AFCC – The Celebration of Diversity!

Imagine it! You are sitting in a televised quiz show and a lot of money hangs on the next question and your answer. You wait with bated breath! “What is the difference between a conference and a festival?” Ah Ha! You smile. You have been to AFCC before and think that you’ve got a handle on it. “A conference is a formal meeting of people within a speciality or subject field whereas a festival is a celebration of diversity often associated with holidays and events.” Applause breaks out and the host smiles. He leans forward and passes over an envelope. “That will give me a free ticket to next AFCC 2013!” you grin.

That is the heart of the matter. The Asian Festival of Children’s Content is firstly a celebration of diversity across Asia where East meets West, North meets South, and Singapore is the hub. This is evident in the speakers, their languages and their careers, their stories as well as awards that are being given. Visitors undertake diverse journeys to get here. Books too travel the globe, being translated into multiple languages. We celebrate the local as much as the global. Let’s look at something of this diversity for 2013! For example, in the Media Summit, Alexander Smith is an expert at translation of English and Japanese across multiple media platforms. Charmain Kwan is Vice-President of Programming the Discovery channel across Asia and the Pacific, Ervin Han is involved in a local production company who “regularly pitches at international media markets” and Marc Checkley, who originally was from New Zealand, has worked in Beijing, UK and now Singapore! If the medium is the message, then the message is all about the transnational.

Secondly, the term “children’s content” seems a strange term at first in that it defies being fixed by a subject speciality. What the term signifies is that story today comes in many guises and that all have value: from traditional storytelling around the fire to that latest application downloaded on a smart phone; from an anecdote shared over a lunch to being huddled around a computer game; from sitting in a quiet space at home reading The Hunger Games series to listening to a friend read aloud in a shared reading class at school; from strumming a guitar whilst singing a lyric to nestling in the dark space of a cinema frightened out of one’s wits by the latest ghost story. We live and are surrounded by narrative; without story, we are nothing. This festival then is an umbrella organisation whereby the creators, the producers and the mediators of stories for children and about childhood can come together and learn from each other. Let’s look at what is special about 2013! For example, Kiran Shah is a professional storyteller who has shared her passion across Asia and in the US and is part of the Parents’ Forum; Lavina Chong  is skilled in reader’s theatre and uses music to engage early childhood children will be speaking in the Teacher’s Congress; Nicholas Mark, an Australian,  who is speaking at the Writers & Illustrators conference,  collaborated with an Indonesian illustrator Bambang Shakuntala to create a fantasy/adventure story written in Bahasa Indonesia; and Malavika PC who is a Workshop facilitator from India, uses theatre and music with Tamil children and, if you look closely at her blurb on the AFCC web page, likes being something of a quiz master too! If there is a common message in AFCC 2013, it is all about transmedia.

If you care then about children (and who doesn’t?) and you specifically care about the type and quality of stories that are told to them that speak of what it is to be, in the vast diversity of Asia in the world, this festival is the place to come. The organisers want to welcome you as an individual within a community.

The quiz master leans forward to the next contestant. “Who wrote Nim’s Island?” The nervous Irishman nimbly leaned forward and whispered, “Arr! Not sure. Must go and find out. Ah’ve hearrrd aboot a festival. When d’we go?” The quizmaster smiled and leant forward.

John McKenzie

As a Principal lecturer at the University of Canterbury College of Education, John McKenzie designed and implemented the graduate level Diploma in Children’s Literature. He has many conference papers to his credit and is involved in the development of literacy qualifications in South Africa. He received the Betty Gilderdale Award for services to NZ children’s literature.


Local Writers, International Audience

(Click on photo to enlarge)

Seated at the panel, from left to right, is David Seow, Shamini Flint, Emily Lim and the host from AFCC.
This is a low-resolution photograph taken with my mobile phone camera.

The event was held on Monday, 28 May 2012 at the Gallery, Arts House @ The Old Parliament House. It was the 10th Session of the Asian Children’s Writers & Illustrators Conference of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) 2012.

How can local Children’s Content writers and illustrators gain an international audience for their works? For an hour, Emily Lim, Shamini Flint and David Seow, local writers who have established themselves beyond Singapore, shared a trove of advice, resources and experiences with much humour, to frequent outbursts of laughter from the participants.

A quick poll done by Lim showed the majority of participants to be aspiring writers and illustrators.

Sharing by Lim

Lim began by sharing her personal story of finding another way to express herself when she lost her voice to spasmodic dysphonia in 1998. Wanting to tell her story, she did so through a children’s book, Prince Bear & Pauper Bear.

Cover image of Prince Bear & Pauper Bear
(Photo Credits to Heart of Moms Blog)

While her voice still trembled, I admired her resilience and devotion to excellence marked throughout her writing and publishing journey as she shared her story. From winning Singapore’s First Time Writers and Illustrators Publishing Initiative in end-2007, Lim has become an independent publisher and Multiple Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) winner.

Having established understanding of her own journey so far, Lim presented to the audience her PowerPoint packed with tips and resources to reach out to an international audience from her experience and observations. Many mobile phones and cameras were whipped out to capture the multiple trade fairs and competitions presented, as well as approaches for publishing – whether through an agent, a publisher, independent publishing and or doing all concurrently.

