The Asian Festival of Children’s Content (30 May – 6 June, 2015) brings together content creators and producers with parents, teachers, librarians, and anyone interested in quality Asian content for children. Organized by the National Book Development Council of Singapore, the AFCC is a mix of professional conferences, masterclasses and workshops, rights fair and media mart. This year’s highlights include a writers and illustrators retreat, speed pitching sessions, and an awards ceremony to give out the Scholastic Picture Book Award and the Samsung KidsTime Authors’ Award. The country of focus is China.
Dr. Sandra Williams, a Senior Lecturer in Education (Primary English) at the University of Brighton (England), is a featured speaker. She will be speaking on “Reading Singapore Children’s Books at Home: What it Means to your Kids” and “Reading Singapore Children’s Books in Schools: What it Means to Pupils.” Both talks are part of the Preschool and Primary Teachers Congress at the AFCC. SP took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about children’s reading.
SP. Could we begin with a basic question? Why should children read books that reflect their local culture? I know of many Singaporean parents who encourage their children to read, but these parents do so in the hope of improving their children’s thinking and reading abilities, and so they seek out what they think is the best-written children’s literature, regardless whether it reflects local culture. Are they wrong?
SW. The advantage of being educated in English is that there is a wide range of brilliant books for Singaporean children to read. However, if meaning is to be made from reading novels, then recognition is important. It is important that young people have the opportunity to see their own lives, culture/s and landscapes as well as read about ‘the other’. Reading literature is not just about improving thinking but engaging emotionally.
SP. It is tricky for children’s literature to reflect a local culture when the culture is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious. Questions about selection and representation inevitably arise. You have written about the use of animal characters as a way of representing a heterogenous culture. Could you explain, with a few examples, how animal characters can serve such a purpose?
SW. Yes, you have highlighted a challenge. When deciding on who to foreground, inevitably other groups are left out. Animal characters on the other hand can represent everyone because there is no ethnicity visible. For example, the Mooty series by Jessie Wee has local animals who are easily recognisable such as geckoes. Similarly there are local animals in ‘The Snail Who Didn’t Want His Shell’ (Ramanathan Ramachandran). In the story a snail is so keen to come first in the races he has with his friends that he is prepared to risk his life by removing his shell. But these animal characters are not representing a heterogenous culture, rather the animal character solves the problem of who to represent in a multicultural society.
SP. Besides animal characters, what other means may a children’s author deploy in order to depict a multi-cultural society?
SW. A wide range of books would help as just a few publications cannot offer a sense of the cultural landscape of a nation. This is a vexed question in countries such a U.S.A and the UK where many are still rendered invisible. However, there has also to be authenticity. The big debate is to what extent can one author write about a different culture to their own. This is a particular issue with indigenous peoples. It should be remembered that illustrators are as important as writers. In the end I think it’s about building a critical mass of books which offer different insights and perspectives.
SP. Children’s literature in Singapore is an emergent genre of writing. What do you find interesting and progressive in recent books written and published locally? What is still missing or under-developed?
SW. I have recently picked up a selection of local books at the London Book Fair which offered me the opportunity to see what is currently published. However I am aware that it is 10 years since I was working in Singapore so am not in the best position to comment. Of the books recently read, I was interested in ‘The Mudskipper’ by Ovidia Yu as it concerns a mixed race child, Lizhi. She returns to Singapore after the death of her father who lived in France and was an artist. He was estranged from his family because of his marriage to a woman of African descent. There is a strong sense of the flora and fauna of Singapore and importantly confronts prejudices that, like the mudskipper, lurk beneath the surface. I also enjoyed the first person narratives in ‘the Diary of Amos Lee’, ‘Diary of a Taekwondo Master’, and ‘Extraordinary Losers’. All have a strong sense of childhood in Singapore. In addition, sketches, notes and other illustrations offer a bridge between a picture book and a novel. Finally I enjoyed reading short stories written by Singaporean school children in ‘Asian Tales’. They offered a strong sense of family, the past and the rich variety of cultures on a small Island.
SP. Singapore’s children, like children elsewhere, are more likely to be reading off computer screens than printed books. Does the medium matter for children’s reading? What advice would you give to parents (and grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc.) about reading real books vis-a-vis e-books?
SW. It depends what they are reading on screens. Novels (Chapter books in USA) offer extended and focused reading rather than skimming and scanning which is what you do when seeking information. So it is less about the medium than what is being read. Children should be offered the opportunity to select books for themselves in libraries and book shops. Adults could offer role models by reading and discussing books themselves. Importantly reading should not be seen as a test rather an enjoyable experience. Finding information on line is great and to be encouraged but so should sitting down with a good book! And that might well be an ebook.
The Asian Festival of Children’s Content will be held in Singapore from 30 May to 6 June, 2015.
Sandra Williams: “The photograph that accompanies this interview offers some clues to my background. I am wearing a Welsh rugby shirt and clutching a large blow-up daffodil which is the national flower of Wales. My Father was Welsh and my Mother a Londoner born within the sound of Bow Bells. Although my Father left Wales as a young man to seek work and only ever returned for holidays, he always kept a strong Welsh identity. That is something that has stayed with me.