Saturday, June 27, 2015

The aftermath of Charlie Chan

So a few weeks ago, this graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew, made headlines when its NAC grant was revoked due to its politically sensitive content.

Since then, the book has been selling like hot cakes. Its first two print runs totalling 2,500 copies have sold out as fast as McDonald's Hello Kitty toys and it's into its third print run. It has become the best-selling fiction title in local bookstores, knocking the dubious 50 Shade of Grey off its spot.

I'm glad the book has sold well. I haven't read it but I flipped through the sample and I thought the drawings were vibrant and gorgeous. Reviews of it have almost been unanimously gushing.

However, I'm writing this post because I feel that NAC has been unfairly villainised in this whole episode. Many people have lashed out at NAC, mocking them for their myopia that has now created a mini local sensation. For some, it was yet another reason to jump on the gahmen-bashing bandwagon, which has become so fashionable.

First, I have to say that I don't like how NAC pulled the grant. I mean, if they didn't feel the book was suitable in the first place, they shouldn't have offered the grant. When you offer a grant, the publisher takes into those numbers when working out its bottomline. In case you didn't know, publishers' profit margins are already razor-thin to begin with and they often lose money on books they don't sell. So when NAC pulled the rug from under their feet, that's not nice. I don't know the background - I'm guessing what happened is after LKY's death, the whole country just became more sensitive about political issues and NAC decided to take the more conservative route.

But what many people don't seem to understand is that a grant is like a gift. It is not an entitlement. Publishers are commercial entities, so NAC is not obliged to support them. A grant for a book is simply a show of financial support. Up to now, NAC has been very generous in offering grants for many local titles, so much so that some in the industry think publishers might have come to expect grants as a matter of fact. But in reality, not every book is entitled to or receives a grant. (Incidentally, the grant goes to the publisher, not the author, so it doesn't benefit or hurt Sonny Liew in any way.)

And then there's the ridiculous conjecture that NAC pulled the grant because they didn't want people to read the book, so this is a slap in the face for them. This is so illogical it boggles the mind. Since when does anyone read a book just because it has a grant from NAC?? Look, if NAC really didn't want the book to reach the public, they would have banned it. THE BOOK HAS NOT BEEN BANNED. You can still buy it (if you can get your hands on it!) It just hasn't been funded by NAC. That is all.

If I could use an analogy: You want go to a university to study a controversial course. The organisation that had previously offered you a scholarship decided the course was not in line with what they believe. So they pull the scholarship. But you are still free to study the course. The organisation is not stopping you from doing so. It's just that you won't get funding for it. (In fact, the scholarship doesn't affect you because the funding for your university studies was never coming from you anyway).

You may have noticed that the publisher of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is Epigram Books, who also happens to be my publisher of The Good, the Bad and the PSLE and the Danger Dan series (which have received NAC grants). I spoke to some people in Epigram Books about this and even though they didn't like that the grant was pulled, they too, thought NAC got a raw deal out of this episode.

I've met NAC staff on several occasions and worked with them on a few projects. They have been very accommodating and helpful, and I know it's not just to me. Many artists, writers, people in the industry, Epigram Books and even Sonny himself acknowledge that NAC has been very supportive. And no, I'm not saying it to be politically correct or because I "have to", for some ludicrous reason. I'm saying it because it's true.

So back to the grants. Do I feel that NAC should have given the grant for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye on artistic merit alone? My personal opinion - yes. However, like any organisation, NAC has a right to decide how to dispense their money and I thought it was a shame that they have gained a reputation as dark as Darth Vader for this one decision, effectively cancelling out all the support they have given to books and authors in the past.

Perhaps we should look on the more positive side: as a result of this issue, the sales of the book has more than made up for the loss of the grant for Epigram Books. More people are reading this great graphic novel due to the publicity. Sonny Liew earns more royalties. And the grant that NAC had revoked can now go towards another book. Sounds like a win-win-win-win to me.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Why quiet kids love naughty characters

Last week, Lesley-Anne and I participated in two events. The first was NLB's Read! Fest on Friday at Bishan library where Lesley-Anne talked about growing her love of reading and writing, and we shared the behind-the-scenes process of getting Danger Dan published. We were surprised and very encouraged by the great turnout, which according to NLB, was quite large for a children's author. 