Such hard work seems to pay off well. According to Lim, even J.K. Rowling made 2 lists – one to publishers and one to agents, and submitted sample chapters of what was to be an international sensation – the Harry Potter series.

In today’s globalised and technologically-advanced context, Lim’s suggestions for direct distribution, the translation route and Apps/E-books struck me as very practical for reaching an international audience. Pointing out how it minimises costs while reaching out to a wider audience beyond the Little Red Dot as long as they had access to such technology, Lim’s E-books suggestion also found the support of fellow speakers Flint and Seow. All three speakers also agreed on the importance of staying connected to the literary network of writers, illustrators, publishers and agents.

As a student journalist seated amongst many aspiring writers and illustrators for children’s content, I couldn’t help but cringe a little, in wide-eyed realisation of the complexities of the writing, publishing, marketing and sales process of Children’s Literature. It was only a mere decade ago I read my Enid Blyton books and children’s abridged English Literature classics with fervour and no idea of what took place behind the scenes. So unfamiliar to me too was Asian Children’s Literature, apart from perhaps my Chinese textbook stories which doesn’t really count.

Sharing by Flint

And on Asian Children’s Literature did Flint shift the spotlight on, as she took over speaking from Lim. Buying books to read to her then-2-years-old daughter, Sasha, Flint found a complete lack of “everyday” Asian-cultured children’s storybooks. Only available were books “that had so little relevant content to [Sasha’s] life”, which left Sasha wondering “why her friends were not called George, Juliet, or Dick” or why she couldn’t “have midnight supper in boarding school”. The Asian stories Flint found also “seemed to be… extreme, exotic folk tales”, unrepresentative of the modern everyday Asian culture.

So began Flint’s writing career to work against the cultural norm of “the Asian child not important enough to be seen in books”, which she found most fulfilling. Sharing with the audience her personal story first like Lim, Flint used to be unsatisfied with her life. Hence giving up her lawyer career, sports car and well-funded wardrobe to dabble in fair trade coffee and university teaching, before she found her calling in writing.

With the book on Sasha’s experience going to the Botanic Gardens reaching sales of half a million, Flint expressed amazement but conveyed encouragement to the audience that there is a market for even such “extremely simple” writing of Asian Children’s Literature.

Flint and one of her Inspector Singh series books
(Photo Credits: Kate’s Book Blog)

Sharing briefly on her stint writing environmental issues-based picture books for 4 years old and older kids, Flint went on to use her Inspector Singh series experience to illustrate her advice on publishing. “Publishing is about timing!” She attributed her publisher’s acceptance of her Inspector Singh series because of coincidental timing of the growing market for Adult stories for the “exotic Asian crime variety”.

During a Q&A response, she perked up on mentioning the re-acceptance of her children’s novels with Asian content recently by a publisher, as the publisher was finally able to convince her marketing staff that there was a market for such books. With such potential in the market, it is certainly encouraging for the numerous aspiring writers and illustrators amongst the audience!

Sharing by Seow

Starting with a picture of him with and a Miss Universe on his PowerPoint, Seow certainly caught the attention of the audience as Flint passed the microphone to him. His similar attention-grabbing antics proved entertaining but successful publicity stunts as he shared various methods he employed to reach out to an international audience as a local writer.

Whether having his books translated into Chinese to go online in China and Taiwan, American Club Visits, Book Readings at Singapore Tourism Board and the now-defunct Borders, Seow displayed much potential in reaching out to readers beyond Singapore while he was still with Educational Publishing House (belonging to the Popular bookstore chain).

Wanting a change, as well as a wider audience, Seow worked with Tuttle Publishing, an American publishing company, which allowed his books to go on retail. He finally went independent publishing on his own, a sole proprietorship, and in 2009 found a distributor and editor, Sue, who was amongst the audience.

Drawing from his experience as an independent publisher, Seow emphasised the importance of marketing. Parallel to the advice of Lim, Seow brought up several traditional avenues of gaining recognition and access to publishing opportunities, be they awards, competitions and book fairs, having a website and magazine reviews.

Modern methods of publicity such as social media like Facebook, Twitter and a blog are also not enough for Seow, “books are [a writer’s] credit cards” – Seow brings his books all around with him, to show to publishers and celebrities.

To the audience’s roaring laughter, Seow shared photographs of his books with Hugh Jackman and Tom Hanks in the most creative of methods. He also shared 2 photographs of him and his books with Hillary Clinton and the Prince Albert of Monacco, available on his blog.

Tom Hanks on the Red Carpet with There’s Soup on My Fly!
(Photo Credits to David Seow)

Final Thoughts

All 3 writers, distinguished and well-acclaimed as they were, continued to emphasise how they never gave up despite feeling like quitting numerous times throughout their career, faced with countless rejections from publishers and agents. This talk was especially enriching and encouraging for aspiring local writers and illustrators alike with dreams of a worldwide audience. It is also certainly the fortune of the children of today and tomorrow to have such published Asian Children’s literature, the fruit of much sweat and tears!

Want to see more of David Seow in AFCC 2012?

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Act3 International will be presenting David Seow’s There’s Soup On My Fly (the same book as seen with Tom Hanks in the photo above) at 7.30pm on Tuesday, 29 May 2012, as part of AFCC’s Children’s Literature Lecture and Awards Presentation. One more reason to hurray for AFCC 2012!

Article by Christina Ong, AFCC 2012 student journalist.