Something to write home about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am

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Two months ago, He Yunni started dreaming about something that has gripped working mothers from Margaret Oliphant to J.K. Rowling: how to write a series of stories so successful that she could quit her day job.

'At this point, I'm still trying to figure out how to develop an angle,' says He, 35, a Singaporean lawyer, who has started working on a children's picture book with her seven-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn. Help is at hand for aspiring writers like He this week, as Singapore stages its third Asian Festival of Children's Content, which runs until May 29.

Festival highlights include a session titled 'Turning your manuscript into a best-seller', co-presented by Alvina Ling, editorial director of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; and Sarah Odedina, formerly of Bloomsbury Publishing, who oversaw Rowling's Harry Potter series.

Leonard S. Marcus, a noted American children's books historian and critic, will also deliver a keynote address on balancing education and entertainment in children's books, and Newbery Honour recipient Margarita Engle will talk about writing young adult novels in verse.

Other sessions include one on creating apps for toddlers, and another on writing for the Muslim community. Parents can also sit in on discussions about children's cyber wellness (looking at issues such as cyberbullying, game addiction and privacy), or motivating a child to read and write.

'There has been a great need for a festival like this for a very long time,' says festival director, R. Ramachandran. 'And now, with education spreading and pre-school education becoming a must, people are looking for books.'

As more people take pride in their Asian roots, and with the growing Asian diaspora, the market for books that reflect their cultural diversity is growing and becoming potentially more lucrative.

Ramachandran, who is also executive director of the National Book Development Council of Singapore, says: 'It's important to develop material for our children that they are familiar with, rather than reading about conifer trees and snowball mountains.'

Festival chairwoman Claire Chiang identifies with this dilemma. When her three, grown-up children were little she would read books from the Ladybird series to them, because she felt they offered a fantastic, systematic approach for early readers. '[But] I would change the names and imagery, and talk about different events. Rather than walking the dog, we would talk about playing five stones [also known as jacks],' says Chiang, 60, co-founder of the Banyan Tree resort chain.

Come festival time, she will host sessions in English and Mandarin on how to bond with one's children through writing an autobiography.

'There are a lot of home-grown stories that have not been reflected in various media. Some of them are old histories, but [they are] not in the English language,' Chiang says. 'There is potential to harness the passion for Asian content, so that this also becomes a source of investment; potential to tap into our Asian writers and artists, dredge the content of our folklore in a creative fashion, and bring this world to the West. So that, in turn, Westerners will read [the famous Chinese myth] about Chang'e flying to the moon.'

The key, Chiang feels, is to focus on translating these Asian tales into English and to package them across a variety of media platforms, for all to engage with.

The first festival was held in 2010, having grown from the annual Asian Children's Writers & Illustrators Conference, which began in 2000.

Back then, the idea was to promote and give access to books written by Asian writers that were not readily available in Singapore or outside their country of origin. By 2011, the festival had a publishers' symposium, a teachers' congress and a media summit for Asian children's content. It drew 608 conference participants from 23 countries.

This year's festival, organised by the National Book Development Council of Singapore and The Arts House, looks set to attract even more people. It features 88 authors, illustrators and media industry talent in its line-up, from China to South Africa.

'We have a wide definition of Asia,' says Ramachandran. From a trade point of view, the presence of literary agents, publishers, book distributors and educators from the US and Britain is necessary.

One of the festival's aims is to bring together Asian talent and players in the publishing centres of London and New York and to tap into Western expertise.

'Over the years, Westerners have refined the art of writing for children,' Ramachandran says. 'Asians tend to be more moralistic, talking to children as though they're adults.'

Odedina, now the managing director of children's imprint Hot Key Books, says the international market is 'much more willing to accept content from non-Western-based authors now', compared to just a few years ago. She points to how some adult fiction best-sellers and literary prizewinners are by authors not of the typical American or British mould, such as Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger.

'There is still some way to go before the world of children's books reflects these successes,' says Odedina.

'But I am sure that if a novel from an Asian-based writer was sent to a British or American publishing house, it would be read and considered with the same respect given to all submissions. 'The crucial elements are a compelling storyline, strong and believable characters, and a unique author voice.'

In recent years, Singapore authors who received writing and publishing grants from the government have enjoyed modest success. Adeline Foo's The Diary of Amos Lee series, about a precocious primary school boy, regularly makes it onto The Straits Times' national best-seller list.

Prominent playwright Ovidia Yu has also written her first novel for children, The Mudskipper, recently launched in conjunction with the festival.

Sarah Mounsey, an Australian schoolteacher based in Singapore, attended the festival last year, and was inspired enough to come up with her first picture book, Purple Paw Prints, which will be launched at the festival.

Can the region produce the next J.K. Rowling or Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) in the near future? Chiang is optimistic. 'I'm sure,' she says. 'If you include China, it's a quarter of mankind.'

But, she adds, what is most important is 'looking at what parents can do to encourage early reading. The festival is organised for parents and teachers to look at pedagogy and ways to tell stories, to nurture and interest children and let them blossom. And that is very time-consuming and laborious. Parents themselves must be readers.'