On Life and Finding A Way

Life has a way to meander and lead you to places that you’ve never thought you’d go or imagine going. Life finds a Way, as the saying goes. 

On Viruses and Finding a Way Around

A virus is also a type of life form that finds a way, in my view, but according to medical experts, whether a virus is a life form or not is highly debatable. In truth, nobody really knows if a virus is alive or not. But a virus needs a host to stay alive and to recreate itself. A host is infected with a virus, which lives in the body symbiotically, until such time that the virus takes over its host. I understand all this in layman’s terms only. I am no medical expert nor am I percolating and/or passing on false information. I’m trying to understand how a pneumonia-like virus could be this deadly because as I write this, a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is spreading virulently across the world, with its epicentre in Wuhan, China. I’m trying to make meaning of what I’m reading in the news and as I do this, I also start to think about why it’s important for human beings to understand the inter-relationship between human culture and the structures that cause us to feel, think and act the way we do.

Thinking about viruses and hosts made me wonder too about how stories are passed on. I know that a virus is not like a story and a virulent host is not like a storyteller. The mind meanders, though. My mind is now meandering and taking me places I haven’t imagined going to before; it asks me to probe the meaning and significance of stories as viruses that get passed on orally and textually, and to think of storytellers as hosts, where the story-virus resides. I’m excited as I allow my mind to do its thing, to make meaning through metaphors.

On Characters and Finding a Way Out

All this excitement about viruses and hosts is happening simultaneously as I take part in global writing challenges, writing lesser-told stories of inspirational women, and learning about storytelling through genres like (informational) non-fiction and creative non-fiction, though there’s really nothing to be excited about any sort of viruses as the Wuhan virus meanders its way around the world. But excited I am, not for the virus, of course, but for a little character who’ll be bursting her way into the world any time soon, infecting everyone with her get-go attitude and positive spirit. 

Sahara Khan is my latest invention. As a fiction writer, I get to make up characters and invent stories. I like how fiction churns the imagination; how the mind meanders and wanders. I love imagining what little people in books can do. I love how picture book characters always find a way out. Out of trouble. Out in space. Out of the ordinary. Sahara as you’ll see will find a way out of her own narrative and create a new one, despite being differently abled. How I love that narratives can change and be improved. One’s narrative is never deterministic or static.

On the Whole Book Approach and Finding a Way to Infect Children with the Love of Books

The more I immerse myself in the learning, writing, and teaching of picture book creation, the more I’m enthralled by just how much more than images and text a picture book really is. I’m currently re-reading Megan Dowd Lambert’s enlightening book, Reading Picture Books With Children. Lambert created an inquiry-based model of storytelling, asking children to look at the whole picture book, beginning with its jacket/cover, the illustrations within, and how these images contribute to the story as a whole. It’s meaning-based approach, encouraging children to find and make meaning of everything that forms a picture book — text, visuals, design — looks at picture books holistically. This has brought back memories and my mind meanders to a place where I used to teach literature in schools. The children were older but the whole book approach never strayed far from my teaching methods, even though the students were making meaning from more text-heavy books. These books — middle-grade, young adult, plays and poetry anthologies — had jackets that were filled with images, some with busy jackets, others minimalist, that attracted our attention, brought the stories and poems within to life. How a jacket is designed also tells a story, and my students and I would spend precious time talking about the artwork covering the books they were studying. Fast forward and years later and I would read Jhumpa Lahari’s, The Clothing of Books, a thin and minimalist-designed book of less than 100 pages that explores and asks us to probe the complex relationship between text and images. This is Structuralism at its core. In remembering this, I see that Life finds a way to remind us of the meaning that we look for; the power of attraction, if you will, as my friend and Michelin chef, Matthieu Escoffier, calls it. 

On Dreaming and Making Sense of it All

Sahara dreaming

I love sharing sneak-peeks of the images that fill picture books. Here is this wonderful creature, Sahara, a little girl my mind created, inspired by so many structures and systems that I’ve tried over the years to make meaning of. Dreaming is my favourite thing to do, day-dreaming especially. It’s my dream to write meaningful picture books and to help children answer questions that they’re eager to find out. Of course, in writing my picture books, I’m also busy answering the questions that I have; questions like: Why are female chefs mostly overlooked in the culinary world when cooking is a job placed on the female shoulder in the house-hold kitchen? How do our senses impede or expedite our culinary experiences? How can I, a writer of children’s picture books, encourage young readers to taste what they eat, feel the food that they put into their mouths, and see with their other senses what textures and tastes food produce? Readers, I present Sahara’s Special Senses. Please allow Sahara to show you the answers to these questions.

