Vintage Gems from the Asian Children’s Collection

What do talking animals, lovelorn princesses and playful village children have in common? They have been enchanting children in stories all around the world. Arts Librarian Michelle Heng invites you on a magic carpet ride across Asia through a tour of vintage children’s titles in the National Library’s historical Asian Children’s Literature [ACL] Collection.

One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting close to my mother while she flipped through colourful pages and read softly to me from the many Chinese-language fairy- and folktales found at Queenstown Public Library near our home. As my mother couldn’t read English, I nursed an ever-growing curiosity and hunger for the English children’s titles in the library.

These magical tales are now available to me, and to everyone, through the National Library’s historical Asian Children’s Literature Collection (ACL).¹ I have chosen a few gems below to share.

Nursery Rhymes and Poems for Little Ones

In this quaint volume of Chinese “Mother Goose” type rhymes², tender words and soothing verses sit alongside charming photographs of affectionate adults cradling their young charges. Compiled and translated by Peking (Beijing) University scholar Isaac Taylor Headland, this delightful English-Chinese bilingual collection was published in 1900. It consists of Chinese children’s rhymes shared by nurse-maids who took care of the children of expatriates living in the city as well as through interviews of children who recited them along the streets and neighbourhoods of Beijing.³

In the preface, Headland mentioned that he had chosen the photographs “specially” for each rhyme and hoped that his compilation would “present a new phase of Chinese home life and lead the children of the West to have some measure of sympathy and affection for the children of the East”.⁴ The accompanying photo to the ditty “Sweeter than Sugar” shows a well-dressed young lady standing next to a richly-robed elderly matriarch holding a young child upon her lap speaks volumes about gender roles and family hierarchy in the past. Meanwhile, “The Cake Seller”, shows what life was like when child labour was common. Young children from humble homes worked to supplement the family income.

Seen through 21st century sensibilities, these images resemble the lavish period Chinese TV drama serials or movies set in the late-Qing dynasty era! But the people in these photographs were likely residing in turn-of-the-century Beijing, and in fact, their clothing, the props they were photographed with, as well as the backdrops in the photographs, offer an interesting glimpse into the ascribed roles related to gender, family and social status during a bygone era in Chinese history.

To enchant both parents and children, check out Little Pictures of Japan. Bound in blue fabric with gilt-embossed lettering on the cover, this title brings together early 20th century Japanese verses translated into English with coloured illustrations on almost every page.

First published in 1925, this delightfully pretty collection of haiku and waka verses,⁵ edited by Olive Beaupré Miller, is centred on the themes of nature, favourite past-times and kinship/friendship. After having children of her own and wishing to find good stories to read to them, Olive Beaupré Miller found that “Grimm seemed too grim” and she deemed popular fairy-tales with “subtly twisted ethics” to be unsuitable for young readers.⁶

The illustrations in Little Pictures of Japan were created by American writer and illustrator Katherine Sturges, who also designed ceramics and jewellery and directed fashion magazine artworks in Harper’s Bazaar. She was sent to Japan to study Eastern art genres and put her experience to good use when she illustrated Little Pictures of Japan in the 1920s.⁷

Plethora of Fables, Folklore and Fairytales

Folklore can be defined as a collective body of traditional beliefs, myths and legends, and cultural practices of a particular group of people or civilisation.⁸ Traditionally passed down the generations through oral performances, they are often a reflection of the common people.

Many of the folklore, fairy tales and fables in the Asian Children’s Collection feature similar stories that are retold with some differences in plot, characterisation and setting in various countries.

“The old man who made the dead trees blossom” (Hanasakajijii) tells of a loving elderly couple whose pet dog led them to a dazzling discovery of gold coins only for misfortune to befall them in the guise of a greedy neighbour. The punishment meted out to the greedy neighbour seen in this tale is an age-old retelling of karma served to evil characters. This book is the fourth volume in the well known Japanese Fairy Tales series published by Tokyo’s Kobunsha press in the 1880s. The Japanese Fairy Tale Series, helmed by Kobunsha press founder Hasegawa Takejirō, entertained many young children with books that cleverly blended the work of western writers and translators alongside illustrations by Japanese artists, at a time when Japan was opening its doors to the world. There are many schools of thoughts pertaining to the complex history of the various editions of books in this series. We hope that researchers can shed more light on this area of study.

Other similar tales that depict how “bad” characters are punished for their greed and “good” characters are rewarded with magical items for their kindness include the often-retold Chinese folktale, Ma Lien and his Magic Brush. Ma Lien (or Ma Liang as he is named in different versions of the same tale), is a poor Chinese boy whose greatest wish is to be an artist. He is too poor to afford to buy a good brush but a kind wizard suddenly appears and gives him one with magical powers. However, his talent almost comes to nought when a greedy official tries to steal the boy’s treasured brush.

In Tales from Japan, Shirley Goulden retells the story of a very small-statured but brave, ogre-fighting hero — named Timimoto in her book — who was raised by a childless couple as their own son after they accidentally stumbled upon a foundling. Goulden also relates the tale of Urashima Tarō, a fisherman who rescued a turtle and is entertained by a dragon-king in a sea palace.

Illustrated by Italian-born children’s book illustrator Gianni Benvenuti, Tales from Japan was first published in 1961. Detailed drawings of genteel, silken kimono-clad maidens and brave young Japanese lords dressed to the nines in brocades are featured throughout this collection.

