Monday, April 28, 2014

We're in Young Parents magazine...again!

Lesley-Anne and I have been featured in the May issue of Young Parents magazine! We're on pages 32-33 as part of the Mother's Day feature on bonding with kids.

This is actually the second time we've been featured in Young Parents, thanks to the very supportive Editor, Stephanie Yeo. The first time was back in January 2010. I wrote about it here.

When Young Parents decides to put you in a feature with a photo shoot, it's the full works - hair, makeup, wardrobe, photography. It's a fascinating experience (for folks like me who generally dress very casually) that can elicit a range of expressions, from wonder "is that really my hair?" to horror "not those spaghetti straps, please!"

But all in all, it's good fun and the people directing the shoot usually go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. I must say the photographer did a great job in getting us to smile naturally and I do think Lesley-Anne looks fabulous :)

So if you want to read about how we wrote Danger Dan together (and the fights that ensued!) do pick up a copy of Young Parents, available at newsstands now.

Incidentally, Epigram Books just published a pretty hilarious interview with Danger Dan on their blog here. An interview with Danger Dan, you ask? Yes! With the boy hero himself! Do check out what he thinks of his female sidekick, his creators (ahem, us!) and himself. I promise you will be entertained!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Making the most of JC life

Before Lesley-Anne entered Junior College, she'd heard loads of horror stories about how hectic JC life is, how some kids can barely keep up and find it so stressful compared to secondary school.

Now that she's been in JC for slightly more than 2 months, she can verify that the rumours on workload are all true. She has lessons until 4pm on most days. On CCA days, she reaches home after 9pm, exhausted. There are lecture tests and class tests almost every week, so many that she has lost count. She often has so much homework that she can't finish it at home and has to complete it during free periods in between classes.

But here's the thing: Lesley-Anne LOVES JC life.

I think it's a combination of three factors: subject combination, class and CCA. Lesley-Anne's subject combination came about not without sleepless nights and having to jump through multiple hoops. Already choosing to go to the humanities stream was considered second rate in a crazy system that still values the sciences (unless you're in the special Humanities Programme which Lesley-Anne chose not to try out for because of its over-competitiveness). She wanted to take Literature, English Language and Linguistics (ELL), Geography, and Maths at H1 level. This met with some concern by the school because they felt that taking Lit and ELL would "limit" her options. As the Epigram Books' editor commented, "aren't they the ones limiting her options? She's a writer!"

The school would have preferred her to take the more conventional subject Econs, in place of ELL. Just to give some background, almost everyone in the humanities stream (and many in the science stream) takes Econs as it's considered a "useful" subject and also one that's relatively easier to score in. Econs has a high percentage of A grades at the 'A' levels, while ELL is considered a straight B subject (negligible number of A grades). But Lesley-Anne went for the introductory Econs lectures and she was bored out of her mind (besides being perplexed by many of the concepts).

Even choosing to take Maths at H1 level (in my time, the 'AO' level equivalent) was a controversial choice. Maths at H2 level is one of those subjects that almost everyone takes because it has one of the highest level of A grades. In a cohort where more than 1,000 kids in Lesley-Anne's JC take Maths, only a paltry 26 take Maths at H1 level. And these are mostly the students who didn't meet the qualifying grade (based on sec4 Maths results) to take it at H2. So Lesley-Anne was an exceptional case because she qualified for Maths at H2 but didn't take it. Her reasoning was that to do well in Maths at H2, she would have to put in five times more effort in a subject that she doesn't care about. She would rather dedicate her time and energy to her other subjects.

I agreed with her assessment. I've always found that looking at the percentage of A grades as an indication of whether you would get an A is so flawed. Plus choosing subjects based on what you think you can score in, not based on interest, has always been one of my bugbears about the education system. So at the time when she was going through multiple subject combinations in her head and trying to think about the ramifications of each choice, I told her: forget about trying to chiong with everyone else. JC is 2 years of your life you'll want to remember - choose the subjects you are passionate about and enjoy the experience.

So Lesley-Anne appealed to take ELL, sat for a qualifying test and was selected. Thankfully, the school granted her request to take ELL and Lit together. It's been only about two months and she is enjoying her subjects tremendously. She loves the classes and I think at JC level, the humanities teachers really welcome divergent views, as long as your arguments are cogent. Lesley-Anne loves that the lessons call for critical thinking instead of merely parroting someone else's opinions, as was often the case in secondary school. It's a lot of work but it's interesting work.