A New Decade Awaits Us

Families are made up of many important ingredients, with love being the only ingredient that matters.”

Eva Wong Nava

The NAVA family began this decade with the entire family getting together to celebrate many things.

The philosopher-princess is now a science graduate and her title has moved a notch up to philosopher-scientist-princess. In Italy, a graduate or laureato/laureata is also known as la dottoressa, a title when translated into English means ‘doctor’, something reserved only for PhD graduates in the English education system. It may seem rather ordinary today to obtain a (basic) degree as more and more of the world compete for education, with individuals from various countries continually upping one another in the race to be more and better educated. Centuries ago, in countries like Italy, France, and many parts of Europe, a graduate is something of a super star. On the other side of the world in China, the Imperial examinations were only available to those who could afford to be educated. Sitting and passing the imperial exams elevated one’s status and ability to have a career within the Emperor’s court. For many Chinese who finally did become mandarins or court officials, huge sacrifices were made on their behalves to enable them to study and be learned. And, there were many of those who took years to pass the Imperial exams; there are stories of graduates well past their prime, who never gave up the race to become a laureato. Basic degrees are easily obtainable these days in a matter of 3 to 4 years, with many continuing on the path to specialise in their fields by reading a Masters and perhaps a PhD. This laureata will continue her studies in London reading a Masters of Science in Biomedicine, specialising in cell biology. Need I say that I’m so proud of her.

Scientists thrive on precision and the philosopher-scientist-princess is no different. You’re looking at a photo of the pasta dish she cooked up in the Italian Alps where we were hibernating for a few days after Christmas. This Sicilian pasta dish is known as Pasta a la Norma. It’s name is derived from the name of an opera by Vincenzo Bellini because an Italian writer by the name of Nino Martoglio pronounced this pasta sauce made from aubergine and ricotta as the real Norma! Who knows why this was his exclamation when he ate melanzane con ricotta but let it be known that this dish by the elder daughter is the real Norma. I’m so proud of her exacting culinary skills.

Bruschetta con pomodori e basilico, fatta in casa a la Raffaella

The second daughter aka the ballerina-princess also tried her hand at cooking. She made us this delicious bruschetta topped with diced tomatoes and basilico leaves torn by hand to extract its herby perfume. She even plated it like a professional chef would. A clove of garlic finishes this dish with that oomph every tomoto and basil salad needs. Watching my girls cook us–her father and me–dinner is a wonderful sight. There are eight years between the two girls yet they get on like a house on fire, both with so much love for each other that watching them being together squeezes my heart. Love is myriad sensations: warm gushes mixed with pain, a good kind of pain; ripples of happiness mixed with waves of fear, fear of losing these two precious beings; contentment mixed with anxiety, an anxiety for them to experience the world and be safe. This ballerina-princess will continue her education in London this year, sitting the International Buccalaureate Diploma Programme examinations in 4 years’ time. She wrote an impressive school entrance essay that got her a place at Southbank International School, Westminster.

The Italian who has travelled many roads and eaten many dishes with me continues to be that reliable and stable man I married more than a decade ago. As we plan the next decade ahead, we take into account what we’ve done for each other and what we will continue to do for love and committment. He’s come a long way since we met and started sharing a life together. Living in Asia has also been an eye opener and he has gotten to know and understand the culture in which I was socialised by and into. He has also come to know how some individuals are not determined by culture but by an individual choice to be different and to make a difference. Culture aside, underlying what we feel and do is our humanity. How I love this Italian of mine.

Eva at the Readers’ Choice Awards Ceremony 2019

Since I started my stint as a published author of children’s books, I’ve been blessed with many wonderful writerly moments. Having my debut picture book, The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs nominated for the Readers’ Choice Awards in Singapore is a huge achievement. I’m so grateful to the many readers and people who made this happen.

The publishing industry in Singapore, especially for children’s literature is a young one. There is great potential in this island-state for Asian and/or local literature to develop and grow. My resolution for 2020 is to write more meaningful picture books that entertain, engage, and enlighten young minds. I’ve been lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read when I was young. It’s a rare thing, I would say, for someone born in the decade I was, because Singapore then was busy building a nation, far less interested in fiction and stories from other worlds, yet these books existed because there was nobody publishing Asian stories that mattered when I was growing up. I was fed a diet of books written by authors who had no idea what living in Asia entailed; many who wrote about Asia had never lived in my part of the world. Likewise, I had no idea what life was really like in the worlds I read about. Snow-capped mountains, apple pies and cream, picnics in the park, drinking lemonade and eating finger sandwiches with cucumber were non-existent when I was growing up in humind and tropical Singapore. Yet, they were as real as their authors had described them in the books I read. Imagination is a wonderful thing. When I then got to see my first snow-capped mountain as an adult, I remember the very book I’d read that made me see and feel what snowy mountain peaks are like. I’ve had many Heidi moments since.

