How the idea for the book came about
Having seen kids read our Danger Dan series, we noticed something unexpected: some kids, upon receiving the latest book, would turn to the back portion first - where we have two pages of Fascinating Facts offering historical information about the people, places and events covered in the book.
That's when we realised that some kids are very interested in facts and information. Personally, I love the Horrible Histories series by Scholastic and always wished there was a version for Singapore history. Currently, there is no one single children's book that talks about Singapore's history in a fun way and that's a shame.
So Lesley-Anne and I discussed this and to cut a long story short, we set out to write this history book ourselves! It ties in with the historical theme of Danger Dan and acts like a companion to the series.
Writing this book was challenging, not least because of the massive amount of research needed. The larger challenge was trying to explain everything simply so that kids would understand and not get turned off. I was especially motivated because both my kids didn't find social studies in school terribly interesting, especially the political bits. I don't think Andre remembers much, he was only interested in the parts about the war.
I know the textbooks have been simplified somewhat over the years but I feel they still fall short, especially when it comes to the political portions. The problem is that politics is a very alien concept to kids and history books tend to throw in many unfamiliar terms within a section, thinking that giving definitions for key words would sufficiently address this issue. Eg. this is half a para in my kids' history book:
"Although the Labour Front won the most number of seats, it did not have an absolute majority (won 50% or more of the seats) in the Assembly. Thus the LF formed a coalition government with the Alliance Party with David Marshall becoming the Chief Minister."The definition for "coalition" was given as "coalition government is a government made up of a combination of two or more parties."
Zzzzzz. I can imagine kids nodding off just reading this short segment. Did the writers think that only "coalition" was a difficult word? What about Assembly? What about party? What about seats? Lesley-Anne told me that in primary school, when she read that a political party had won two seats, she pictured a man holding two chairs! Even at lower secondary level, Andre had a foggy understanding of local history. Referendum, alliance, commissions - they all went over his head.
In other words, don't assume that kids would understand any of that stuff, let alone be interested. Why should they? They've lived only about a decade. Politics is something completely foreign to them.
So, with great determination, Lesley-Anne and I set out to try and make local history interesting for kids. Or at least show that "fun history book" is not an oxymoron!
About Secrets of Singapore
We've kept it simple. The language is similar to what we'd used for the Danger Dan series, casual and simple. The target age group for this book is 8-14 years old. Where we've had to use more complex terms, we tried to explain them simply. If it meant omitting details that would leave kids' heads swimming, we chose to do so. For us, it's better for kids to have an idea of the overall concept than confuse them thoroughly with details.
We've kept it fun. Similar to the style of other Danger Dan books, it's quirky. Apart from the chronological retelling of Singapore's history, we also covered a lot of ground in thematic areas, eg. transport, housing, nature, sports, etc. The book is also wonderfully illustrated and designed (Epigram Books' brilliant designer really outdid herself, adding drawings and graphic elements to every page, which lend such vibrancy to the text). Here's a sample spread of the Food section.
We inserted many snippets of information that we call Fascinating Facts to make the narrative richer, on things that we thought kids would find interesting, even if they were not as historically significant.
We've kept it neutral. We tried to stick to the facts, to be as objective as possible. Our aim is to educate in a fun way - we're not interested in making any sort of statement, political or otherwise. When choosing what areas to cover, we focused on what we thought kids would find interesting. For instance, we deliberately chose not to cover the Singapore economy. And because the book is not commissioned by anyone, we're not obliged to include or exclude certain things, or to write it in a certain way.
We don't claim that the book is comprehensive (although we do cover a lot!) or that it can replace local history textbooks. But we truly believe that it would be a great supplement to help kids better understand what they're learning (and hopefully raise their interest). I wouldn't put it past some adults to enjoy this too. At the very least, it might make you nostalgic reading about some of the things we grew up with!
We've been very encouraged by the positive advanced reviews of Secrets of Singapore.
“A very comprehensive and interesting recounting of Singapore’s history from its earliest times, Secrets of Singapore is wonderfully written in a style that is exquisitely simple and appropriate for young readers.” —Koh Boon Long, former MOE Deputy Director, National Education, and retired principal
“Danger Dan and Gadget Girl have really outsmarted me this time. There are secrets of Singapore that I didn’t even know about! Secrets of Singapore is a comprehensive account of everything Singaporean—from history to politics to transport, education and food—and has fascinating details, interesting commentaries and humorous illustrations. It is a book that should be in every Singaporean kid’s collection.” —Dr Cheah Yin Mee, partner and consultant, Learning Ventures, council member, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Singapore
“I wish Danger Dan and Gadget Girl were around to help me with History back when I was in school. Secrets of Singapore will be a boon for those mugging for Social Studies, as it presents facts about the social and cultural history of Singapore in an interesting way, with memorable illustrations by James Tan.” —Lim Cheng Tju, country editor for the International Journal of Comic Art
“An easy-to-read, interesting book that should appeal to any young reader who wants to find out more about Singapore’s history. It also contains many fun facts that are not commonly known.” —Lee Siong Boon, History teacher
Pre-orders for Secrets of Singapore
Finally, how to buy the book! The book should hit bookstores end July/early August in time for National Day (yes, it was timed that way!) Retail price is $15.95 (after GST).
However, you can pre-order the book from my favourite bookseller Closetful of Books, who has generously offered a 10% discount on Secrets of Singapore, from now till 19 July 2015 midnight. Click on this link and key in the coupon code SECRETSOFSINGAPORE at the last stage of the payment process to enjoy the discount. The discount will apply to my other books as well (other Danger Dan books and The Good, the Bad and the PSLE) and shipping is free if you spend at least S$30!
Secrets of Singapore will be delivered to you within two weeks of its release date (24 July 2015). Lesley-Anne and I will autograph all books purchased from Closetful of Books and they will include a small gift as well.