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With a depleting number of children’s literature writers, it is becoming ever more difficult to meet the appetite of Vietnam’s youths hungry for a good Vietnamese book.

In the current publishing market, children's books comprise mostly translated books, educational books, or foreign comics. According statistics by the Department of Publishing, Printing and Issuing, Vietnam printed over 400 million books in 2019. Out of this, 76% were textbooks, and only 10% were books for teenagers and children. Children and teens now account for 15 million people in Vietnam’s total population, amounting to a considerable portion of the national demand for books.

Ask any Vietnamese about their favorite childhood stories, many would answer with classics, like Dế Mèn Phiêu Lưu Ký (Diary of a Cricket) by Tô Hoài, Ðất Rừng Phương Nam’ (Southern Land) by Đoàn Giỏi, or Tuổi Thơ Dữ Dội (A Ferocious Childhood) by Phùng Quán. These stories are not just children's book despite their young protagonists, they are regarded as works of literature and are featured in the educational curriculum.

However, most of these classic stories are based on their author’s experiences of war and hardship, an aspect of life that doesn’t always resonate with the more privileged and modern generation of Vietnamese youth.

Deputy Director of Kim Đồng Publishing House Bùi Tuấn Nghĩa, which focuses on children's books, told Người Lao Động that there are many forms of entertainment nowadays competing for children's attention, some are overshadowing reading and children's literature. Moreover, Nghĩa added, children today don't have a lot of time for leisure enjoyment due to the range of formal classes, tuition sessions, and extracurricular activities they have to undertake.

In the first six months of 2020, SGGP reports, Kim Đồng published 80 books, but the majority of which were either translated from foreign languages or reprints. Only one, Bước Về Phía Mặt Trời by Nguyễn Luân, was a new work of children's literature. Poet Nguyễn Quang Thiều said of this imbalance: "When [children] read too many works of foreign literature, even though they can still learn useful things, the knowledge gained doesn't contain the beauty of Vietnamese culture."

Nonetheless, there is a ray of hope for this genre from one of its most famous children’s writers, Nguyễn Nhật Ánh. He has written children’s books for over 40 years and is familiar to people of all ages. In the past 10 years, Cho Tôi Xin Một Vé Đi Tuổi Thơ by Ánh was the only children's book that was honored by the Vietnam Writers' Association.

"We [the association] don't have a separate category for children's literature, but treat it as an equal genre," Thiều explained. "However, I think this policy has resulted in a lack of interest among children's literature writers. It's time that the association create a separate category for children's books and figure out how to promote the award more."

Although other famous writers of this generation have also tried their hand at children’s literature, including Nguyễn Ngọc Tư, Đỗ Bích Thủy, Phan Hồn Nhiên, Vũ Thị Thanh Tâm and Vũ Đình Giang, many have decided to continue their careers in adult literature.

Despite this and the fact that many critics call Ánh "a lone star in the sky of children’s literature," as a successful writer in this field, he is paving the way for new inspiring young writers to fill in this void of possibility in the field of children’s literature.

[Photo via SGGP]

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