartoon-style book explaining sex, sexuality, and body morphology in such an open, fun, and accepting way.  That’s the whole point of the book.  Some people are fat.  Some skinny.  Some are hairy in a wide variety of places.  Most women have certain parts, most men have others, and there are a host of people who have parts in-between.
The second book was a reaction to the kinds of English-language literature I was seeing in a lot of the libraries.  Most of it, like a lot of stuff you’ll see in American libraries, was by and about white people.  And almost every English school I saw in China advertised with photos of happy blonde children.  The Chinese overwhelmingly equate American culture with white culture.  I wanted to bring something a little bit different.  Celebrating a part of America that my Chinese friends might not otherwise be exposed to.  A friend-of-a-friend had just published Lowriders in Space, a sci-fi graphic novel about an octopus, a mosquito, and what I think is a sexy Chihuahua and their Spanglish adventures.
Overall, both books were received warmly.  One person expressed a distaste for the graphics of  Lowriders – which uses a line style reminiscent of ball-point ink drawings.  Another thought Sex was drawn too crudely.  When I explained that I brought Lowriders to emphasize that not all American culture is white, people acknowledged the point, but did not express much enthusiasm for exploring a wider variety of American culture.  On the other hand, one mother and library owner said of Sex: ‘of course, some of these things are new to us, but we have a transgendered daytime TV host — like Oprah or Ellen.  My daughter asked me to explain why that woman looked and sounded different when she was 6 years old.  We just accept her.’ It did seem to help that Jin Xinh is ethnically Korean, so is already a little bit different than the dominant Han supermajority in China.
I’m super behind compiling notes from the trip.  But I definitely want to shout out my thanks to Lowrider’s Cathy Camps and Sex is a Funny Word’s Cory Silverman for putting me in touch with their publisher’s for a bulk discount.  Your books are now in the collections of 5 Chinese libraries!

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A Quick Shanghai Update

My whirlwind travel schedule has prevented detailed updates on this year’s trip to China.  However, a very successful and well attended presentation was given at the China Children’s Book Fair, and this morning, 臭㞎㞎came to Shanghai.


Connectivity issues and travel have prevented me from making detailed updates, but please do stay tuned!

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ReadingEverywhere 在北京

Just one week until we gather again in Beijing!

This year we hope to host a small gathering of librarians from around the Beijing area for a little sharing of best practices.  Jon will demonstrate a very popular American method for training those new to working with young children.  A method perfect for getting comfortable being silly in a group and encouraging librarians to help each other.

Please join us!


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China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair (中国上海国际童书展)

With pleasure I will be returning to China this fall to take ReadingEverywhere to the China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair.  We hope to hold two events at the fair, and continue to visit libraries and meet with members of the children’s library community in China.

The trip is scheduled so far as follows:

11月3日: 到北京

11月7-8日: 参观农村图书馆

11月10-11日: 到上海

11月13-15日: 儿童书展

11月17日: 到广州



We will try to meet up with as many people as possible before the book fair.  The days that do not list a specific event are currently unscheduled.  If you would like to meet on one of those days, please contact me.


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Reading Everywhere @ ALA 2015

On the final day of this summer’s American Library Association conference, Lao Meng and I had an open chat with librarians in the conference’s Networking Uncommons.  The conference was winding down, but people were excited by the prospect that children’s libraries arise spontaneously–even without the intervention of the government.

A private, non-government sponsored library that operates as a business is a very foreign concept to American librarians.  Sure, we have private schools that have libraries that are not open to the public.  Public university libraries don’t provide equal services to all comers–they concentrate on their students.  And corporations and other sorts of institutions have libraries devoted to their own constituents.  But a consumer choosing to pay for a membership in a borrowing library is a difficult concept for Americans–even though everyone knows that we pay for our libraries through our taxes.  Government libraries–whether for the general public or in schools–are so much the norm that they seem like the only way to do things.

Also at the ALA conference, I attended sessions organized by the Association of Library Services to Children for the first time.  Guerrilla Storytime gave him some great tips on interacting with kids, and he hopes to translate this training program into Chinese.  Stay tuned!

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