Even more heartening: two mums had brought their kids to listen to us speak because they said Danger Dan got their sons to love reading. One had even travelled all the way from Simei to Bishan to meet us! To us, that's the ultimate compliment for any author - that our books are not only read and loved, they spark the love of reading. We're so very moved.

The second event was the very next day at the Celebrate Singapore Books fair at Wisma Atria. It was a meet and greet session - we answered questions from the audience and signed autographs.

Again, we were so blessed to meet a few young Danger Dan readers whose parents took the time to bring them down to meet us.

One observation I've made when meeting our fans - the majority of them seem to be very shy and introverted. When I ask them a question, some of them speak in whispers. Sometimes, it takes nudging from their parents before they would ask for autographs. More often than not, it's parents who tell us their child wants to know whether there will be another Danger Dan book. 

You know what? I feel such an affinity with these kids. Some people may find it unusual that quiet kids like Danger Dan because Danny, the protagonist, is so hyperactive and noisy. But to me, that makes perfect sense. As a kid, I was painfully shy and bookish. Raising my hand to ask a question in class was as terrifying as jumping off a cliff. Yet one of my favourite series was the Nicholas books which feature a clueless, active and mischievous boy. The character couldn't be more different from me.

But what some adults don't understand is that Nicholas was appealing to me precisely because he was so different. Fiction is a gateway into a fantasy world for kids to live a different persona. Why would I want to read a book about a mousy little girl? I was already leading that life! How much more exciting it was to read about this kid who always got into trouble and said the silliest things. Plus the books are hilarious and great fun to read.

When Lesley-Anne and I conducted a primary school reading workshop under the ASCD last year, the class had a quite a few kids whose hands were perpetually up, asked 101 questions and talked non-stop. Funnily enough though, at the end of the session when we called out the names of the students who had come up with the most creative and vibrant ideas (they had drawn costumes and time-travel concepts before the session), we discovered that the winning drawings weren't from any of the chatterboxes but the quiet kids sitting in the corner with nary a peep. Still waters run deep.

Lesley-Anne and I understand this perfectly because we're both introverts. Just because we don't open our mouths doesn't mean nothing is happening in our heads. On the contrary, there could be a whole fantastical imaginary world in there just waiting to explode! (We're the perfect case in point: two introverted females writing about a loud-mouthed, excitable boy.) So if you have introvert kids, don't assume they are thinking ordinary, boring thoughts. Give them an outlet, a trigger for the imagination and be prepared to see their creativity soar.

Same thing with reading: sure, it's nice to read about characters that you can identify with but don't assume that because your child is quiet, he or she would only be interested in serious characters or books.

When Lesley-Anne and I conduct school talks, it's sometimes hard to tell if we're making any impact at all, especially if the audience isn't very responsive. But we'd like to believe that sitting quietly in the school hall is a student who is encouraged by what we share and lives vicariously through Danger Dan. I imagine the kid snuggled on a comfortable cushion at home, chuckling to himself or herself while reading about Danny's silly antics. And that makes us very happy indeed.

Monday, June 15, 2015

School holiday appearances

We've been busy, busy, busy these school holidays! For Lesley-Anne, apart from studying for her block tests which take place right after the holidays, she and I have been hard at work on our upcoming special history edition of Danger Dan, Secrets of Singapore. The book is shaping up nicely and we're really excited about it. More will be revealed in good time! Incidentally, we've recently been told that Danger Dan books are now available in Phnom Penh. How cool is that?

Meanwhile, we have been invited to participate in a couple of events this coming week. The first is NLB's Read! Fest 2015. We will be speaking at Bishan Library this Friday 19 June 3-4pm.

