If you're happy and you know IT...

Updated: 2010-12-24 11:20

By Mei Jia (China Daily European Weekly)

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"My father only asked one thing of me - to be a good person," she says.

She describes her father as a typical Chengdu person, who enjoys seasonal pleasures. She says he would take the family to see peach blossom in Longquan district in spring; summer's lotus flowers and bamboo in parks; osmanthus flowers at Guihu Lake in autumn; and wintersweet during the cold season.

Yang says she learned to capture and savor nature's beauty and this is a constant inspiration in her works.

Extensive reading provides other sources of inspiration. She pays special attention to other writers' vividly detailed descriptions, such as eating and drinking in A Dream of the Red Mansions; and the debuts of the protagonists in Outlaws of the Marsh.

"One point from each book, finely chewed, became nutrition for me," she says.

At 18, she became an elementary school teacher. She says she felt lonely, as she wasn't like her colleagues, dutiful but stern and always dwelling on their students' faults.

Yang says her debut work was inspired by a survey of her grade 2 elementary students that found the textbooks they used offered few articles the children really liked.

She believes children should be happy and liberated from school and parental pressures. She sought answers in the classics, by international educators such as Vasyl Sukhomlynsky (1918-1970) of the former Soviet Union. Her notes on the subject were more than a meter high.

Having been a teacher for seven years and a children's literature magazine editor for another seven, Yang believes children's book writers should have years of experience with children, a profound understanding of society, and most importantly, the ability to abstract life's essence using simple language.

Book critic Tan Xudong says one of the key reasons for Yang's huge success is that she understands and feels close to children. She writes from their perspective and conveys wisdom.

"I'm not writing just fun books," Yang says. She offers no fantasy worlds for her readers, who are predominantly elementary school students, aged 6-12. She teaches them to deal with both happiness and sadness, offering the keys to settle the sorrows of growing up.

In Mo's Mischief, elementary school boy Mo-Shen Ma (Ma Xiaotiao) is far from the perfect straight-As student.

"Ma makes mistakes and matures from correcting them. Readers like him because he's ordinary, like them, and they grow up with him. There aren't many characters like Ma in the literary world, so readers like to join him on his great adventures," Yang says.

But Ma is a good-hearted boy, a motif that she took to heart from her father.

"Children like the real, the good and the beautiful," she says. "My stories are fundamentally about being good people, with love, sincerity and lenience."

She says she'll never follow a trend or pursue profit and describes writing as walking on thin ice. She says she may spend three months on a novel's beginning.

Publisher and critic Zheng Zhong believes Yang has opened up a new era for children's literature.

"In the past decade, she was the only domestic writer who could compete with foreign writers at this level," Zheng says. "Yang gets children to read. Parents are thankful to Yang that her books have torn their children away from their computer screens."

Yang adds that though she offers Chinese wisdom, this has a universal value, as it addresses basic human needs.

The humorous and smart language, written simply, makes her books accessible even after translation.

Harper Collins has paid a lot of attention to rendering the essence of her books while continuing to localize the language, Chou says.

"Although you're able to write beautifully with a fountain pen as an adult, you must abandon it and swiftly move to pencil, even better to colored pencils, when you write for children," Chou says.

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