With Nyonya Josephine Chia, who taught me what having many lives is really about

Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

C.S. Lewis

Life is all the more meaningful when it’s filled with friends. Studies have shown that one of the secrets of longevity is being able to count in one hand the people whom you can call friend. I made a new friend in 2019. Like me, she’s a writer and a Chinese-Peranakan, who has lived in England for more years than we care to count. Here we are, having un bon repas and a tête-a-tête in a newly opened Peranakan restaurant at Claymore Connect in Singapore. Her elegant head of hair matches my snow-white t-shirt. Her glowing smile is no match for my shy coaxing one, though. But in nyonya phine, I’ve found someone whom I feel I can be myself.

While I’m here, I’d also like to mention two other people: June Ho and Debasmita Dasgupta. These special people have become more than friends. June is the co-author of Mina’s Magic Malong and a forthcoming picture book biography, The Accidental Doctor, published by World Scientific Asia, launching in June 2020. Debasmita continues to work with me on various projects, with the most recent one, Sahara’s Special Senses, launching early this decade. She and I also co-founded Picture Book Matters, a mentoring platform for picture book creatives in Asia. We have workshops and courses starting in March in conjunction with the Singapore Book Council.

I was lucky to have met a wonderful soul in the person of Chen Wei Teng. She’s also a fellow colleague, a children’s book writer [Murphy, See How You Shine]. This is just one of her many talents. Her heart is made of pure gold: she is a special education needs teacher, dedicating her life to educating children often left behind by the mainstream. In a recent incarnation, she is a poet, composing haikus filled with philosophy and deep thought.

Two more people I’d like to mention are Uschi and Claire, who both live far from me but who are always an email or text away. I love these two girls for their courage, their inner-strength, their kindness, and their values. And just like this, I need another hand to count the most important people I call friend in my life. But let’s not complicate things too much, less is more and more is obsolete. I love these six people with all my heart.

Time is short but Life is long. Make every moment count.”

Anon

I leave you with this quote. Wishing all my friends and readers a very happy new year. Make every moment count.

Baby Wearing and Mirroring

Javanese Man wearing his daughter. Source: open source internet

Mirroring is the behaviour in which one person unconsciously imitates the gesture, speech pattern, or attitude of another. Mirroring often occurs in social situations, particularly in the company of close friends or family. The concept often affects other individuals’ notions about the individual that is exhibiting mirroring behaviors, which can lead to the individual building rapport with others. ” Wikipedia

When my elder daughter was born, I looked for ways to be able to carry her and still have my hands free. We were living in London at that time and using a pushchair was inconvenient in so many ways. Many tube stations did not have lifts or escalators which meant that I had to carry the pushchair up a long flight of stairs, most of the time on my own. If I was lucky, someone would help and I’d lift the back holding the handles while the kind person would lift the pushchair from the foot rest or bars connecting the front wheels, and walk up backwards. These kind souls were mostly women or men with strollers or pushchairs of their own. When this happened, we would lift one pushchair first and collect the other after.

I invested in a sling that looks much like the one in the photo you see. It was a ring sling where two rings held the cloth together, using dynamic tension coupled with the baby’s weight to keep the infant held. It was the best piece of material I’d ever bought. The philosopher-princess was locked in the sling where she snuggled, cuddled, and bonded with me as I did the food shopping, walked in the park, hoovered the floors, and cooked the meals. Basically, she went everywhere with me snug as a bug in her light blue sling. Mine was padded at the shoulders which made baby wearing comfortable.

When the ballerina-princess was born eight years later, I graduated to another type of sling–the wrap sling. This was essentially a long piece of cloth that you wrap around you and your baby and then tie around your waist to keep the baby in. I was more confident then of baby wearing so was a little more courageous. This sling gave me more flexibility in that I could wear my daughter straddled on my hip, on my back, or in the front. When I was cooking, I wore her on my back, so she could see what I was doing; I tied her high enough over my right shoulder so she could peek over.

Baby wearing is an ancient tradition spanning the whole of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe. A children’s book author friend even wrote a book about it. This is a non-fiction picture book and the illustrations and artwork are simply gorgeous. What I love about Susan’s book is that it promotes all kinds of diversity and shines a spotlight on the different cultures in the world showing children that underpinning us all is the love we have for our children and the similar ways we care for them.

