As a multicultural and international children’s literature lover and former managing editor of PaperTigers, I felt like a kid in the proverbial candy store attending the second installment of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC), an international conference organized by the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS). The conference took place from May 26-28 at the beautiful Arts House––a 200 year-old building that housed Singapore’s first Parliament––and had as its central theme the idea of “connecting with connected kids.”
Below I share some highlights of my experience as a conference attendee and
as a judge for the inaugural Scholastic Asian Book Award (SABA), announced during the festival.
The 2011 Asian Festival of Children’s Content
Having heard much about the first installment of AFCC, in 2010, I must say my expectations were quite high. I was very excited by the prospect of finally meeting so many people I had worked with remotely, or known about, through PaperTigers, such as Holly Thompson, Chris Cheng, Anushka Ravishankar, Tarie Sabido, Yangsook Choi, Myra Garces-Bacsal, Emily Lim, Nina Sabnani, Pooja Makhijani (and the list goes one). As I was preparing to leave, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things I would learn, all the new books and authors I would be introduced to, the networking opportunities I would have… and the great food I would eat too, let’s be honest, since Singaporean food is famous the world over (did anybody say chili crab?).
A mix of so many cultures and languages, Singapore is a very lively and interesting city, and a perfect setting for a festival like AFCC.
AFCC didn’t disappoint (and neither did the city’s food!). Its intimate atmosphere and impressive lineup of speakers provided countless opportunities, whether during the panels or during lunch, coffee breaks and dinners, for participants to learn, to get to know each other, and to put forward their ideas and opinions. The high level of enthusiasm and number of genuinely friendly and helpful colleagues was astonishing. Hats off to Festival Director, Mr. R Ramachandran, and to all the organizers, for envisioning and putting together such a fantastic festival.
A bounty of offerings
Festival attendees and presenters were authors, illustrators, publishers, bloggers, literary agents, educators, booksellers, media producers, and book lovers in general. The festival was divided into four mini-conferences or symposiums, each with its own set of keynote speeches:
The Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference offered sessions such as “The Global Market for Asian Children’s Books: What Travels, What Doesn’t and Why” by US publisher Neal Porter; “It Takes Two to Tango: Collaborating with an Illustrator, Musician or Animator” by Chris Cheng (Australia); and “Writing Fiction for Young Adults” by Holly Thomson (US/Japan).
The Asian Children’s Publishers Symposium’s on e-content included: “Why We Should All Pay Attention” by Stanley Han (Singapore); the group panel “Asian Markets and Experiences” presented by Sayoni Basu (India), Phuong Lien Le (Vietnam) and Linda Tan (Malaysia); and “Illustrating in the Digital Age” by Nina Sabnani (India).
The Asian Children’s Media Summit also had great offerings: “Decoding the Digital Kid” by Warren Buckleitner (US), and a presentation by Richard Wan (Singapore) titled Digital Trends and its Impact on Children’s Books.
The Asian Primary and Preschool Teachers Congress rounded things up with Warren Buckleitner’s keynote speech “New Tools for an Old Job: A Survey of Apps for Literacy,” as well as a session by Greg Childs (UK) on “Investing in the Cross Platform Revolution,” and many others.
In addition to offering about 20 sessions/day (many of which were parallel sessions, which made it very hard to choose which one to attend at any given time), there were also specialized workshops in Mandarin and Malay (a new feature this year), as well as pre-festival events such as the group panel PaperTigers’ Corinne Robson took part in, “Building a Nation of Readers via Web 2.0: An Introduction to the Kidlitosphere and the YA Blogosphere” (you can read about it here).
The big picture
A consistent thread seemed to run through a good number of the panels and sessions, as well as through informal conversations: “There are plenty of valid ways to produce and deliver a book.” This naturally led to discussions about the enormous changes the publishing world has gone through in the last decade or so, and all the things that have played a part in these changes. And to think that there was a time, not long ago, when people believed the Internet was a passing fad… Now one can only ignore the internet, social media and digital platforms at one’s peril. Without a doubt, these new technologies have affected the way children’s books are acquired, published and marketed, but one of the many things I came away with from those sessions and conversations was that having these new tools, platforms and processes is simply a means, not the end goal. Without losing sight of readers’ needs, the end goal continues to be finding ways to foster the creation, reception, and dissemination of a diverse children’s literature in all genres, mediums and platforms. When it comes to bringing children and books together, it should never be an either/or scenario, but a “the more, the better” one. After all, why get territorial and deaf to voices (platforms, devices) that are not our own? With regards to Asian content, AFCC was a call to join forces in that effort.
