Hong Kong's urban jungle may seem an unlikely setting for fairy tales, but for one picture-book author it's an ideal backdrop against which to encourage children to read. Foon Foon the Owl's Umbrella, by Alex Ho Tat-hing, a lecturer in multimedia design at Polytechnic University, tells the story of an owl stuck at a bus stop by a heavy downpour who generously shares her brolly with other animals taking shelter from the rain. 'It's a fairy tale with a Hong Kong setting,' Ho says. Ho, who has a two-year-old son, aims to appeal to toddlers by incorporating lively illustrations with his simple tale about creatures based on typical neighbourhood characters. For instance, there's a harried executive dog, a grumpy old cat who complains loudly on his mobile phone and a fashionable young elephant engrossed in his new hairstyle. Foon Foon is among nine bilingual picture books published last month by Enlighten & Fish. Written for local children, each book in its Story Kingdom series holds a moral lesson. Such picture books are scarce in Hong Kong; Chinese-language titles sold in the city are mainly imports from Taiwan and translations of franchised works such as those from Disney. That's why Enlighten & Fish editor Xaddy Lam Hing-yee sees a need for original works by local writers and illustrators. 'They understand the local environment better and can create stories that children relate to,' Lam says. 'They also have a better idea of the challenges local kids face and how they react, for instance, when faced with difficulties.' Kam Pui Enterprises, a Popular Book Co subsidiary that publishes mostly translated works, has also started publishing books by local writers. 'It's important to nurture local writers and illustrators,' says its business and publishing director, Irene Ng Seen-ha. 'The market might be relatively small now, but if we don't groom potential authors and illustrators, the market will never grow.' Like many Hongkongers, Ho grew up with text-heavy storybooks. But the lecturer became intrigued by children's picture books after meeting his Japanese wife. 'Her mother used to tell her stories using picture books and many schools in Japan have impressive picture-book libraries,' he says. 'I wanted to find out why Japanese kids are so absorbed by these books.' Impressed by the vivid illustrations and simple stories, Ho decided to create something he could read to his child. His first book, Papa's Forest Bus, about the adventures of a boy and his animal friends as they take a bus past flyovers in Mong Kok, tenement buildings in Sham Shui Po and skyscrapers in Central, was published by local firm MCCM Creations last year. Secondary school principal Ada Ho How-sim, who has written many books on children's literature and parenting, says it's essential to include local elements in storybooks. 'Themes on moral values and positive messages are universal. The key is to present them in a local context so that children can easily associate them with their daily lives,' she says. Children can learn about other cultures through imported books, but Ada Ho says it's equally important for them to know their local culture. 'Nurturing culture is like growing flowers - it has to begin with the soil, because that nourishes the roots that support the blossoms,' she says. 'The local element is the soil. Without it, there is no root.' Ho contributed three stories to the Story Kingdom series, all featuring native flora and fauna such as the fiddle crab. 'We're telling stories that happen in our home, not other people's,' she says. Although simply told, the veteran educator's stories work on several levels and hold messages for parents as well as their children. The Cotton Tree and Chi Cha, for instance, is a tale about two birds struggling to make a life after being abandoned by their owner during an outbreak of avian flu, and Ho hopes the story will alert readers to the harm of being overprotective. 'Many kids have parents and a domestic helper who serve them all the time. As a result, they don't know how to do things for themselves and can't handle setbacks,' she says. Ho even draws inspiration from events such as the controversy over campaigning for the Legislative Council poll four years ago, writing Election of a King in the Crab Kingdom. Elections may seem too abstract a concept for young children to grasp, but she says parents can relate it to events in children's daily lives, such as how class representatives are selected. A good story bears repeated reading because it can be understood on different levels and children can grasp a deeper meaning each time they revisit it, she says. Fellow writer Pearl Poon Ming-chu takes a similar approach. Her work, What Wonderful Friends, for instance, follows the tribulations of a young bird with a broken beak who is shunned by classmates at a new school before finally gaining acceptance. The tale was inspired by efforts to integrate children with special needs into mainstream schools, and Poon says parents can add fresh elements each time they read it to their children. 'For example, parents can substitute the little bird with a new immigrant student as a way to teach their kids to accept people with different backgrounds,' says Poon, a part-time instructor in children's literacy development at Baptist University. Originally written for a children's literature competition organised by the Mandarin Daily News in Taiwan in 2004, What Wonderful Friends was selected as the editor's choice. Poon and illustrator Maxim Tang Sau-hung published it themselves in Hong Kong two years ago, but the writer is delighted that more companies are willing to take the risk of publishing original works by Hong Kong writers and illustrators. Yu Kong-to also appreciates the greater choice of children's titles. The housewife reads to her two-year-old daughter daily and is keen to see more well-illustrated works from Hong Kong. 'There are [translated] books such as Disney's, but I don't want my daughter to be exposed to pop culture so early in her childhood,' she says. 'It's much better if there are books containing local culture so she can relate the stories and pictures to her immediate environment.' But publishers say it's a challenge to identify writers who understand children well and have a knack for creating stories that will appeal to them. Illustrators who can enrich a story with additional details and create an atmosphere that words alone cannot describe are equally hard to come by. At Kam Pui, Ng is still looking for the right person to illustrate A Tree Called Tang, a tale she wrote 20 years ago about overdevelopment in the New Territories. Although the genre is still in its infancy in Hong Kong, writers are optimistic that children's picture books will develop as more parents subscribe to the idea and sign up for activities such as storytelling sessions to help open their children up to the world of literature and imagination. 'My wife still remembers storytelling as a magic time in her childhood because each time her mother told a story in a different way,' says Alex Ho, adding that he hopes his tales can give children similarly wonderful moments. 'Hong Kong children are more precocious than those in other cities. In our pressure-cooker city they seldom have the time and space to enjoy being children. The wonderment of childhood is something to be cherished, not rushed through.'