During the launch of Mina’s Magic Malong, someone in the audience asked where I got the idea of the malong from. In Southeast Asia, women and men have been wearing their babies in sarongs or malongs for the longest time. When I held my babies hands-free in their slings, I could have conversations with them and I could look into their eyes as they looked into mine. This allowed me to bond with my girls while doing other essential things. Mirroring is a behaviour where children mimic the gestures, speech, and actions of their caregivers. That’s how children learn. When they see their caregivers mirroring positive actions back to them, children learn acceptance, they learn empathy, and they feel affirmed. On page 22 of Mina’s Magic Malong, “Ella opens her eyes and sees herself in Mina’s dark, brown pupils. She feels safe being folded inside the malong with Mina.” The book conveys the bond between a caregiver and the child, a bond which is so important for child development.

There are often many layers to a children’s picture book. As parents, we can help our children make meaning of the pictures by asking them to talk about what they see. You can get them to tell you 1) What’s happening in the picture? 2) What they see in the picture that makes them say what they’ve said? 3) What else can they see or find? These visual thinking strategies (VTS) help engage children with the illustrations and help them make meaning of the images by expanding on their surface impressions. In fact, these are strategies that museum educators use to get kids visiting museuems to talk about the artworks. Fascinating stuff, isn’t it? All these critical thinking questions also help young readers engage with the text subconsciously.

I leave you this image for you to ponder on.

I don’t know where this photo originated but here’s a tribal woman wearing her baby in a basket.

Disclaimer: I am in no way advocating that you wear your baby. Only you know what’s best for you and your child.

When the World is a Water-coloured palette

Watercolor is an alchemical medium – colors mixing with water, joining with it, being extended by it – creating new life where none had been before.”

Joseph Raffael

Lim Cheng Hoe’s water-colour depiction of the Singapore River is simply my most favourite image of Singapore’s trading artery in the 20th century. This one was painted in 1962 and it hangs in the National Gallery of Singapore.

Notice how the colours bleed into the paper and shapes, forming an abstract, diluted representation of life by the river. The hazy effect—a smudging of colours—is caused by diluting watercolours with more  water than needed: it lends this piece a dream-like quality. The block of yellows and dots of blues are still so distinct, it feels like this piece was only completed yesterday. Uncannily, the blotching of water stains does remind one of water. But could the boat be a clue and we are reading Lim’s visual narrative using our personal experiences to make connections? Does anyone feel that this could be a Chinese landscape painting? 

I love anything rendered in watercolours. Perhaps, it is because water colours were the first art materials I used in childhood and they are reminiscent of an idyllic past. Watercolours were easy enough to find—boxes with lids that contained circles of colours. They were economical too—great presents for birthdays. A plastic cup for water, a crude brush, and some paper—it doesn’t have to be of good quality either—were all you needed to keep a child interested in art occupied for hours. I painted flowers, houses, grass, sampan boats (much like what you see in Lim’s piece), and stick figures with skirts and trousers to fill in with watered down hues. 

In Singapore River, Lim has managed to capture a proverbial everyday scene in the early 60s. It’s a Romantic imagination of this river. Lim painted en plein aire, outside, in the humidity and heat that cleave themselves to this nation-state. In my imagination of how Lim painted, the scene in my mind’s eye is hardly Romantic. I know the reality of living in the tropics where sometimes, it is just too hot in the day to be out and about. I also know that when Lim was painting, the River was a convenient source for tipping one’s rubbish and waste. The stench must’ve been strong. But the inclination to capture a scene, documenting a way of life then, must’ve been stronger. 

The Singapore River still exists. It’s a cleaned up and less smelly version. In fact, there is now no stench at all. The Romantic imagination captured all those decades ago has now materialised and become reality. Today, a Disneyesque version of the boats in Lim’s painting ply the water, ferrying tourists from one end of the river the the other. 

As many know, art forms a very important part of my life. I’ve chosen to focus on picture books because it is often the art between the pages of the book that I’m drawn to. That’s not to say that I disregard the story or the writing. I find, more often than not, when the writing is wonderful, good art inevitably follows. These two modalities in the arts come hand in hand. 

When Penguin Random House Southeast Asia acquired Mina’s Magic Malong last year, I had no idea that the illustrator would be a water colourist. A picture book author does not have control over these things. Once the manuscript is written and handed over to the publishing house’s editorial team, it’s time to let go and work on your next project. It’s the house that chooses the illustrator. But to add to that, because I believe in the hocus-pocus way life can meander, it is also the work that chooses the illustrator in a cosmic kind of way. Creation works on multi-levels and is multi-layered. And, who knows how the Universe makes so many things happen.

