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Top Books Capture Children's Hearts

The Soong Ching Ling Foundation has revealed its sixth Soong Ching Ling Children's Literature Awards.


The award, which has been bestowed once every two or three years since 1986, is an effort to enhance the public's awareness of excellent children's literature by Chinese authors. It is one of two major awards for children's literature in China. The other is the National Excellent Children's Literature Award given by the Writers' Association of China.


A total of 19 books have won this year's awards, including three top-prize winners and 16 Good Book Award winners.


The announcement was made on October 19, about two years after the foundation honored the best children's literature published between January 1, 1999, and December 31, 2001.


Nonetheless, several award-winning works feature the writers' reflections of the lives of teens, providing food for thought, whether the protagonists lived some 30 years ago, now, or in the unforeseeable future.


The novel selections included five winners, including books written by acclaimed children's literature writers Qin Wenjun and Cao Wenxuan. They included the funny episodes of The Big-Head Son and the Small-Head Dad that are widely watched among pre-school audiences after having been adapted into a television cartoon series.


However, the only novel that ascended to a top prize is a book written by the comparatively young and less well-known writer, Peng Xuejun, Ni Shi Wode Mei (You Are My Baby Sister).


With the decision, the committee has surely made a discerning choice. Intended readers of this book are middle school students, a crowd that prefers action over sentiment. The marvelous thing about the book is that it quietly develops a story that describes true love and sisterly affection, while never boring its readers. In fact, though it never demands attention by using suspense, fantasy or comedy, it is a book that a teenager will finish in one sitting and then muse over for a long time.


The narrator and heroine of the book is a 9-year-old girl who moves from a city to the deep-mountain country along the western border of Hunan Province when her mother is dispatched there to work among peasants in the early 1970s.


The narrator doesn't conceal that the girl is just an ordinary child -- blemishes and all -- most dramatically revealed in her relationship with her 6-year-old sister "Laobian" (the Old Flathead).


"We always decided which one of us should wash the dishes by finger-guessing game," she says in a matter-of-fact tone at one point, adding that "we would divide whatever snacks we could get into two equivalent halves. Afterwards, I hastened to finish my share, I would ask her to let me have a bite of hers. She always consented. Then I would devour a large part of her remaining food."


In a neighboring peasant family there are poignant scenes told of poverty-stricken parents' of five daughters. The gentle, self-effacing big sister in that family is like a magnet, producing an inexplicable appeal for the heroine that draws her into the family's life.


While this peasant family desperately wants a son, the mother gives birth to yet another daughter. The infant girl is dearly called "mei," or "baby sister." Her little pink, fragile existence, just like the peach tree standing by their house that gives forth to unprecedented splendid blossoms that year, arouses tender and affectionate emotions from the hearts of the girls, and cleanses them from childish selfishness.


Peng Xuejun is both an adept stylist and a good story-teller. Her prose is at once unaffected and classically beautiful, and the plot is developed fluently and unobtrusively. Just as the award committee's recommendation says, "she creates her novel like a faintly hued watercolor landscape, sometimes like a sweet and sad folk song."


Compared with the deep-mountain rusticity of 30 years ago told in Peng's novel, Qin Wenjun's Tiantangjie Sanhao (No 3, Tiantang Street) presents a reality much more familiar to today's urban middle-school students. It is a reality, however, perhaps too realistic to be desirable.


The book was granted the Good Book Award this time.


The protagonist of the book is a Shanghai first-year middle-school student burdened by the confusions of growing up. In school he has some classmates who call each other by ugly nicknames. A sophomore torturer systematically bullies him and his friends, and a girl he lovingly admires has the look of Snow White but the sophistication and malice of a Queen.


Outside school he is alienated by an adult world that is full of quirks, conflicts, and sometimes direct hostility.


There are certainly truths in Qin's account about the living reality of today's urban middle-school students. But her indifferent tone leaves readers feeling that she has allowed her young heroes to experience and know the unjust ways of the world and to taste the unhappiness of life at too early an age.


Qin is the editor-in-chief of Chinese Children's Literature, and the author of many prize-winning books.


Another Good Book Award winner, Gen Niao, written by Cao Wenxuan, starts with a girl collecting flowers on a cliff. She slips by accident and falls down into the valley below. The girl appeared in the dream of the boy called Gen Niao, who, after waking up, decides to start a journey to seek his dream.


Cao is a professor of Chinese literature at Peking University, and a two-time top prize winner of Soong Ching Ling Children's Literature Award, who is famous for the aesthetic inclination of his works. Gen Niao carries his style to a further point, and the book is written in carefully weighed rhetoric, and is full of metaphors and symbolic implications.


Science fiction constitutes an important category in the award program, but in the past five sessions not a single work of this genre has won a top prize. The reason is simple: There had not been a qualified work, according to Lu Shan, secretary general of the organizing committee.


Yet this time a science fiction book has broken through as one of this year's three top prize winners. With 50,000 copies in print, Feifa Zhihui (Unlawful Wisdom), written by Zhang Zhilu, already is the best seller among all the finalists.


The story unfolds according to what a shy and reticent heroine sees and hears after she gets enrolled in the best middle school in her city.


From the first day on, Sang Wei finds her campus milieu somewhat hostile. As time goes by, strange things keep happening to students around her.


Some schoolmates start to behave in strange ways, totally unlike themselves. Lu Yu, the kind big-brother who is the foremost reason she was able to get into the school, changes not only his name, but his whole personality and becomes a high-IQ villain. Behind the scenes of these perplexities is a high-tech crime that combines the boldest experiments in bio-science and information technology.


The book is full of thrilling twists. For example, there is a campus clock that forever stays at the midnight hour and is said to be "waiting for the coming of somebody," and one or two students dream weird things they find come true the next day.


In all these works about Chinese teenagers, wherever the heroes and heroines live and whatever they encounter, they cannot escape the pain they must go through to know about people and society before they reach adulthood.


(China Daily October 28, 2003)



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