I’ve just returned to the cool, damp and rainy city of North Vancouver. Normally, the weather here doesn’t bother me too much, but as it is the beginning of June, we sure wish the weather would WARM UP! Unlike most of my friends and neighbours, I had a lucky break from what Ursula Le Guin called the “dreary beauty of Vancouver” when I went to Singapore to attend the Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2011. It was terrific—and not just because it was sunny and warm!
Last year, during the inaugural Festival, there were plenty of speakers, publishers, editors, authors, illustrators, teachers, emerging writers and librarians interested in children’s books. They came from across Asia with a handful from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Europe to discuss books for young people that embraced the ‘Asian’ identity.
Before I go further, I realize that Asians are as varied as their languages and cultures, just as every other people from around the globe. And with the continued increase of so-called blended families such as my own (I am second generation Canadian from Polish/Ukranian/Amish stock and my husband is Chinese American) Asians and everyone else in the world are becoming—more mixed—but hopefully not mixed up.
A very large portion of the world’s population has Asian blood, but sadly, the amount of children’s literature depicting Asian characters and protagonists does not come close to being representative of that number. And this is the case even if one includes stories and books written in Asian languages and dialects. While there are certainly more adventure stories, chapter and picture books and reinvented folktales than there were ten years ago, there is still a lot of room for more.
Last year, during AFCC 2010, we agreed that it was indeed time for creators to produce more Children’s Literature with Asian characters and protagonists. That was a very valuable conference for me and close to my heart as I am a mother to two children of Chinese descent. And it was great to meet other parents, teachers, and creators who cared about the same things that I did.
This year’s event, while only the second AFCC, drew many of the same participants and speakers from the region and abroad, but there were also many new faces. These included veterans from the US including Stephen Mooser, the co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Neil Porter, the Editorial Director of Neil Porter Books and Liz Rosenberg, author and book reviewer for the Boston Globe.
I don’t mention these people simply because they are from the United States nor do I think that the other ‘veteran authors’ in attendance deserve less recognition. I bring these Americans up because this festival is really very new and I was surprised and delighted to have so many wonderful presenters to choose from. Obviously, word is getting out. There are more people than we realize who are also interested in celebrating ‘Asian Content for the World’s Children’.
In addition to those of us who are involved in the creation, publication, teaching and reading side of books, there were two special guests who spoke on Friday evening: H.E. Dr. José Ramos-Horta, President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste who spoke to us of the importance in educating children in the developing world and Mr. Luis Soriano from Columbia. For those who haven’t heard of Mr. Soriano, as I admit I hadn’t, his story is one that everyone who loves books and children should know.
Mr. Soriano, wearing large, black rimmed glasses and a straw cowboy hat made his way up to the podium. I lived in Singapore for a year of so, and don’t remember anyone ever wearing a cowboy hat—so he didn’t exactly blend in. And after hearing what he had to say through the President’s translation, I think he likely stands out even in his native Columbia.
Several times a week, Mr. Soriano straps about 70 books onto the back of a donkey and treks to children off the beaten path in his homeland. He believes that since the majority of the Columbian population are children, with more than 50% without access to computers, he—and now other volunteers—take their travelling libraries to the children in the hope of introducing them to other ways of living through literature. After twelve years, Mr. Soriano is beginning to see some of these children striving to continue their education at University.
If you are a teacher (as I am) and perhaps have taught underprivileged children in your home country or some other place, you will understand that education is often out of reach for many reasons. Sometimes it is because there is a lack of resources including teachers, supplies and books. Mr. Soriano set out to change at least part of this equation in Columbia by introducing books to children to “activate their minds to understand that there are other realities” for them. If you want to see a clip of him, just do a search of his name on the internet. You will be as amazed as I was by this seemingly unassuming man.
Like Luis Soriano, there were other speakers and attendees who had come to Singapore for their first time. Most were delighted and inspired by the easy warmth and friendliness that seems inherent to people in this part of the world. Now that word has got out about the Festival, I’ll bet it won’t be difficult to gather an even more varied group of speakers and participants for AFCC 2012.
To have had so many talented speakers in the first two years makes me think that Festival Director, R. Ramachandran’s wish will likely come true. Singapore will become the “Bologna of Asia”.
Thank you, Bonita.