The process with Novita Elisa was a unique one because she was PRH’s subsequent choice. There were some complications with the first choice, details of which I’m not privy to share because I don’t know them. It was such a relief to see the proofs for the book and to see that Novita Elisa got the story of Mina’s Magic Malong. The bonus for me is that her artwork for the book was completed in water colours. Hence, this gives the picture book a vintage feel. There are similar qualities I see in Novita’s work that draw me in to Lim’s: the running or smudging of colours on the paper, the vibrant flashes and blotches of colours, the nostalgia. 

Well, folks, like I said, when your manuscript has been submitted, it’s time to let go. Following my own advice, I did just that and have started on my next picture book. I wonder who the illustrator will be this time.

Mina’s Magic Malong is found in all good bookstores and on Amazon. 

Mina’s Magic Malong gives voice to an often invisible group.”

Emily Lim-Leh

On Autism Awareness Month and Author Visits

The Daily English Newspaper in Bhutan

We are now at the end of April. What a whirlwind month this has been. April is important for a couple of things: the two most important men in my life — the dad and the hubby — have birthdays in April, one day after the other, and April is a month when most of the world celebrate and embrace autism.

I’ve been busy celebrating. 

A Class of Boys reading in the school yard. The school is a co-ed school.

It all started in Bhutan where Autism Awareness Day (April 2) was acknowledged by this predominantly Buddhist Himalayan nation. The lighting up in blue of the Memorial Chorten (Choeten) in Thimpu warmed my heart. This celebration was organised by Ability Bhutan. Unfortunately, I was not able to stay for the light-up as we left Thimpu for the hills which took us up more than 1,700 m above sea level to a public school – Bayta Primary – in the Phobjikha valley, also known as the Gangteng valley. Gangteng is named so for its famous monastery of the same name which belongs to the Nyingma sect, the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Phobjikha valley is also famous for its wildlife, flora and fauna, and the Black Neck Cranes (Grus nigricollis) that visit the valley in the winter months (between late October to mid-February) to roost. These cranes are protected birds as they are on the endangered species list. For those interested to visit the Gangten Monastery during the winter months where the Crane Festival is celebrated, you’ll have to visit Bhutan in November. This festival is a one-day affair that takes place annually on the 11th of November. Unfortunately, we were not able to celebrate the majesty of these cranes since our visit took place in April. [Thank you to Phurba Tshering of Travel Guru for organising this trip to Bayta Primary.]

Talking about majesty. The Bhutanese love their kings and for that matter, their queens too. And they have good reason to: Bhutan, under the Wangchuck dynasty, continues to journey towards further unity, democracy, decentralisation and development since the early 20th century. Hence, many monuments in this Kingdom of the Dragon are built and named in memory of their kings (and queens). 

The Memorial Chorten, also known as the Memorial Stupa, was constructed in 1974 to commemorate the third king of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (b.1929 – d.1972) who ruled between 1952 to 1972. At this memorial, one can find the aged of Bhutan circumambulating the white-washed stupa, prayer beads in hand, whispering Buddhist chants repeatedly, their prayers floating up to the mountainous valleys of the gods. At the entrance of the stupa, a jubilant community of retirees is seen whirling prayer wheels and chanting in between chats and snacks and sometimes babysitting their grandchildren. What a happy way to spend those golden years in one’s life. 

My one week trip to Bhutan with the family ended all too soon. I returned to Singapore, unpacked, repacked and took off again. This time to the western hemisphere where kings aren’t that celebrated in this European nation – France. In fact, the last king, Louis VXI, was executed for treason in 1793, at the Place de la Revolution, in Paris. What a diametrically opposite view of royalty, I would say. But deservedly so (not that I condone capital punishment, more that I prefer republics to kingdoms), in my view, because the French royalty pre-revolution was known for its debauchery, opulence and callousness towards the people. “Let the people eat cake!” is an all too familiar chant attributed to a famous French queen when she was told that her people were starving. 

France is a home away from home on many levels and I will always have Paris. My visit brought me back to the International School of Paris for an author visit where I presented to parents and teachers about the importance of diversity in children’s books. The ISP was where the girls had almost four years of education prior to Singapore. So, this school is very dear to my heart. The ISP also has the most incredible community of expatriate teachers, families and students. I’ve never been made more welcome as an alumni parent than at the ISP. I was more than pleased to share with the students of Grades 1, 2, 3 and 4 about Open and The Boy. It was such fun to hear the students make connections as they asked questions, gave answers and discussed issues like special needs and the importance of writing diverse characters into children’s books, and why we need to be patient, kind and compassionate to everyone, especially those who have different needs. Someone asked why my protagonist is named Open. Another wanted to know what stammering is. Open was able to open windows and minds; Owen charmed the little ones with his ukulele and songs. My session ended with a book sale and signing and some of us chanted “Your voice is S T R O N G E R than you think”, taking this mantra home with us. 

