LIANG Yulei is browsing through the Mo's Mischief book series to see whether he should get one for his nine-year-old son. The series features naughty student Ma Xiaotiao, whose name means hopping around.
As a bestselling series written by former teacher Yang Hongying, it is also one of the first and few Chinese children's books that have been translated and published abroad.
The page Liang is reading tells the story of how Ma and his friend talk about wearing skirts to avoid pain after having a circumcision.
"Circumcision? That's interesting. I didn't expect to see this kind of discussion in a book for primary school kids," he tells Shanghai Daily while shopping with his son at the annual Shanghai Book Fair, which ended yesterday.
The 37-year-old accountant grew up at a time when certain subjects, such as death or love, were not commonly discussed in books for children.
He was brought up with books like "To Young Readers," written by famous contemporary Chinese writer Bingxin (born Xie Wanying 1900-1999), who was most famous for her philosophical essays.
Xie, together with other famous contemporary writers, was called by the national writers' association to write for children and young adults. At the time, there were very few specialized children's writers.
In "To Young Readers," Xie wrote in the form of correspondence to describe her overseas trips in poetic language, urging youngsters to study hard and contribute to the further development of the country. It was one of the most beautifully written and widely-read children's literature for those born in the 1970s and 1980s.
Second golden era
"The 1950s was a golden era for children's literature, as the central government called for established authors, not just children's writers, to write for kids. We are now in the second golden era," says Jin Bo, a famous children's writer.
"Now there are many more specialized children's writers and there is more variety in children's books in terms of genres and content."
Children's books have become a fast growing category in publishing markets all around the world, and in China it was up 11.6 percent in 2011 from the previous year, far more than the 6 percent average for all books, according to sales monitoring service from OpenBook, a Chinese publishing industry information and consulting company.
"Children's books, unlike the market for adults, always come in series, so the best-selling rank is rather focused. If one book becomes popular, the publisher will push the authors to write more in the series very quickly," says Yang Wei, marketing director at OpenBook.
"Some imported contemporary foreign series and republished world classics have also become popular among kids."
Shanghai 99 Readers, a publishing house specializing in imported books, has greatly expanded its children's section in the past two to three years. They have bought the copyrights of contemporary children's books from all over the world such as French series "Le Grand Livre d'Olga," which tells the story from the perspective of little girl Olga.
"We have realized that practical books, or books that make children smart, are the most popular among parents," says Shang Fei, 99 Readers' senior editor in the children's section.
"Books that tell stories from a child's perspective are welcome by kids."
More than 30 publishers specialize in children's books while more than 520, out of around 580 publishing houses in China, are involved in printing kids' books. Two best-selling children's writers, Yang Hongying and Zheng Yuanjie, are in the top three of a ranking of wealthiest authors in China.
"The entire publishing market in China has been growing fast, and demand for children's books are increasing even faster. It is only natural because the government has been promoting quality education for years, which incidentally requires more children's literature for kids to read after class," Bai Bing, editor-in-chief of children's publishing house Jie Li, tells Shanghai Daily.
"The purchasing power of Chinese people has increased greatly and so has their spending on education. Chinese parents are always willing to spend on education. Publishers like us have also self-taught to be more market-oriented to provide children with more options," Bai adds.
Options have expanded exponentially from past decades, but it is still not enough compared with the size of the market.
Trevor Lai, a Chinese Canadian writer and illustrator, has published many children's books in Canada and has now moved to China. His most recent illustration book, "Piggy in Love," is bilingual and for all ages. In Lai's books, the characters often have to solve problems using creativity and imagination, which is what he encourages kids to do.
"I see the opportunity. China is really at the beginning of developing its own creativity. Chinese audiences are very interested in funny and creative things, but there is just not enough domestic supply for them," he says.
"Kids worldwide are the same. They want to be inspired, to have a good laugh and to have fun. Chinese kids are not different, except the amount of exposure they have to the opportunity is limited. But that is changing."
Some children are also writing their own stories, such as 16-year-old Zhu Shengling, whose book about her one-year exchange experience in France was recently published at the Shanghai Book Fair. She also attended a book autographing session.
99 Readers' editor Shang agrees that Chinese children now have rather international tastes. They love animals, adventures, picture books and fantasies, although localization is still needed in some cases. He gives the example of a French series that touched upon the subject of how a child is born.
"The French are very straight-forward about this even with kids, but we have to make it milder for Chinese kids and parents," he says.
(Calum Anderson and Qu Zhi contributed to this story.)
Some best-selling children's books in China
Author: Yang Hongying
The series has been established by Yang, former teacher and children's magazine editor, one of the most successful children's writers in China. Featuring a naughty pupil Ma Xiaotiao, Yang uses Ma's hilarious voice to explore the imaginative and unique world of children.
Kira and a Dog named Money
Author: Bodo Schafer
A South Korean illustrator has turned the German economics writer's finance book into fun reading for children to learn about the value of money and the significance of investment.
How Things Work (100,000 Whys)
The classic series is intended to explain difficult military, physics, chemistry, biology and history questions to little children in a fun way with illustrations.
Specialized children's bookstores
Dandelion Children's Bookstore
Address: 189 Qingtong Rd
Poplar Picture Book Store
Address: 262 Yuyuan Rd
Bookstore affiliated with Juvenile & Children's Publishing House
Address: 1538 Yan'an Rd W.Hours: Monday to Friday, 8:30am-4:30pm