Stumped on how to get your little one interested in Chinese? Have a look at these fun, well-illustrated bilingual picture books (they come in English too!)
Learning Chinese is a useful – if not necessary – skill to have, not just in Singapore, but in today’s increasingly global society. Reading is integral to learning a new language, so why not kick off the habit at home with some great bilingual children’s books? Once you’ve read all the best stories about Singapore and helped your kids understand diversity with these books, some Chinese picture books will not only mix up the story time repertoire, they’ll also help your kids’ journey to becoming little masters of the language.
Head of Chinese at Canadian International School, Huali Xiong, agrees: “Reading has proven to be such a powerful tool. For a second language learner, it not only reinforces speaking and listening, it builds a foundation for students’ writing. Research shows that the more people read, the better they write.” Ms Xiong has taught both English and Chinese for 30 years, and is the author of the highly respected Big Apple Chinese Programme, so she knows her stuff.
But how do those of us who aren’t experts in Chinese (to put it mildly), help our kids learn the language? Xiong has this to say: “For parents who don’t speak Chinese, it is recommended that they support the child with the home language. The language transfer theory indicates that learners will apply knowledge from one language to another.” Simply put, once your child has grasped the basics of one language, applying what they’ve learned to a different language (and reading in it) will be that much easier and parents can help by making sure at least one language has a solid foundation.
So how does your child start their first foray into Chinese literature? Although many of our favourite picture books have been translated into Chinese, they lack the cultural context of the language. That’s why we’ve put together a selection of modern Chinese picture books that are interesting, engaging, and best of all, come with English translations so reading is still a fun family bonding experience…
BEGINNERS (2 AND UP)
Father and Son Go Fishing《和爸爸一起去海边》by Xiaoting Chen, Illustrated by Ying Huang, Translated by Duncan Poupard
A good book for beginner readers, this cheerful tale will keep your little one on the edge of their seat. What could be better than a fun day by the sea with Dad? Will they catch a fish? Or not? This charming book emanates a warmth that embodies the anticipation of a good catch. Oops! That’s not a fish, that’s a crayfish. Oops! An octopus! What will they fish up next? The books end on a poignant note with the satisfaction of a day well spent.
Teaches: Use of “very”, as well as some verbs.
ELEMENTARY (3 AND UP)
Little Rabbit‘s Questions《小兔子的问题》by Dayong Gan, translated by Helen Wang
We can’t tell which is more whimsical; the drawings or the little rabbit’s questions. And for someone so small, he’s definitely chock-a-block with them. Mum’s got all the answers of course, the best answers to the best questions. Every word, every sentence, is absolutely brimming with love.
Teaches: Question and answer sentence structures and sensory verbs such as “look”, “hear” and “smell”.
The Naughty Mynah《调皮的八哥》by Evelyn Sue Wong (no pinyin)
What’s a foreigner to do when his guide’s a naughty mynah? “How do I say ‘Good Morning’?”: “(Good evening)”, the mynah replies. Mr Jones, none the wiser, takes the mynah to his new art class. What will it tell Mr Jones next? This engaging story will teach your naughty little mynahs the importance of communication and learning another language.
Teaches: Simple vocabulary and common phrases such as greetings through a bilingual glossary available at the back of the book.
INTERMEDIATE (5 AND UP)
Buddy Is So Annoying《我讨厌宝弟》by Wenzheng Fu, translated by Adam Lanphier
“On the first day of Kindergarten, I met Buddy.” Ever have that friend who always bugged you and got on your nerves no matter what they did? Whether it’s one-upping you or having to wait for them to catch up, they’ve always been absolute pests – why couldn’t they just leave you alone? But they’re still your mate and they’ve stuck by you so long, so you GUESS they can tag along.
Teaches: words that express opinions such as “I think” or “I feel”.
The Frog and the Boy《青蛙与男孩》by Mao Xiao, illustrated by Wei Chen and Xiaomin Huang, translated by Helen Wang
If your little one’s prone to ‘being’ an animal, following cats while meowing or chasing dogs while barking, they’ll love pretending to be a frog. I’m a frog! I hop like a frog! I can stick my tongue out like a frog! The twist is: what happens when the creature you’re imitating calls you on your bluff? I’m not a frog! I’m different! Very, very different! The kiddos will have a great time with this one.
Teaches: “me too”, “from…to”, “not/neither…or/nor”.
ADVANCED (6 AND UP)
The Peanut Fart《 花生米样的屁》by Xiaoming Wang, translated by Adam Lanphier
One day, Sheldon the Snail eats a peanut, something different from the usual fare, and passes a little gas. What appears is… well, it’s small and peanut-shaped! It follows him everywhere and the other snails laugh at him. “You’re a Fart Father!”, they tease. Sheldon’s not happy, so he bottles the fart and sends it downstream. But his worry overtakes him – will the fart be alright? He rushes after it and ends up on an adventure. A little rude, a little funny, a lot sensitive. It’s sure to tickle your little one’s sense of exploration while never slackening the tension.
Teaches: Use of phrases to indicate ‘increasing’, ‘luckily’, ‘because’ and ‘although’.
Who Wants Candied Hawberries?《冰糖葫芦，谁买?》By Dongni Bao, illustrated by Di Wu, translated by Adam Lamphier
The streets are filled with people selling candied hawberries. With so much competition, how will an old man sell his stock? He needs to buy medicine. Luckily a group of children show up… wearing tails. Tails? Fashion these days sure is strange. A quirky, quiet story, muffled by the snow, tapping into Chinese mythology. It just goes to show a little bit of magic can happen in the smallest and most ordinary of places and even the most humble creatures know kindness.
Teaches: Sentence structures such as “if this… then that” and “as long as”, as well as counting words.
Purple《紫》by Wang Chu Qiao, illustrated by Cai Lixian (no pinyin)
None of the other colours want to be Blue’s friend. Not the warm colours, nor the neutrals. What’s a colour to do? Won’t anyone be his friend? Blue begins to despair until Red comes along, but there are still hurdles to cross. Simply but adorably illustrated in watercolour, local author Wang Chu Qiao brings a simple tale of alienation and wanting to fit in. Purple questions whether it’s worth changing yourself for friendship, and whether we should abandon safety for diversity.
Teaches: A lot of talking points for this touching story.
Looking for more? In our rummagings to find these great books, we were excited to stumble across Candied Plums, a Seattle and Beijing-based publishing company. They publish Mandarin picture books not just with an English translation, but with pinyin and a helpful vocab list at the back of the book. The Chinese Corner (available on their website) also provides a recording of each book read in Mandarin that you can download for free, as well as a short language lesson on what each book can teach. We’ve included some of their books in the list above but feel free to check out the rest of their books on their website; www.candiedplums.com. Some of these books are not currently found in Singapore so you get them online on Amazon or Book Depository.
Like this story? Here’s more we think you’ll enjoy:
Our favourite bookstores in Singapore
The best libraries for little bookworms of all ages
Best books to read to kids
Our fave books for babies and toddlers
Curl up with a good book and get whisked away with our favourite stories for kids