With Tash Aw who doesn’t do smiles but smiled for me and Claire, who took the photo.

April 15th will always have a special day in my heart. The author visit that took place that day ended with another author visit, this time, at the American Library of Paris where Tash Aw and Édouard Louis had tête a tête about marginalised communities, identity and the disease that is killing a class of people in our societies: Louis is the author of ‘Who Killed My Father’, a memoir translated into English about his relationship with his right-wing, patriarchal father in a small and insular town in the north of France, Hallencourt, and Aw wrote ‘The Face: Strangers on the Pier’ which is also a memoir (in essays) about being perceived as the token Southeast Asian, his relationship with his Malaysian ethnic-Chinese father and about being an ethnic-Chinese of Malaysian origins. This author visit also ended with a book sale and signing and I was so pleased to exchange a few words (of admiration and awe) with both Louis and Aw. They also signed my book purchases. I breezed through The Face, savouring every ounce of its thoughtful and profound introspection about identity, the human condition and ethnicity, and finished Who Killed My Father, chewing on the reality of a father/child relationship stagnating, the yearning of every child to be seen and accepted for who we/they are and how one individual saved himself through education. Both books were mirrors to a life spent in familiarity yet also one lived as an/other. Both authors talked about loving that familiar space — the home — that made them who they are and of leaving that familiar place — the city of their home — which stifled who they became that distance is the only answer to creative survival. A peripatetic life of dipping in and out of familiar spaces that are also displacing spaces is only too familiar to me. Stifled conversations between parents and children are also very familiar to me. What does a child do when they know this is where the conversation ends each time they start to have one with their parent/s? A familiar burning desire for connection ignited within me again. 

Then, news of the Notre Dame in flames. 

I left Paris with a lump in my throat, saddened by so many things – the gilets jaunes demonstration that disrupted traffic in central Paris and because of this, I couldn’t make it to see a friend across town; the charred steeple of the Notre Dame falling; saying goodbye to a dear friend who kindly put me up and made me laugh so much, cajoling that inner child in me to get out a little more. I am missing all these monumental places and people already. 

I returned to a joyful 12-year old and a newly minted mid-century-year old + a-couple-more-years. Who would have thought a 10-day trip away from someone who was more than familiar, someone who has become part of the furniture, would cause her to be missed so much? Another lump formed in my throat as I hugged the two familiar people in my home and spoke to the one who now lives and studies down-under, hugging her virtually. I told them news of my adventures in Paris and they exchanged news of theirs: the little one cooked an omelette for dinner last night and the big one made her favourite egg and tomato omelette Chinese-style. I’m so glad that conversations in this family, my family, are celebrated and that each one of us has found our own voices. All is well again in this familiar space that I never want to leave. 

Then more news.

The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs has been recognised by the ‘Reading with Your Kids’ programme as a ‘Great Read with Your Kid’. Here’s a list of certified Great Reads

The lump in my throat grew bigger. 

There’s nothing more rewarding for an author than having what they’ve written about being recognised for its worth. I want to say a big thank you to Jed Doherty and Fatima Khan for recognising the importance of reading and for telling the world that Reading Matters! and for giving Owen a shout out. 

I also want to say thank you to Jed for interviewing me. You can listen to the interview on the Read with Your Kids podcast where I talk about Open: A Boy’s Wayang Adventure, about the Wayang, about Singapore and the perception of autism on the red dot. I also talk about dreaming up stories and of dreaming of Owen in a city far away because I couldn’t find a book that helped my child cope with her speech challenges long ago, and of working with an illustrator who gets your story and your cause. I do believe that when you write from your heart, all good things happen.

Interviews are difficult for me, especially one that is not scripted. It has taken me some time to find my voice and listening to my voice speaking back to me is a surreal encounter. I wear my heart on my sleeves and I speak from my heart. These two phrases when read literally can be very funny to a child. I remember being laughed at by the Big One when I told her this many moons ago. She said, “You’ve just said that your sleeve does the talking” and she broke into fits of infectious laughter turning the two of us into a hiccuping heap of giggles. “Smarty-pants”, I said and we laughed some more.

I tear up a little now as I remember how funny children can be. Don’t forget that inner child in you. Always find something to celebrate because all good things come to those who lift up their arms and allow themselves to be tickled by the smallest of tickle monsters. As always, thanks for coming full circle with me. I end with this quote, “Children listen to stories”. Don’t forget to read to your kids because books can save lives. More on that in another post. 




