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Anti Saar x Zhen Zhen: Creating from a Child’s Perspective

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At 5 o’clock on November 14th, 2020, the third event of the 5th China-Europe International Literary Festival was hold online. The Estonian writer Anti Saar, together with Chinese writer Zhen Zhen, had a discussion under the topic of “A Frame of Mind: Creating from a Child’s Perspective”.


Anti Saar is a famous Estonian writer and a French-Estonian literary translator with an award-winning writing career. His three children gave him a lot of inspirations on the creation of children’s books. The Estonian Literature Centre describes his writing as follows: “Saar immerses himself in the world of the children and is capable of glimpsing what is special in ordinary everyday life. His stories, which tend to ricochet from reality, are fluid, witty, and sensitively worded.”


Zhen Zhen is a Chinese writer, poet and literary translator who was born in 1990s. Since the age of 11, she has published several works and has translated picture books written by cartoonists from France, Holand, Canada and other countries. Her works were appreciated by the Chinese Writers Association (CWA) as follows, “her works have clear structures, elegant beauty and warm senses, which contain both the satisfaction and loss of love. What she concerns is how people accept and trust each other even though they are in different times and places. Besides, her works are magically infused with both Western and Eastern folk color”.


The conversation closely followed the theme of the 5th China-Europe International Literary Festival – “Recovery/Reflection”. While both of the writers shared their experience on the creation of children’s literature, they also showed readers their own understandings to the literature for children. In their opinions, books for children should not only be the stories with imaginations and childlike interests, but also contains the reflection on children’s growth and emotional needs, as well as the response to the public social issues.


When Zhen Zhen was asked what was her favorite work, she answered Youyaojing, which tells the stories of 49 monsters living in modern times. In ancient times, the stories of monsters were told to scare young children, but Youyaojing is also a modern take on Chinese monster legends. Zhen Zhen took The Smog Machine as an example. In her opinion, the image of “smog” was also her response to the pollution and the governance to it.


From the perspective of Anti Saar, Anni’s Things is his most satisfactory work, which is based on his daughter Eda. Different from Zhen Zhen who would like to add various imaginations into her work, Saar hopes to get inspirations from the reality and catches children’s emotions in daily life. He tries to put the treasurable things and people for children into his works.


When they were asked that what were the differences between writing books for children and books for adults, Zhen Zhen said that there were difficulties in both kinds of writings, but children’s books were more pure and required the writer to constantly refine and ask himself. For example, she liked the themes such as “death”, “emotion”, “love” and so on, but these themes could not be directly written in children’s books because they were difficult to be explained to children. So how to include those emotions into the story has become a proposition to be dealt with.


Zhen Zhen’s opinion was endorsed by Anti Saar, and he also added that the recreation of the “children’s experience” was also important. Not only did he observe the way children think, but he also put himself in their place and turned into a child. Besides, he believes that to accept and appreciate your past self is also very important because it becomes particularly difficult to be accepted as an adult.


When talking about the details like the images in the work, Zhen Zhen took Doors as an example. The book tells a story of “how many doors children will go through from birth to death”. These “doors” mean the possibilities in life, such as studying abroad or deciding to quit a job or returning home to be with family. Zhen Zhen said the inspiration of “doors” was from her stagnant life. At that time, for instance, she opened the door of a publishing house with manuscripts, so her hopes from “behind the door” to “ in front of the door” became the source of her future creation. And she thought that everything could be summarized by such “doors”. From this perspective, Doors is not just a fairy tale, but a response to those gains and losses in life.


Anti Saar said that he would not seek for imaginations in his works and he only wanted to get inspired by the common life. The Way We Deal with Problems is based on such inspirations. He thought that the way children see the world is real and natural. The things, which seems very common and even boring like a father shaving his beard in adults’ eyes, may be interesting in children’s eyes. This is a way for children to observe the world because their cognition is not mature enough.


During the Q&A section, a reader asked how children’s literature would attract children’s attention and whether children need to understand those dark sides in the book. Saar thought that the bedtime reading was important to motivate children’s interest in reading and would help creating a good reading environment for them. Zhen Zhen, taking Harry Potter as an example, said that although the depiction of such bad guys as Voldemort was relatively flat, she still realized that “people can do nothing in case of bad luck”. And she thought that children should know those uncertainties in life and understand that “everything is not taken for granted”.


The China-Europe International Literary Festival has been held for 4 years. Every year, the Chinese writers, together with the writers from Europe, discussed a variety of topics on life and society. The 5th China-Europe International Literary Festival will continue to give readers inspirations and reflections with the spark ideas coming from the conversations between Chinese and European writers.


By Ming Ming

Translated into English by Sarah Sa