A story with a gentle voice by Yijing Li

This week, we invite debut picture book author-illustrator to talk to us about how the books she read as a child have influenced her and the type of stories she wants to tell.

Over to you, Yijing

When I was growing up, I was an avid reader. Of the stories I read, some of them were happy and some sad (though most ended on a happier note). I enjoyed them all, but it was always the sad ones that stayed with me.

Now that I am writing my own children’s stories it struck me that I am consistently drawn to melancholic themes, and I wondered if this had something to do with the stories I read as a child.

One of the most memorable stories I read was the Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde (below is the illustrated version from my childhood). 

In this story the arc of the main characters - the prince and the swallow, trends ever downwards and concludes with their death. 

As a child I remember feeling intensely emotional about this ending (the misleading title likely did not prepare me well for it). Having not experienced any deep feelings of sadness up to that point in my life, the swallow’s last kiss and the prince’s broken heart was my first glimpse at the inevitability of death and the separation that comes with it. 

Despite the uneasiness I felt about this story, I kept coming back to it over the years. Each reading brought me new insights into the human condition. And as I grew up so too did the story, revealing to me its rich undercurrent of themes of homosexuality and wealth gap.

Like many classic children’s stories, I wonder if the themes of Wilde’s story might be considered too uncomfortable for children today. In fact, when I first put together the storyboard of my recently published story Through The Forest, my initial reaction was that the theme of feeling lost and alone might be too dark for a children’s book.

In Through The Forest, a boy overcomes his dejection with the help of a companion giant named Emptiness. Together they traverse a dark forest which slowly comes alive with each keepsake they find, and by remembering both the happy and sad memories the boy learns that all of his past define who he is, and will guide him in the journeys to come.

Much like the Happy Prince, Through The Forest is inherently a sad story (though it ends with a positive message), and explores topics which are not often covered in children’s books. 

But should stories of this kind be left out from a child’s bookshelf? Though children may process emotions differently to adults, this should not preclude them from it. In fact, studies have shown that just like adults, children as young as the age of five can experience depression, and some would require mental health care. 

In my own experience, exposures to such stories in my childhood showed me that emotions go beyond the serene and happy world my parents built for me, it gave me the strength to stand up to difficult situations later on in my life, and it taught me empathy.

When I first pitched Through The Forest, the most common feedback I received was that perhaps it was not suitable for the children’s book market. Yet I felt that it was important to tell a story of this kind to children, especially in today’s world where there are so many ways for a story to be told and so many channels through which it could be told. I wanted Through The Forest to be a complex story with a gentle voice, a story that can be a companion to its readers and allow them discover new meanings each time they returned to it. 

Looking back on it now I am glad I persisted and am thankful that my publisher, Lantana Publishing, decided to partner with me on telling this story. There is a place for both the happy and the sad stories, and children need them just as much as we do.

Find out more about Yijing Li here - https://yijing-li.com/about and follow her on Instagram here: @yijing_illustration 

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published, award-winning author and storyteller. Her latest picture books are Holi Hai! And We All Celebrate. Find out more at http://www.chitrasoundar.com/ and follow her on twitter here and Instagram here.

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