Essays / September 2010 (Issue 12)

Writing Singapore: A Children's Book Author's Perspective

by Adeline Foo


I often get stumped when I meet people in a new situation. A typical conversation will go something like this:

"So, what do you do?"

"I'm an author."

"Oh. What kind of books do you write?"

"I write for children."

"What, here in Singapore? You mean assessment books, like those found in Popular?"

Not a very good start for an engaging conversation.

So I say something different once in a while. "I'm a story-teller. I paint my stories in words."

And that will pique their interest for sure.

Since 2006, I have written 13 picture books and two middle-grade readers. Of all the 15 books I've written, I can only claim moderate success for my Peranakan heritage series, comprising The Beaded Slippers, The Kitchen God, Chilli Padi and The Amulet, published by Ethos Books. My last two books, The Diary of Amos Lee: I Sit, I Write, I Flush and Book 2: Girls, Guts & Glory

are currently best sellers in Singapore, published by Epigram.

So have I been rolling in money? Unfortunately, the answer is no. I have yet to meet an author in Singapore who can claim to have made a decent living writing books. Sure, as authors, we're often invited for talks or school visits, but rarely do these pay. Often the assumption is that we get our cut from royalties, and speaking engagements invariably are seen as part of the job of an author. So if we don't get paid well, why do we write?

When I first started writing, it was out of an interest to get my son to read. He was four when I received the First Time Writers & Illustrators Publishing Initiative 2006 grant, awarded by the Media Development Authority (MDA) and the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS), for Ben's Friends from the Rainforest, a picture book introducing children to our native animals. It was a tough but fruitful learning journey, in which I had to figure out the ropes of publishing and marketing on my own. Two years after taking that plunge first, I got really sucked into writing. I figured out that there is a bigger purpose than making my kid interested in reading. I could actually get him interested in stuff that I found difficult to preach to him about. My books disguise themes he would otherwise scoff at, like appreciating the environment, being curious about our past or understanding our grandparents' way of living. Then something miraculous happened—mothers started writing to me, saying that they enjoyed my books, as they found that they could identify with the local setting and values; more importantly, they found my books useful in preaching to their children too! That was when I realised that maybe, there was a market demand for my type of books.

My real break came when I was asked to write a book for Singaporean children living in London, for a Singapore Day event celebrated in April 2009. Two thousand copies of The Diary of Amos Lee were shipped to London. Following the event, Epigram published 3,000 copies of the book for the local market. By June, they had to go into a reprint. Honestly, everyone was baffled. It is a local book. We're already living in Singapore, why would anyone want to read about a ten-year-old's account of the dysfunctional side of living here, like not being allowed to wear slippers to school, or learning that Singapore is proud to stage a Formula One event even though it cranks up global warming? But oddly, the book has gone into its 5th print since, and children (adults too, but on the quiet) are still buying it.

I shall not complain. No, I should be ecstatic! Now, like what my distributor reminds me, I may have the bragging right to be called a best-selling author, but my royalties still don't add up to enough to qualify for income tax. Go figure.

Putting aside lofty expectations of writing as a lucrative job, there are things about being an author that I appreciate. Like meeting like-minded authors with a passion for reaching out to children, and finding that we share a common goal in getting our children to learn about our past.

Ho Lee-Ling, a historian, writer and illustrator, was a fellow grant recipient of the First Time Writers & Illustrators Publishing Initiative 2006. She has written two wonderful books, Samsui Girl and Wayang Girl, about Amber, a child who learns about the ways of the samsui women (Chinese immigrants to Singapore who came between the 1920s and 1940s) and of street opera artists. She got motivated to write these books as she felt there were few books which could present Singapore's history in a fun and interesting way. A small nugget of information: Chinese street opera comprises a form of drama and musical theatre mixed with martial art elements, performed in Chinese dialects. A popular form of entertainment between 1930s and 1960s, it isn't particularly something children will understand today. But now with a book like Wayang Girl, children can learn about a traditional art and be curious to find out more.

Similarly Joan Yap, author of The Son of An Immigrant, believes that our children have much to learn from Singapore's past. Her book talks about the resilience of Ah Di, a 12-year-old who lived through war-torn Singapore to overcome adversity in achieving his ambition to become a lawyer. Stories are a social commentary of the times that we live in. Lee-Ling and Joan's books provide a gateway to learn about the past, and when they are combined with the views of contemporary Singapore presented in books such as my own, we give our children a better sense of rootedness in the society in which we live.

So beyond writing books that we believe have a social objective in educating children, how else have we found meaning in our writing?

Schools are a huge source of support. Through invitations to speak to children, I have a chance to demystify the life of an author, and I find that children become unafraid to try writing, as they think they can do it too. There is also the occasional letter I receive, which convinces me that the children we speak to turn from being reluctant readers to die-hard supporters. Kei Oide, a Japanese girl studying in Juying Primary School, wrote to tell me that my books have turned her brother into a reader. That, and the fact that I've also heard from her classmates on how much they love my books, reaffirms my belief that I'm doing the right thing.

In the case of Lee-Ling, she found meaning in her role as an author when she was commissioned by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth & Sports to write four picture books underlying the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Published in 2006, her stories help children and teachers to understand the four core principles of non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development and respect for the views of the child. Told in a fun and delightful approach, her books, The Boy with A Tree on His Head, The Shadow, The UGB and SHUSH! were distributed to all primary schools in Singapore.

Clearly, we have each found our calling in writing for children. When we first started off writing, we may have been idealistic in our hopes, but having persevered for a few years, we haven't found our interest waning. Nora Fernandez, an educator and a mother of two, wrote in to tell me that I am "a rarity in Singapore." I like to think that we're just starting the spark, for we are actually influencing the next generation of writers to write Singapore! Again, to quote Nora, "with our multi-cultural society a goldmine waiting to be tapped," there are far more stories waiting to be told. It only takes a few to be a force of change. I sincerely hope that more writers will come forward to join us on our journey.

A version of this essay was first published in Quill by MPH Magazines, Malaysia, in May 2010.

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