The second factor is her classmates. In the beginning of the year, Lesley-Anne was quite apprehensive as to who her classmates would be. In secondary school, she encountered many, for a lack of a better description, what we call "mugger" kids. There's a difference between being hardworking and being a mugger. Hardworking kids understand the importance of diligence and study hard. Mugger kids take this to a whole new level - they consider grades THE most important thing in life, judge others purely by academic results and are myopically competitive. If they get a B grade, they moan and whine that their life is over (whether they really mean it or do it to get attention, it's annoying). So they're always poring over their books and great at regurgitating content but when you have a conversation with them, you often find that there's no depth to their thoughts or views.

I think God really answered Lesley-Anne's prayers for a good class. Her class is a mix of quirky and bright kids, the majority of whom are hardworking but not muggers. They strive to do well but they don't obsess over their grades. Lesley-Anne loves that they challenge her intellectually and constantly broaden her mindset. They have all kinds of interests, from sports to dance to debating, and add so much fun and personality to the class.

Finally, CCA. Over the past couple of years, Lesley-Anne's passion in dance has blossomed. Even though she has completed her Grade 8 in ballet, she wants to continue lessons, just because she loves it. In JC, she really wanted to get into the modern dance CCA but it's extremely competitive as there are limited spaces (mostly taken by kids who had been in the dance CCA in secondary school). So she prayed very hard for this and at the audition, danced her heart out... and was selected. She's one of only four girls who weren't previously in dance CCAs.

In Lesley-Anne's own words, "this completes my JC life." We're very, very grateful that God has been so gracious in answering all her prayers.

I know it's early days yet and we can't tell what will happen. She may end up not doing that well for 'A' levels, for whatever reason. But I've always maintained that the education journey is never solely about grades - it's about the experience and the learning, regardless of the end result. And I know that I've not seen Lesley-Anne this happy and engaged in a long time, so it's all good.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spreading the love of reading and writing

I thought I'd post my thoughts on school talks. When Lesley-Anne and I first started getting booked for these talks, our response was something like "yay!" but "yikes!" At first, our goal was modest - to be interesting enough so that the kids won't be bored. But quickly, we realised that school talks pose an invaluable platform for us to share something more meaningful with the kids.

Some authors use these school talk opportunities to purely promote their books but we try not to do that. Sure, we want the kids to know about Danger Dan but we also feel strongly that we have a responsibility to do more as local authors. So in our 25-minute school talk, we also encourage the students to develop the love of writing and overcome challenges to pursue their passion. It's presented in a light-hearted way and mostly by Lesley-Anne, sharing her own personal experiences.

Last week, we conducted a couple of school talks - one at Temasek Primary:

And one at ACS (Junior):

What I've noticed is this: the students love Lesley-Anne's sharing. I think it's because she comes across as very real and sincere, and since she's a teenager, she better understands what the primary school kids are going through and feeling. So her experiences resonate with the kids (plus she has a killer powerpoint presentation!) The response so far has been fantastic - the kids are enthusiastic and laugh at all the jokes.

After the talks, we sometimes station ourselves at a book sale booth to sign copies of Danger Dan. Interacting with the kids truly is the best part. Occasionally, we meet kids who have already read Danger Dan and come up to ask for our autographs on their books. One girl brought a rather tattered copy of Danger Dan book 1 for me to sign and said it was her brother's book - he loved it so much he'd read it over and over. Comments like these really make our day.

Some other updates: We also did a Danger Dan book launch at Kinokuniya Jurong on 22 March.

We loved having James Tan, our illustrator, present to demonstrate his artistic prowess. Here he is showing the evolution of Danger Dan:

James even sketched members of the audience on scraps of paper and some of them were lucky enough to get this unexpected keepsake.

And for those who bought the books that day, his autograph was a drawing of Danger Dan! How cool is that?

Media update: We received some cool publicity in Kids Dailies - a Hong Kong newspaper for kids. The interview was done when we were there for the Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival earlier last month.

And finally, here's an interesting tidbit that I've not shared with readers till now:

Back in January, our whole family was at Peirce Reservoir, having just finished a photo shoot when Kenneth spotted Singapore's own football legend, Quah Kim Song, walking towards us. This is amazingly fortuitous because: 

1) our first Danger Dan book was JUST out and we had mentioned Quah Kim Song in it 

2) we actually had the book with us as we'd brought it along for the photo shoot!