One of my favorite sessions was presented by US publisher Neal Porter (Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press) on which types of books travel well to other countries, which don’t, and why. He calls himself an “intuitive publisher,” meaning he publishes what he loves, without worrying too much about the marketability of a project––a privilege most publishers these days don’t have, and one he’s earned after decades of hard work and a successful track record. I have always admired Neal’s imprint, so it was wonderful to learn about which of his books have traveled successfully to/from other countries, even if the majority of the examples given were of books that have traveled between the US and Europe.
I would have liked to learn more about what travels well FROM Asia to the US, Europe, Africa, South America––and why or why not. Perhaps such a panel will be a staple at future AFCC conferences and an indicator of AFCC’s success in spreading the word on Asian content to the rest of the world? I’ll keep my fingers crossed for that.
I left Neal Porter’s presentation with the nagging feeling, which I have had many times before, that we need more culturally sensitive publishers like him in the United States, and the West in general: publishers who realize that, yes, sensibilities about language, topics and illustrations differ from culture to culture, but that if one is open and willing, any country has a plethora of voices and experiences that are bound to resonate with audiences outside its geographical boundaries.
What I came away with
On the very long flight back to San Francisco, as I flipped through my session notes, I felt a renewed desire to continue working with books, regardless of their shape. I also thought of how wonderful it was to learn about the efforts and creativity being put forth by so many, in so many countries, to create content for children and to meet them wherever they are, both geographically and technologically. Isn’t that, after all, what all of us book people and book lovers are trying to do, each in our own way?
In a world of individual efforts and accomplishments, AFCC as a whole offered a welcome big picture perspective.
I had the honor of being invited to be a judge for the inaugural Scholastic Asian Book Award. SABA was jointly launched in 2010 by Scholastic Asia and the National Book Development Council of Singapore, with the goal of encouraging more stories set in Asia. The award, which was to be given to an unpublished manuscript, carried a cash prize of SGD$ 10,000, a plaque and the possibility of publication by Scholastic Asia. To be eligible, the stories had to be written by Asian authors or those of Asian descent living anywhere, or by non-Asian authors with strong ties to Asia.
The judging panel
It was an honor for me to be accompanied on the award judging panel by so many talented and accomplished individuals. Their credentials are extensive, but here is a quick introduction, for those of you not familiar with their work: Chief Judge Nury Vittachi, journalist and Hong Kong’s best-selling English language author; Anushka Ravishankar, award-winning children’s poet and author (India); John McKenzie, principal lecturer at the School of Literacies and Arts in Education at the University of Canterbury (New Zealand); and literary agent Kelly Sonnack (Kelly grew up in Singapore), from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency (US).
The task ahead
A total of 144 manuscripts were received by the Singapore Book Council: 48 from Singapore, 33 from India, 22 from the Philippines, 19 from Malaysia, 10 from the US, 6 from Hong Kong, 3 from Vietnam and one entry each from South Korea, Myanmar and Germany). In early February I received a box containing almost 100 manuscripts and was given two months to read them. The words on the outside of the shipping box said it all: “Whatever it takes”… (See lower left-hand side of the box.)
Having other projects to tend to, I quickly realized I would need to come up with a strategy/timeline if I were to finish the task by April. Since there were a considerable number of Middle Grade (MG) manuscripts, I decided I would read one MG for each three picture book manuscripts, until I ran out of MGs. A random rule, for sure, but one that provided variety in terms of length, language and subject matter.
The manuscripts spanned many genres––picture books, middle-grade fiction, poetry, folktales, historical fiction––and made for an amazing reading experience.
In an attempt to start my triage process, I decided that, first and foremost, I had to enjoy the story. I knew that if it didn’t draw me in as a reader, no amount of rationalization on my part, as a judge, would make it into a strong contender.
Throughout the reading process, trying to be as objective as humanly possible, I was looking for the usual suspects: authenticity, originality, creativity, and a true understanding of the craft of writing. Having writers from so many different countries, and many for whom English was a second language, required us judges to be very sensitive to cultural and language differences when separating the weak manuscripts from the imperfect but strong ones.
When evaluating each manuscript, we were to determine if it was strong; what set it apart from others; if the length, language and subject matter were appropriate for the age group the story was intended for; if there was a balance between dialogue and description, etc. Having worked with and around multicultural books for so many years, I also kept asking myself if the cultural references were authentic, well-researched and naturally incorporated into the stories. I had my eyes very much peeled for stereotypes or cultural misrepresentations, since such mistakes have the potential to negatively influence the minds of young readers in their attitudes toward themselves and others.
