Wed, Feb 11, 2009 - Page 13 News List

‘Pet Dragon’ explains Chinese with character(s)

German illustrator Christoph Niemann’s unique take on the written Chinese language has caught on with children — and adults — worldwide

By Dan Bloom  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

VIEW THIS PAGE With Asian culture, music and fashion popular in the West now, many expat parents in Taiwan have wondered how best to introduce their young children to the “mysterious” Chinese characters used here. For artist Christoph Niemann, a transatlantic creative spirit with feet firmly planted in Berlin and New York, the answer was easy, and illuminating: a colorful children’s book.

He titled it Pet Dragon, found a publisher in New York, and before he knew it, the unusually formatted and illustrated book had caught on with children — and adults — worldwide. A native of Germany, Niemann is a prolific illustrator with style all his own. In a recent e-mail interview with the Taipei Times, the 38-year-old writer/illustrator talked about the book’s genesis and what drew him to such a unique concept.

When asked how the book took shape, Niemann said: “On a recent trip to Asia, and it was in Japan where the idea first came to me, I was introduced to the meaning and a little bit of the history of Chinese characters by Chinese designers I met in Tokyo. Their explanations made me feel a bit like a five-year-old boy who has his eyes suddenly opened wide to a whole new world. And since Chinese characters have such a beautiful visual and metaphoric meaning, I felt it would make a nice illustrated children’s book.”

Niemann added that he wasn’t trying to create a book to teach Chinese to children, or to adults by extension. What he wanted to do was create some preliminary interest in Chinese characters for Western children. “All I really wanted to achieve was to spark some interest in this wonderful written language, which then might inspire readers in the West later on to try to learn more in a real language class or on their own, whether the readers were 4 or 40.”

Niemann, whose earlier children’s books and newspaper illustrations are playful and colorful, said that he hoped the “playfulness” of the format and illustrations of Pet Dragon would spark Western children’s imaginations in a novel way.

The book was published in English in New York, and there is now a German edition, Niemann said. Some French publishers are looking at the possibility of putting out a French translation as well, he said.

When asked what kind of reactions he has received about the book, he said: “You know, it’s funny, but some of the most touching responses by e-mail have been from parents who purchased the book for their children but ended up enjoying themselves as well. I love that response.”

Niemann said he was about 10 years old when he first became aware of Chinese characters, and he said he while he was “intrigued by the graphic beauty of the characters, I was utterly confused by their complexity.”

When asked about his background, the artist told the Taipei Times: “I was born in Germany and majored in graphic design at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart in the late 1990s. After graduation, I went to New York where my career blossomed, but after a few years in the States my wife Lisa and I decided we wanted to try Berlin, so that’s where we are now. I still do most of my work for US magazines and newspapers, as well as for book publishers in New York.”

Niemann currently has a legion of new adult fans around the world who follow a visual blog he runs for the New York Times Web site.

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