On writing The Boy and the Importance of Children’s Picture Books

The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs

I’ve been on a creative roll recently as friends and followers would’ve noticed. It’s been the most splendid rollercoaster ride since I’ve joined a thousand other people in the children’s book playground.

Many have asked why I chose to dabble in children’s fiction when I write Flash Fiction for adults. Flash Fiction is mainly for adults though but there’s a relatively new market out there for children’s Flash, I was told. I think I might explore that. 

Children’s books fascinate me. They entice me. They speak to me. I love trawling through the children’s book section in bookstores. I judge a book seller on the types of children’s books they carry. 

Being a children’s book collector, I have many vintage copies of these books to leaf through, to consult and to pour over when I need to be inspired or when I want to reconnect  with my inner child. 

But enough about me! 

Children’s books are for children. They fascinate kids. They entice kids. They speak to kids. 

I write for children for a purpose. All children want to see themselves reflected back to them in books. They may not be able to express this when they’re toddlers and learning to speak. So a picture speaks a thousand words to them. Children read images before they read words. So a picture book must have a visual narrative that kids can get pictorially. A picture book must have a visual representation of a kid’s world that they can see visually. 

I’ve been buying and collecting picture books for the past 21 years. My journey started when Sophie, my elder, was born. Her first book was made of fabric and it was made of different types of textured pages  — a velvety one for a soothing touch, a crinkly one for a touchy sound, a dotted one for a textured feel, a monochromatic one for a visual reference. Then when she could sit up in a pushchair, she graduated to a little board book with a plastic spring-attachment that could be fixed to her pushchair. Sophie’s little world was filled with picture books and her adult world is filled with books. My parenting world is filled with children’s picture books and my adult world is filled with children’s picture books . 

Then when Raffaella came along, I repeated the process once more. But an eight year gap meant that a new range of books took over our reading diet. We savoured, chewed on, and ingested books that are now more diverse — a black character is now present, boys who want to dress up as mermaids can now be found, and two male penguins that want to be part of the hatching and parenting game was a sensation that shook our worlds. Yet something was missing. 

Why aren’t there more people like me in books tugged at my heartstrings. Raffa was learning that diverse needs aren’t always represented in children’s books. She was coping with speech when she asked me this question. At 5 years old, she already understood what diverse needs meant. We were living in Paris and she was in speech therapy. Some sounds were harder for her to make and we were looking for a book that could help her process her thoughts and find answers to her question. There were no books available. 

Why aren’t there more people like me in books stayed in my unconsious. I dreamt of a little ginger-haired boy who talked in bits and bobs. That little boy stayed in my dream-space and I let him linger there for years. It wasn’t until about a year ago that he surfaced again in a conversation with someone who found speaking challenging. 

Why aren’t there more people like me in books became a quest. Raffa is now twelve and speaking fine. But the disappointment of not being able to find a book where she could see herself, even if it were in a male character, came ebbing in. And because I am the person that I am — a go-getter, a self-motivator, a children’s book author — I embarked on ‘The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs’

I had the story, I had the words, I had the vision. But I needed someone who could interpret all this. I found an art angel. Her name is Smita and she created Owen, just as I saw him in my dream. 

An author and illustrator duo is the magic behind children’s picture books. One without the other is like a fish without water. Children’s picture books exist because of the illustrator. What are pictures for? They tell a visual story and enhance the textual narrative. 

I champion picture books because they are diverse in the ways that they enable our children to learn.

Why are children’s picture books important?

  1. Picture books that are written for a higher reading level use words and a set of complex vocabularies that can help your kids develop theirs.
  2. Words are made of different sounds and picture books help children learn these sounds, often introducing them to new sounds and language. 
  3. Children read pictures first before they read words. The illustrations in a book help children connect to the story and find meaning in the text. 
  4. Kids love art. The vibrant images in picture books fire their imaginations and enable them to learn a different form of storytelling – visual storytelling.
  5. There is often repetition in children’s picture books. Repetition helps kids to engage with the story, to participate in a read aloud and to anticipate the next lines. They also learn phonic awareness, comprehension and fluency. 
  6. Some picture books are multi-sensory and help to stimulate children’s imaginations. There are touch, smell, sound and sight markers that enable kids to immerse themselves in the story that they’re listening to.
  7. Picture books help parents and care-givers bond with their children through reading. You can talk about the story – what it means to you, then ask the children what it means to them, children can also ask questions about the illustrations and explore what the picture means, they learn to infer, to analyse the story with the help of adults, who can ask emotion-questions like how do you feel about the rabbit losing the race, and other questions that help children to think critically from a young age.
  8. Reading picture books help children understand the structure of stories – the beginning, the middle, the end — and to understand conflicts and resolutions. 
  9. Reading is the ultimate form of empathy – Matt de la Peña for We Need Diverse Books. Picture books can help develop your child’s natural ability to empathise. Children learn to see for themselves the age-appropriate issues that they or their friends are facing. 
  10. Picture books are fun and help children look forward to reading time and to bedtime when a picture book follows them to dreamland. 