So I introduced myself and showed Quah Kim Song the passages about him. He signed our book (right next to the football icon no less!) and posed for a photo with us.

It was a promising start for Danger Dan and now looking back, I can't believe so much has happened in just over two months! Truly exciting times.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

In defence of the public sector

I recently came across this blog post written by Lucian Teo, saying that it's terribly discouraging to work in the public sector these days. It's a brave post because based on my observation, anti-establishment sentiment is at an all-time high.

In the course of my work, I meet many people from the public sector, from different organisations, and I kinda agree with Lucian - in some ways, it's harder to work in the public sector than private sector now.

Recently I was at KKH and at the payment counter, there was a man making a loud fuss about something or the other. I don't know what it was about but he went around calling all the staff stupid. His teenage daughter, who was the patient, was sitting quietly, looking like she wanted to disappear into a hole as her father ranted and railed. As far as I could see, the nurses tried to attend to him while taking the verbal abuse. I was thinking, thank goodness I'm not in the public service cos I would have told him exactly what i thought of him.

There are many public servants who deal with this sort of thing everyday. I'm not saying they're saints - I'm just saying they do their jobs. And sometimes it can become an extremely unpleasant job. All of us occasionally complain about the people we work with or our customers. But unlike with you and I, if public servants complain about horrible customers, you can bet they'll get no sympathy. Just a cold "that's your job".

I've no doubt that if that father at KKH had later gone online to complain about the "useless public hospital staff and the state of public service", he would have gotten many likes and comments agreeing with him from people who were not present at the scene. It has become fashionable and trendy now to be seen as anti-establishment. Which I've written before, is as unthinking as being pro-establishment.

It doesn't help when online celebrities join in the flame war. The minute they mention something unflattering about a public service experience or person, others will automatically jump in to see who can out-insult the government/public sector/public service officers.  Often exaggerated, mindless and mean-spirited.

I don't see how this is any different from bullying. The popular gang picks on someone, that person becomes fair game. Everyone wants in on the action. Bystanders don't say anything cos it's uncool to disagree, even if the comments are baseless or wild generalisations. I'm often amazed by how little people are interested in the truth. People will spread a rumour as long as it reinforces what they want to believe. If they happen to be proven wrong later, they will justify or excuse their actions in some other way: "Oh, it's because I've been so frustrated or was shortchanged." Really? It's okay to lash out at others just because we're unhappy? Funny, I don't think we'll feel that way if we're at the receiving end. I'm sure that KKH father was very frustrated, maybe even with cause. Still, it didn't give him the right to behave that way.

There are many public sector services that I find excellent, especially in e-services. Applying for utilities or a passport, for example. Very fast and easy. In most other countries, you queue for hours, deal with bored and surly officers, and wait for weeks. Like most folks, I dislike filing taxes but I have to admit the tax e-filing is very convenient and hassle-free.

I frequently interview doctors and healthcare professionals at SGH as part of my work. Their schedules are packed and if they're senior staff, they're often roped in to several committees, while having to juggle clinic duty, research and teaching. Once, I interviewed a senior doctor whose clinic duty load was so heavy that he didn't have time for lunch. Still, he made time for me at 4pm and answered my questions graciously, while wolfing down a cold sandwich. And I almost always leave the interviews with a deep sense of appreciation for these people who can have a much cushier life in the private sector and earn a heck of a lot more, but stay because they have a heart for service.

Is the public sector perfect? Of course not and that's not the point because nothing ever is. But the public sector is not an impassive, monochromatic institution. It is made up of many, many individuals (136,000 from what I know) with a wide spectrum of personalities and life goals. Are there disenchanted, dishonest and disengaged public servants? Of course. I sometimes come into contact with them. But just like in any other sector or company, there are also hardworking, big-hearted people who want to serve even as they try to earn a living. And no, I don't believe these are the exceptions.

So while I'm not advocating that we put the public sector on a pedestal, I would like to see that we treat people, no matter who they are and where they work, with a little more kindness. Because this institution that we belittle so carelessly and easily, either online or in person, is not a faceless, concrete mass. It is made up of people - every single one of them with thoughts and feelings. Maybe you've had a bad experience in one area or with one person. That's no cause to dismiss the entire public sector and the many good people in it.

To the public servants who do their best because they want to serve, we don't often say this enough but thank you for doing what you do.

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