How authors can make books come alive for Hong Kong readers young and old

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 January, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 January, 2015, 6:00am

Standing in the packed library of the Hong Kong International School, visiting poet Naomi Shihab Nye closes her eyes, takes a breath and begins. "You can't order a poem like you order a taco …," she says, reciting the opening line of one of her most recognised poems, Valentine for Ernest Mann, and the room is silent.

It's hard to know what these teenagers think as they sit, cross-legged, heads lowered, listening. But their thoughtful questions and reflections after the talk show clearly that they have been deeply impressed. With this talk, Nye offers these students a new way to approach poetry, both as consumers and as creators themselves.

"I learned to look at life as a long poem, filled with mundane, irritating, amazing and elated moments," reflects grade eight student Sarthak Bajpai. Sophia Chuen, also in grade eight, says: "Visiting authors allow us to learn that authors are real people too and that writing is thinking."

Nye suggests that students keep a notebook with them always and that they pay attention to the ordinary moments in life and record three small ideas each day. The students learn that anyone can be a poet, that poetry is fun and that writing a book can take many, many iterations before the final version is published.

For most authors, producing a book is like birthing a child. Once that book exists, their lives are forevermore inextricably entwined. Most authors spend a fair amount of their non-writing time helping to grow the audience for their books.

While the author receives some benefit in increasing book sales for this effort, the true benefit is really to the reader who gains further insights and a deeper understanding from hearing the author provide context and colour about the process and result.

Meeting an author is a great way to make books come alive for readers. Many Hong Kong schools and organisations understand this and invest precious resources hosting authors to work with students, parents and teachers.

Last year, HKIS hosted award-winning author and artist Grace Lin for a week as an artist-in-residence. As a Taiwanese-American who grew up in rural New York, Lin explores the immigrant experience in her books, interlacing Chinese and American culture, and helping to articulate the competing feelings of pride and dislocation.

In a talk for parents and children, Lin told the story of her childhood and gave insight into the decisions she made and how she felt about herself as an Asian American. While these underlying themes are present in her books, to hear her tell the story directly was much more powerful. As a result of this talk and seeing Lin in the school, her The Year of the Dog is my son's favourite chapter book.

Ralph Fletcher, a renowned young adult fiction writer whose books are particularly popular with young boys, spent a week at HKIS working with upper primary-aged children.

While there, Fletcher conducted certain workshops for elementary school-aged boys, no girls allowed. Thiswas a brilliant strategy to encourage boys to embrace their talents as writers with the same enthusiasm as do more girls at that age.

Chinese International School (CIS) and HKIS will co-host award-winning children's book author Deborah Wiles at an event on March 4. In preparation for her visit, the upper primary school division is reading her book Each Little Bird that Sings.

The Hong Kong Young Readers Festival is another great way to meet renowned authors. This year the festival will take place from March 9 to 20 and has a full schedule of talks, workshops and events where participants can meet and interact with authors to learn about their process and the content of their books.

Everyone is a writer. Some choose to pursue it as a profession, but even those who don't are still writers. Meeting writers who have persevered through the difficulty and challenge of writing a book and having it published is inspirational for children and adults alike.

Gweneth Rehnborg is a board member of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong a leading advocate for family literacy