And picture books are as much for adults as they are for children.

I’m taking children’s picture books one step further. Contact me for a reading of The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs at your school and children’s book parties. 

Illustrations by Debasmita Dasgupta.

enquiries@evawongnava.com

Frida Kahlo and Owning Your Voice

©debasmita daspgupta

Her uni-brow is unmistakably her best feature. They are united in giving this Mexican artist a unique visual presence. In fact, I would go so far as to say that her uni-brow speaks the loudest of all her features.

As I meditate on this visual rendition of Frida Kahlo, I think of artistic styles. I think of what style means and how style permeates all works of art — visual and textual. I recall how styles are diverse, how they can be synthesized and how they reflect our different cultures and heritage. I remember just what it is about certain styles that capture our eye, fire our imaginations, squeeze our hearts. Looking at this rendition of Kahlo, I am reminded of why the artworks of Debasmita Dasgupta intrigue me: her use of colours is refreshingly sharp and balanced. (@debasmitadasgupta)

Debasmita or Smita Dasgupta is an advocate for change. Her mission is to change mindsets one artwork at a time. And this is mostly why I like her style. Smita started My Father’s Illustrations to encourage conversations about the roles of fathers in our lives, how fathers can bring change in their daughters’ lives. Smita says that “I started this series because there is an urgent need to engage fathers, who are mostly the decision-makers in our families, to engage in dialogue to protect girl child rights and to amplify the voices of those fathers who are fearlessly fighting for their daughters and inspiring them to be good and do better,” (source: Buzzfeed)

Smita and I met at a Nüwa Connect event for people and professionals working in the arts and culture sectors. This start-up company was founded by Elaine Friedlander and it has organised several meet-up events since its launch in 2017. I love being part of the Nüwa network and community because it is a platform that gives voice to people in the arts and culture sectors while ensuring essential support and sustenance for those who are free-lancing in the industry. I met Smita at my first Nüwa event and since then, it’s been new beginnings and happily-ever-after. We both found that our values are aligned in the way we use our creativity. She is a cause-based illustrator and I, a cause-based author. She is changing mindsets one picture at a time and I am changing mindsets one book at a time. After connecting, we met up to discuss a collaboration.

And that is how she became the illustrator for my forthcoming debut children’s picture book — The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs. The book is published by an indie publishing house – Armour Publishing – under its Live to Inspire series.

Having the privilege to pick an illustrator to work on a children’s picture book is rare. As most traditionally published authors will tell you, it is often the publishing house that chooses the illustrator for your manuscript. Of course, the author is given some say in the illustrations and will be able to pick from a number (say three to four) styles which the publisher suggests. All picture book authors know that it is the illustrations in a children’s picture book that have the loudest voices. But, the illustrator must be able to translate visually the author’s words without the illustrations overtaking the author’s textual voice. This is often a challenging task.

When I first met Smita, I was immediately drawn to her quiet presence. There was something about this petite Indian national that captured my attention. Was it her beguiling kohl-rimmed eyes, made larger by black kohl? Was it her bright smile — heartfelt and sincere — that reaches her eyes, a smile that draws you in? This was all before I saw her artworks. We chatted, we exchanged contact details and she sent me a work portfolio. This was when I became bewitched. The colours, the hues, the characters — all with a quiet presence but big diverse voices.

Diversity in fiction and art are two very important topics in the children’s book industry. It is a hotly debated trend as publishers respond to the need for more diverse books. The need to offer diverse books where children can see and hear themselves represented has become all the more important as we globalise further and as political rhetoric divides people and nations. I hope that this trend becomes entrenched, embedded and is here to stay forever and not merely a reaction to the politics around us. Leaving politics aside, we need to ask ourselves what diversity really means because diversity means many things to different people. In terms of children’s literature, what exactly is diversity in fiction for kids? Why is it important for writers and illustrators and those in the creative arts to unite in giving voice to those with different needs, to those who are differently abled, to those who are marginalised and to those who come from different cultures from our own?

I’m so thrilled to be talking about Diversity in Fiction at a Nüwa Connect event, coming 21st February at Centre42, a venue that promotes the arts in Singapore. Come connect with me and the rest of the Nüwa members at Centre42, 10 to 11:30 am. Here is the link for more information.