The talk is similar to the one we conduct for schools - Lesley-Anne will share how she grew her love of reading and writing to become a published author, and we will also give an insight into what goes into publishing a book. We will leave ample time for Q and A as we love hearing from kids and readers, so this is the opportunity to ask all the burning Danger Dan questions you might have! If you have kids aged 9 and above, do bring them along. You may just drop in at the event on that day but if you want to ensure you have a seat, do register here

If you can't make it on Friday, you can also catch us the following day (Saturday 20 June) at the "Celebrate Singapore Books" fair at Wisma Atria basement 1, more specifically, the space currently occupied by Isetan Orchard. The fair is on from 16-30 June and is organised by the Singapore Book Publishers Association. We will be there to meet readers from 2-3pm or thereabouts. If you can't locate us, look for us at the Epigram Books booth. I believe most of the local publishers will be represented at the fair so do turn up and show your support for local lit!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

What I have learned from the Sabah earthquake tragedy

It was supposed to be a celebratory weekend, with Singapore hosting the SEA Games. Then out of the blue, horrifying news emerged that a team of Tanjong Katong Primary kids with their teachers was trapped at Mount Kinabalu when an earthquake hit Sabah.

I felt heart sick at the news, especially when updates came in on the rising death toll. What a terrible, terrible tragedy. As it stands now, six students and one teacher have lost their lives. Tomorrow has also been declared a Day of National Remembrance in sympathy and support of the families who have lost their loved ones.

But even as condolences poured out for the victims and their families, there have been infuriating comments by netizens who are baying for MOE or the school's blood with righteous indignation, saying "they have to be accountable", also they need to "learn from this".

It made my blood boil. Why is it there are always folks who deem it necessary to open their mouths and say things that have no value to anyone whatsoever? This was an ACCIDENT. I capitalise it cos some people seem to have trouble understanding the meaning of the word. An appalling, tragic accident but an accident nonetheless. Accidents can happen anywhere, anytime. They are unforeseen.

This was not a case of negligence. Many have climbed the same route on Mount K before this group (yes, even kids) for years, without incident. It's considered challenging but not dangerous. An earthquake is something out of the ordinary. In the Borneo region, earthquakes aren't even that common. There was no reason to suspect that anything out of the ordinary would happen on this trip.

What disgusts me is that some people just have the need to blame others when something bad happens. Somebody must pay! (Worse still are those who use incidents as simply another opportunity to take pot shots at the gahmen). Newsflash: bad things do happen to good people. All the time. It often doesn't make sense and it doesn't mean it's necessarily somebody's fault. All that group did wrong was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I think MOE, especially Minister Heng Swee Keat, has handled the situation with sensitivity and promptness. Much appreciation and admiration also go to the Sabah mountain guides who risked their own lives to save others, unlike some allegations of the ineptness of the Malaysian government

Photo: Vee Jun Dumlao
Some people are saying the incident was preventable and why should 12 year olds have to go to Mount K. I can understand that people are more upset cos it's kids. There's something about young lives cut short that's especially tragic and heart-wrenching. But behind the sentiment that we shouldn't allow kids to go to Mount K is the belief that I find more and more prevalent among Singaporean parents these days -  that we should shield our kids from anything that has even the remotest possibility of danger.

If we follow this argument, there will be no end because what one person considers "potentially dangerous" can differ drastically from the next. Go South Korea can get Mers. Go Middle East got civil unrest. Fly over Ukraine can get shot down. Go to NZ, Japan or China can have earthquakes. Maybe that means we shouldn't go overseas. But wait, my kid can also get hurt at Outward Bound School! Go camping can get dehydrated because not used to the heat. Or get hurt by wild boar. Ok ok, maybe no need to teach 12-year-olds leadership skills? Just go to school and back (and maybe tuition centre). But leave the house also can get knocked down by crazy drunk driver! (And anyway go to school also quite inconvenient these days. Must go all the way to Mount Sinai leh. MOE so one kind.) Maybe just stay home is best. Home-school lor. Wait a minute, stay at home also can have danger. Can get scalded by hot water, cut by sharp knives, suffocated by leaky gas pipes, etc. How liddat??

Ok, I may be exaggerating but you get my drift. At what point do we stop treating our children like they are made of glass? If parents feel that every accident is a justifiable reason to force the authorities' hand, very soon, we will be stunting our children's life experiences by curbing their every movement. As a result, we will be bringing up individuals who are completely incapable of functioning in society, let alone be a contributing member. As I've said before, if our entire life's goal is to not let anything happen to our kids, well...nothing ever will. We can't protect our children from every single "what if".