Born in Tuscany in 1926, Benvenuti studied at the Department of Architecture at the University of Milan. He started out as a painter-designer but subsequently turned to sculpture in the 1960s. While working on various art forms, he made a living as a children’s book illustrator. His works have appeared in more than 50 books that have been translated into many languages including classics such as Grimms Fairy-Tales.¹⁰

My favourite stories from this genre comprise tales of princesses and their encounters with swashbuckling knights in shining armours. I had spent many happy hours poring through richly-illustrated books with my siblings and childhood playmates, especially during school holidays.

While Western fairy-tales, folklores and fables are full of enchanting forests as well as damsels-and-dames in distress, their Asian equivalent showcase a vast array of wily elderly folk, ethereal princesses and of course, the usual menagerie of cunning animals as seen in the illustrations featured here in an English translation of Fables (1953) by Chinese author Feng Hsueh-Feng. These Aesop-like stories include a cunning fox who could not resist the temptation to make a good meal out of a chicken he ensnared in “The Fox and The Chicken”.

Published by the People’s Republic of China’s Foreign Language Press, the tales in this book were translated from the original Chinese into English. The lively woodcut illustrations by Huang Yung-yu enable the characters to charm readers’ hearts. In the publisher’s note, it is stated that this is a compilation of modern political fables the author had written using “veiled language and parables” as a form of satire to expose societal injustices then, thereby providing an interesting context for research on the tales in this book.

Fables not only entertain the young and the young-at-heart, they also impart moral lessons. While some teach young readers the importance of good judgment when making friends, others depict bravery, loyalty and honour in fighting off giants and saving entire villages. The accompanying illustrations also enliven these fables, further strengthening the moral lessons in the minds of young readers.

Decades after my mother’s read-along storytelling sessions in Mandarin with me, I can still recall the warm, fuzzy contentment of a good tale — but what’s even better is that I can now share the pleasure of interesting children’s literature with researchers and library visitors alike through writing and co-curating regular showcases on the Asian Children’s Collection at our library.

The Asian Children’s Literature (ACL) Collection is located on Level 9 of the National Library (Singapore) where a regular thematic showcase of children’s books curated by our librarians can also be viewed on display. Some of the vintage books in the historical ACL collection, similar to those featured here, can also be found at the Closed Stacks and these can be found upon application at L11. All titles in the ACL Collection are searchable via our online OPAC catalogue and enquiries for titles can be made at the Level 11 Information Counter.

The writer wishes to thank colleague Gracie Lee for highlighting additional resources for “The old man who made the dead trees blossom”.

Michelle Heng is an English Literary Arts Librarian at the National Library. She enjoys reading about Asian folklore and regional children’s literature in her spare time.

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[1] The National Library Board’s (NLB) Historical Asian Children’s Literature Collection (HACL) was recognised in 2022 by the UNESCO Memory of the World Committee for Asia Pacific (MOWCAP) as an indelible part of the region’s culture and heritage. A unique collection of works originating from Asia, the HACL places a special emphasis on collecting and preserving literature from Southeast Asia.

[2] The origin of the moniker “Mother Goose” remains a matter of dispute with some tracing its origins to Charles Perrault’s (1697) French collection of tales by Charles Perrault, Contes de ma mère L’Oye [Tales of mother goose). There is also American origin claim on this, seen in “Mother Goose’s Melodies” (1719) published in Boston by Thomas Fleet, whose mother-in-law was said to be Elizabeth Vergoose. “Mother Goose.” 2021. Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, 1 March. [From NLB eResources: Ebscohost Academic Search Premier] Accessed 10 March 2023

[3] Isaac Taylor Headland, Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1900), 5 (Call no.: R398.80951 CHI -[ACL]). Beijing resident and eminent Peking (Beijing) University scholar Isaac Taylor Headland (1859–1942), the translator behind Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes, had joined his contemporaries who were keen on both popular culture and folklore in collecting and transcribing Chinese children’s rhymes. “Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes,” in World History Commons, [accessed March 11, 2023]. In his preface, Headland stated that over 600 of such rhymes were collected from various provinces in China.

[4] Headland, Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes, 6.

[5] One of the best-known forms of Japanese poetry, the 17-syllable haiku is derived from an older, but still popular poetic form, the waka, which had been used for a thousand years before the haiku. For more information about waka, see Amy Vladeck Heinrich, “What is a Waka?Asia for Educators, Columbia University.

[6] Dorothy Loring Taylor, (1985) “Olive Beaupré Miller and My Book House”, Illinois Historical Journal, 78, no. 4 (1985): 273–288. (From JSTOR)

[7] “Katharine Sturges Knight, at 88, An Illustrator of Books and Style”, New York Times, 17 January 1979

[8] Stories from Asia: The Asian Children’s Literature Collection (Singapore: National Library Board, 2016), 44–5. (Call no.: R809.89282 STO)

[9] DeCou, C., Woodblocks in Wonderland: The Japanese Fairy Tale Series, The Public Domain Review (2019)

[10] Tulin Tamar, “In Memory of Gianni Benvenuti (1926–2005)”, The “Q” Arts Magazine, 4, vol.1 (Winter, 2006): 6–7.



This is the blog of the National Library, Singapore. We post about stories and fun facts from our shelves.

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