Last night, July 16, 2010, the National Book Development Council of Singapore organized its first (and hopefully not the last) Singapore Book Club that is exclusively for children’s book authors/children’s lit aficionados @ Earshot inside The Arts House.
Aptly subtitled by Sangeetha Madhavan (facilitator for the evening, farthest left in the photo) as Confessions of a Serial Book Author, the discussion centered on Adeline Foo‘s (farthest right in the picture) experiences as a national bestselling author (with her Diary of Amos Lee) and her collaboration with Lim Fong Wei (found in the middle of the two lovely ladies in the above picture) who translated her book Georgette’s Mooncakes in Chinese.
The event started a few minutes late, but it was well worth it as the authors started talking about their creative process, and the various difficulties and joys they encounter as they go about doing their writing.
One of the first questions Sangeetha, a blogger and a book author herself (click here to check out her blog on books and theatre for kids in Singapore), asked Adeline was to characterize what a usual day for her is like.
Adeline, who tended to downplay her national success withAmos Lee, and who thought of herself as a housewife first and foremost, inevitably gave a lengthy response of how she skillfully juggles being a mother, a wife, a film student at Tisch Asia, and a writer. She related how she wakes up very early at 5 in the morning (to see her kids off to school) and usually ends her day at around 11 in the evening. She describes herself as a disciplined person and that if she decides to have some writing done, she usually disappears into a cafe or the library to write between 2000 to 5000 words a day and makes sure that she gets home by 5 in the afternoon to take care of her kids.
This short videoclip that I have taken could provide a richer description of what her day usually is like, or see below:
Another question that Sangeetha asked was where her creative ideas stem from, to which Adeline responded that they usually come to her very late in the evening when she is about to sleep and end her day (11 to 12 midnight) or that twilight state when she is about to wake up in the morning (around 5 am). She also stressed that in order for you to make it in the industry, it would help that you are not just a fly by night kind of author who just writes one book/novel and that’s it. Zip. Finished. She cited from JK Rowling’s history where Rowling’s supposed mentor asked her how she envisions Harry Potter in the future and that she has to see her characters growing and being full-bodied, three-dimensional individuals with their own kids, grandkids, somewhere in those pages that she’s writing.
Basically the lessons here for budding new authors which Adeline wanted to impart are that (1) you have got to know your market “what is selling? What isn’t?” I personally feel that the fact that Adeline came from a corporate setting helps her in having an eye towards this particular aspect of her work. She emphasized that this also helps convince the publishers that you know what you’re doing (2) Watch your characters grow (3) Do your research. She alluded to some growing pains that she encountered with the character of Amos Lee and that it helped that in addition to researching about themes in her book, she also actively consulted with professionals who could tell her a thing or two about the developmental trajectories of a growing boy (she mentioned talking to someone from NIE, wow, NIE represent!).
Fong Wei, the other member of the panel, is a bilingual lifestyle journalist and a film graduate from Boston University. He also happens to be an avid collector of children’s books. What I found to be particularly interesting about Fong Wei’s sharing was his process of translating works in Chinese. He related that he wrongfully conceived translating books for children from English to Chinese to be a somewhat easy task – only to be confronted with the reality that there are facets to it that he had not foreseen. He related that it’s not just a direct word-per-word translation that he does since he tries to be sensitive to the nuances of what is being communicated, and he usually ends up adding into the work in order for him to remain faithful to the original. Watch this short video clip that I have taken to see fragments of his sharing or see below:
What resonated with me is Fong Wei’s contention that you should not “talk down” to children and that while the main intent is for the writer to be clear and to write simply (Occam’s razor is what I usually mention to my graduate students), one should not underestimate the reader’s intelligence and sensibilities (regardless of – and I contend because of – the fact that you’re writing a book for children). I, myself, am fascinated and moved by children’s books which are able to transcend different age-groups (and the neat little labels that could be found at the back claiming it to be for a certain group age) and have the distinct voice to connect deeply with adult readers. I will digress for a bit here and note that one of the reasons why a lot of people do not look oh-so-kindly on picture books and children’s “literature” is that most of the time, the tone often reflects the way that the writer condescends or talks down to the kid-reader. Hence, my passion for postmodern picture books and writings for children which celebrate their wit, zany humor, and yes, intelligence.
Sangeetha ended the panel discussion by asking supposedly-rapid-fire questions with (what is expected to be) rapid-fire responses essentially saying the first thing that pops out of your head. Sangeetha facetiously noted though that given the lengthy and well-developed answers, it falls short of what she expected it to be: quick, short, and snappy. Truth be told, I liked it and thought it was fun! And I’m sure the audience (there were probably around 18 to 28 people in the crowd) enjoyed the responses too. Some of the questions she asked was what their favorite children’s book is (Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth for Adeline, a Japanese book for Fong Wei) and who their favorite illustrator is. Fong Wei claimed that he’s not very good with names so he made mention of the illustrator who drew something about “wolves” apparently what he said was “wild things”. And eager-beaver that I was, mishearing “wolves” I suggested Dave McKean (wahahaha), apparently he was talking about Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things are. Toink.
Generally, I thought it was a good evening. It was a long travel from my home (I live inside NTU), but it was well worth the trip. One possible add-in perhaps that may be considered if there is going to be another “book club” is that an actual specific book would be discussed by the attendees in greater detail. While Adeline did talk about Amos Lee and Georgette’s Mooncakes, the attendees had very little input, except for a few questions raised by some people from the audience who wanted to ask about other things (publication issues, whether the writers are considering an i-Pad version of their books, among others). Strictly speaking, it was more a panel discussion with book authors than an actual book club where you discuss specific targeted books and argue about the characters’ motivations, affect, and personalities in the club. Considering though that it was the first children’s book club ever organized, I thought it was a success. Kudos to Adeline, Sangeetha and Fong Wei and the National Book Development Council for organizing the evening. I am avidly looking forward to more evenings filled with discussion about children’s books and themes with aspiring writers, book authors, illustrators, and lovers of children’s literature.
One thing that clearly shone through from last night’s book club, and my earlier coffee and conversation with David Seow, (please watch out for my August feature of David Seow in Meet the Story Teller where I also feature most of his lovely books, do click on his name to be taken to his blog) another prolific children’s book author in Singapore – is how tenacious and passionate these writers are despite the seemingly-insurmountable odds stacked against them, being situated in a comparatively small country in Asia. Cheers indeed to the fantasy, magic, and enchantment of children’s books. Keep the faith, everyone.