Everyone has their own risk appetite. If you really feel uncomfortable about letting your child go on an expedition, by all means, don't give permission. That's your right. But please don't strongarm MOE into mandating that every other parent should toe the line that you set. Here, a mum of an ex-TKPS student speaks up on the value of the Mount K expedition.

Back to the topic at hand, which is the responses to the incident. In a crisis, the most valuable people are those who offer help, offer support and if not, at least offer prayers. Not the ones who point fingers and think they are so brilliant cos they speak with the benefit of hindsight. These contribute nothing and make a difficult situation worse. Furthermore, I suspect many of these empty vessels are those who in a crisis, would be the least likely to help others. The ones who talk the most tend to do the least.

How we choose to respond to any situation is up to us. If there's something I "learned" from this episode, it's that challenging times reveal true characters. I cannot even imagine the pain the parents of the lost ones must be going through. The least we can do is show our solidarity and grieve with them. May we show ourselves to have a gracious heart.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Biodiversity and heritage at the Lee Kong Chian Museum

On 28 April, the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at NUS officially opened and both Kenneth and Lesley-Anne, being biology and geography buffs, were looking very much forward to it. Even though I'm not much of a nature person, natural history museums are one of my favourite types of museums (other than fine art galleries).

So when the opportunity came along for a free visit plus a talk last Friday evening, Kenneth jumped on it and signed us up. Some basic history - the museum has had a tumultuous past, with its artefacts being moved from place to place for a long time. During Singapore's growth years when the focus was on the economy, the last thing the government had on its mind was funding for a collection of ancient artefacts. As a result, many of them were almost destroyed and some were lost.

Happily though, they now have a beautiful new home at NUS. I found the layout of the museum very user-friendly and easy to navigate. Ok, first up: most people who come to the museum are drawn primarily to the three dinosaurs - Prince, Apollonia and Twinky (the last name always makes me chuckle)!

They're right in the centre of the main hall and every half hour for a couple of minutes, coloured lights come on to give them an ethereal effect, which is pretty cool.

But as they like to remind visitors, the museum is so much more than just the dinos. If you would like to know more about the collections, Straits Times ran an informative article here.

Some of the biodiversity displayed is an integral reminder of Singapore's past, eg. when tigers roamed the island. In fact, they were so common that the museum would constantly receive gifts of tiger skins! The pic on the left is of a 1.75m leatherback sea turtle caught at Siglap Beach in 1883.

There are walls and walls of mammals, birds, fish and other zoological exhibits.

This is the comparison of a human skeleton with that of an orang utan.

Everyone in my family knows that I am afraid of, no...TERRIFIED of lizards. So when I saw this display, I was so grossed out I couldn't stop staring (if that even makes sense). It reminded me of the scene in Jurassic Park where Billy thought he was looking at a fossilised raptor and it turned out to be alive. I thought it was the most frightening exhibit in the museum...

 ...until I saw this:

As if squiggly lizards are not yucky enough, there are flying ones! I'm so never stepping into a jungle. My kids laughed at me. They so enjoy seeing me squirm. Though they showed the same level of horrified fascination at the insect walls:

I don't remember what these are but they look like something out of an Alien movie. Oh by the way, they have live scorpions in a glass tank too. That's really something.

And in the Arthropod zone, is one massive crab! I bet Andre is thinking those legs would taste pretty good in chilli sauce...

My honest opinion is that the museum is truly well worth a visit. Lesley-Anne was so enamoured with it she said she wouldn't mind returning for a repeat visit.

In order to ensure the crowds don't get too big, entry is by pre-booking ONLY. You can't just turn up and buy tickets. You book your tickets online for a pre-determined one-and-a-half hour time slot which means you won't have to jostle others to get a good view of the exhibits. Singapore residents pay $16 (adult) and $9 (child, senior citizen, NSF). You can book your tickets here. NUS staff and students enjoy free entry.

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