While some stories introduced me to details and cultural aspects I was not familiar with, many confirmed how certain experiences and common concerns of children transcend the specifics of language and place: spending summer with a grandparent; dealing with school; trying to fit in; experiencing the loss of a pet, or of a family member… In most stories, I found the universal in the specific.
Coming up with the shortlist
Gathering my personal shortlist of ten manuscripts was a long but very enjoyable process (what a fantastic excursion through Asia that was!). When the time came to connect with the other judges, in order to draw up the official shortlist, we judges seemed to be, somewhat surprisingly to me, mostly on the same page. There was enough overlap between our individual top ten favorites–hurray!–to make the task less daunting than it could have been, had we each selected ten completely different stories.
And so the official shortlist read:
The Kumquat Code by Yat-Yee Chong (US)
Kam’s Schoolfish Rolls by Sue Flotow (Singapore)
The Last Hero of Orion by Farooq Jamil Alvi (Singapore)
Kingfisher by Chee Siew Hoong (Malaysia)
Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami (US)
These Enchanted Woods by Margaret Lim Hui Lian (Malaysia) (sadly, Margaret passed away on May 8th)
The Girl Mechanic Of Wanzhou by Marjorie Sayer (US)
Backyard Banzai Chicken Warriors by Kimi Takazawa (Hawaii)
The Zone by Kate Whitehead (China)
The Mudskipper by Ovidia Yu (Singapore)
The judges meeting
On May 26th, our judging panel met face-to-face in Singapore to select the winner. It was such a pleasure finally meeting my fellow judges in person and engaging in constructive discussions about which manuscripts were the best and why. Our different areas of expertise, personalities, tastes and backgrounds made for a balanced panel, and allowed us to analyze the manuscripts’ perceived qualities and issues from different perspectives. It wasn’t an easy task, since all ten were strong manuscripts, but we did it. And for better or for worse, since we were all friendly and professional in our disagreements, there were only minor battles to fight and no great fires to put out during our meeting. After hours of fruitful discussion we left the room confident in our consensual decision.
The winner and runners-up
The winning manuscript, written by Uma Krishnaswami, was a middle grade novel in verse whose working title is Book Uncle and Me. Uma, for those unfamiliar with her books, is a US-based Indian author well-known for her stories for children and young adults that portray the experiences of Indian/biracial characters in India and the Indian diaspora in the United States. Book Uncle and Me had all the qualities we were looking for and then some.
The first and second runners-up were, respectively, a middle grade historical fiction title, The Girl Mechanic of Wanzhou by Marjorie Sayer (US), and a middle grade novel, Mudskipper, by Ovidia Yu (Singapore).
Word has it that not only the winner, but all three manuscripts will be published by Scholastic Asia. Here’s to hoping these great stories will be available in and outside Asia soon, so that they can do what they deserve to: find their way into the hands and hearts of as many readers as possible!
The award presentation
The SABA award process culminated with an award ceremony on May 27th that began with a memorable lecture by the President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, H.E. Dr. José Ramos-Horta. Dr. Ramos-Horta spoke of the importance of education in the making of a strong country and people, and of his efforts to eliminate illiteracy in his country by 2015, which made an interesting counterpoint to the overarching theme of the conference and showed that, while some are thinking of connecting to connected kids, others, such as the President’s special guest and founder of the Biblioburro Foundation, Colombian Luis Soriano, are loading up books on donkeys and bringing them to children in remote villages. Whatever it takes, right?
After the lecture, SABA’s Chief Judge Nury Vittachi introduced the award and President Ramos-Horta made the presentations. Author Pooja Makhijani received the prize on behalf of Uma Krishnaswami. (These are exciting times for Uma Krishnaswami, whose new middle grade novel The Grand Plan to Fix Everything was recently released in the US to great acclaim.)
A representative from Scholastic received the honor on behalf of Marjorie Sayer, who was unable to attend the ceremony, and Ovidia Yu, a local Singaporean author and playwrite, was present and received her plaque in person.
In a nutshell
Being a judge for the Scholastic Asian Book Award was a very special experience for me. It was like taking a journey, through unique voices and stories, into the heart of Asia’s many cultures, while at the same time gaining that tresured glimpse of our shared humanity. I am very grateful for the opportunity, and certainly better for it.
Kudos to Scholastic for taking the lead on encouraging more Asian stories for children and spreading the word on Asia’s literary riches to the rest of the world.