Today’s challenges are tomorrow’s crisis. Climate change, income inequality, resource management… where we make mistakes and fall short now, our children are saddled with the almost impossible task of compensating for our failures many times over. How do we shape the next generation into intelligent, well-rounded, community-oriented decision-makers?
Beyond the most fashionable baby threads, beyond the latest tablet, children consume much more than merely the material. They absorb knowledge, values and ideas from the surrounding world. It is imperative, then, that quality content exists to feed children’s development and fuel their imaginations, and that it is actively discussed, promoted, and given the exposure and support needed to thrive in our trend-based, incredibly diverse culture. The Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) is a yearly event held in Singapore for exactly this purpose.
Organized by the National Book Development Council of Singapore, AFCC always manages to assemble an impressive lineup, including internationally-recognized speakers and experts from different industries to engage with each other and a diverse audience (parents, members of the public, writers, illustrators, and education and media professionals) in a series of talks, workshops and activities. Last week, the 5th iteration of the festival took place at the National Library Building (31 May – 4 June), featuring literati- like best-selling authors such as Sally Gardner, notable critic and historian Leonard Marcus, and award-winning writer/illustrator James Mayhew, along with well-established education professionals like Peggy Zee and Roger Jenkins, and media specialists like Matt Costello and Maureen McHugh (both of whom happen to be authors as well).
Across its four summits and central exhibition space, AFCC 2014 brought together hundreds of participants from four different facets of children’s content – parents, educators, writers/illustrators, and media professionals. Each summit featured a wide array of talks tailored to specific topics, as well as interactive segments, from parent-child storytelling (Roger Jenkins’ “Using Storytelling as a Strategy for Bonding and Developing Literacy”) to bilingualism for parents (“Effective Strategies to Develop Bilingual Competency,” by Kamini Ramachandran, Edmund Lim and Dr. Shanmugam K); from dyslexia (Sally Gardner’s “Mastering the Art of Dyslexia: An Author’s Journey”) to the role of movement in learning for educators(Peggy Zee’s “Walk to Talk”) and exploring “The Power of Picture” and Korean picture books with illustrator Il Sung Na; from Asian myth and magic with author Gabrielle Wangin the writers and illustrators conference, to guiding media professionals in investigating new digital trends and platforms.
But the spotlight of the festival shone brightest on Asian literature. Focusing on Indian folklore and contemporary stories in partnership with the National Book Trust of India in India Night, this prestigious literary event was graced by the former President of Singapore and multi-lingual children’s book writer Mr. S.R. Nathan and the High Commissioner of India (Singapore) H.H.E. Ms. Vijay Thakur Singh. In the exhibition space, South East Asian stories stood out, too. Besides the books on display and for sale by bookstores and distributors, one booth was actively giving books away. Save the Children, a non-governmental organization, launched the first ever Khmer language picture book in Cambodia as part of their work and outreach to developing communities, as they have done in villages in Thailand and the Philippines. These books are developed and written in consultation with the communities they are later distributed to, with the aim of increasing literacy and developing parent-child relationships by reading together. Even if a child’s parent is illiterate, looking at a book togetheris still an activity that can establish a lasting bond.
Literacy rates are an important indicator of development. Whereas reading as a hobby is a luxury in modern cities, in the developing world, it can be a passport to a better life for impoverished children and their families. Cambodia and India, for example, have a literacy rate of 76.3% and 74.04% respectively. (http://www.mapsofworld.com/asia/thematic/countries-with-literacy-rate.html)
On the flipside, in the developed world, parents often get caught up in the pursuit of their children’s academic success, and literary and artistic exposure is merely another yardstick to measure their child against the status quo. East Asia may have one of the highest graduation rates in the world, but high levels of stress and emotional distress come along with it (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/graduation-rate-stress-are-highest-among-east-asian-teens-survey-finds/article12821545/). Even well-meaning parents may be guilty of acting in ways counterproductive to their children’s development.
“In this modern age, we try to give so many things to our children,” says James Mayhew. “We do so much for them. We want everything to be perfect, and lovely. We want them to have these opportunities. Maybe that’s the wrong way around. Maybe I’m an artist because people said to me, ‘You can’t make a living as an artist. You can’t do that as a job.’”
A story must capture the imagination of a child, but it must connect to the individual. This is where the importance of having local and regional influence in the publishing process becomes obvious. Up until 1962, there had never been a black character in a children’s book. Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day” changed that, but even with the trend towards racial diversity in children’s content (Dora the Explorer is Hispanic, Doc McGuffin is an African-American), Asian stories and characters must become more visible and appealing to Asian audiences. More importantly, they must tell stories and present characters that Asian children can relate to, inspiring excitement about their ancestry, culture, and their native tongue(s). Not to mention, experiencing books and stories can bring families closer together, creating new memories and shared interests – bridging generational gaps previously believed to be unconquerable. Meaningful interactions and long-standing positive reinforcement, coupled with a solid educational foundation and an analytical, open-minded perspective, help children grow up into confident, competent, and compassionate citizens. That is the most our generation can do for the ones to follow – connect, inspire, and empower them through the passionate stories we leave behind.
“To some extent, picture books, as an art form, have become trendy. A lot of artists want to become involved in that world for all sorts of reasons,” says Leonard Marcus. “One of the most basic impulses is to tell stories, or to listen to stories. It’s the basis for the communication. And in a children’s book, you have to find a way of doing something that works for a child, in terms of their experience of life and what their basic emotional needs are. That’s not easy.”
Luckily, Singapore and the Ana Shell Media Fund are up to the challenge! But the only way we can succeed is by banding together. We need to make a consolidated effort – mothers, fathers, grandparents, auntsand uncles – and start reading to our children whenever and wherever we can. So make reading a priority. Talk to your children’s teachers. Turn the TV off a half-hour earlier than usual. Push your children to fight through the adversity. Push them to think. To want to improve. They’ll probably fight you on it at first, but decades from now, when they’re ambitious, open-minded adults – they’ll thank you for it. And the world will, too.
Report prepared by Janice Liu