Tara Jenkins and Karen Pittar
When Hong Kong author Sarah Brennan sits down to write one of her captivating children's books, she imagines rascally rabbits that defy evil emperors, hungry dragons that eat children, or plump pandas that are incredibly vain, and then puts these characters into exotic settings that appeal to her young audience.
'Kids have wonderful imaginations and a great sense of fun,' says Brennan. 'My books always involve a challenge or problem that tickles children's sense of humour, or their love of mystery'.
In this age of digital distraction, capturing children's imaginations so they want to sit down and read books is becoming ever more challenging. Enter the Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival, which is hosting a number of acclaimed children's authors from around the world including Brennan, Mem Fox, Christopher Cheng, Eoin Colfer, Dianne Wolfer and Peter Brown. It kicks off tomorrow with a series of school activities, but the programme also features weekend events for parents and the whole family, such as storytelling sessions with the authors, lectures, workshops and panel discussions, all focused on encouraging young children to read.
'Reading is important, as it affects every aspect of our lives,' says Cheryl Raper, managing director of Sylvan Learning, a tutoring chain.
'If you do not develop solid reading skills as a child, you may have difficulty completing job-related tasks or reading for enjoyment. Encouraging children to read helps transform reading from a basic skill to an intellectual habit. The more children read, the more they will enjoy it, and the better reader they are likely to become. Introducing new ideas and objectives to our children increases their vocabulary. Children love to learn, and early childhood - well before kindergarten begins, when they're absorbing everything around them - is the most important time for a child's reading development.'
The event, a spin-off from the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, is a wonderful opportunity for schools and teachers to help youngsters explore storytelling and writing, while coming face to face with some of their favourite authors. Hearing writers read and discuss their work can prompt students to develop a habit of reading outside the curriculum, says festival manager Isabella Lim.
According to Lim, research shows reading literature not only enhances literacy, but also challenges students to view the world from new perspectives. 'Reading is a way of acquiring knowledge. Literary skills are applicable to reading and writing in all languages, since any analysis of text and subtext inevitably leads to a discussion and interpretation of wider themes that affect our daily lives,' says Lim.
Kellett School is among many schools actively encouraging its students' participation.
'Reading lies at the heart of academic success' says Bernadette Walker, the school's librarian. 'It allows us to 'hear' someone else's voice on the page and to get inside their head. The latest research from an Oxford University researcher shows that reading books for pleasure is the only out-of-school activity for 16-year-olds that is linked to achieving a managerial or professional job in later life.'
She cites British Education Minister Nick Gibb who observed recently that, 'the difference in achievement between children who read for half an hour a day in their spare time and those who do not is huge - as much as a year's education by the time they are 15.'
So, how can we get our offspring to enjoy books and want to read? Parents make important role models, experts say.
'Kids learn by imitation - so switch off the television and computer at night and the weekend, turn on some relaxing music and read in front of your kids,' advises Brennan. 'Do so as often as you can. From babies to teenagers - they [all] want your time and attention, and if you spend your time reading to them, they'll associate reading books with comfort, pleasure and love.'
It's a sentiment Fox endorses.
'Children who are not read to between birth and five years of age suffer. Lifelong benefits accrue from having been read to. These include: fabulous brain development, attachment to parents, language development, contentment and security, and a huge educational advantage - particularly the ability to learn to read quickly, happily and easily.'
Raper offers some useful tips to help encourage children of all ages to pick up a book. Read a recipe aloud to your child while cooking, or read directions when completing a project. Subscribe to a magazine to learn about topics of interest, or get a riddle book at the library or bookshop, as children enjoy riddles and jokes that rely on wordplay.
A range of resources are available on the internet and Raper suggests parents do searches on the grade of their child and topic of interest, or classic books for their children's level of reading.
Introducing youngsters to the local public library is another avenue. Get library cards for everyone and discuss the books with your child as he or she reads them, asking questions about themes, characters and how the story might relate to real life, Raper says.
'Help your child build confidence by allowing him or her to reread a book several times, and reward them for reading new books'.
Setting up a family book club - either with the whole family or with combinations of members - and creating an area in a child's room, or on their shelves, for their very own library, can also rouse interest, Raper says.
Alternatively, consider making your own books.
'Encourage your children to write original stories and illustrate them with their own drawings. It's a great way to increase comfort and familiarity with words. Make up alternative endings or scenes. Rearrange some scenes and have the kids put them in their proper sequence. They love that, and it's a good check for their attention and understanding.'
Tips like these are invaluable to parents who are constantly battling against modern temptations such as Xboxes, DSis, Wiis, or PlayStations. But Lim reckons it's not so much a question of competing distractions as a need to find a balance, and actively setting aside time to read.
The onus is on publishers and writers, along with parents, to find creative ways to keep youngsters engaged.
'Reading is essential to the acquisition of deep knowledge, but even more importantly to the ability to remember, concentrate and focus for sustained periods. Particularly now, in this internet age where 'cut and paste knowledge' is available at the click of a mouse, where our memories are largely being outsourced, and where a vast array of interruptive technological tools dominate our waking hours, it is crucial that children spend sustained periods immersed in reading books in order to learn how to think,' Lim says.
'Technological toys such as computer games are incredibly seductive for children, especially boys; but that doesn't mean books are dead. It simply means that publishers and writers have to make their products more attention-grabbing.'
But just as computers can be a huge distraction, they can also be aids to nurturing
'Use them as a way to encourage more reading,' Raper says. 'My children enjoyed the Reader Rabbit series, which was on CDs.
There are a few websites where children can read online, with links to video clips to enrich stories. The internet can also provide opportunities for children looking for new things to read.
Raper recommends Book Adventure - a free, interactive, reading motivation programme that can be found online at www.bookadventure.com. 'Parents can help children choose a book, take a short comprehension quiz and redeem accumulated points for small prizes,' she says. 'Book Adventure also offers teachers and parents resources and tips to help children develop a lifelong love of reading.'
And that's everybody's goal.
The Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival runs from March 5-18. For programme details, visit www.youngreadersfestival.org.hk