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A ripple effect was set off recently in the Singapore children’s Chinese books market which has been relatively quiet for some time – and what a delightful welcome it was!

In conjunction with the exciting grand opening of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) on 30th May 2015, the formal launch of the bilingual children’s story picture book Lion’s Heart, Painted Thoughts by the National Book Development Council of Singapore and the Hunan Juvenile and Children’s Books Publishing House on 5th June 2015 was one of the most prominent events held during the festival. What made this beautifully crafted story book stand out from the rest was its origin – it was a literary collaboration between sixteen renowned writers from Singapore and China.

Story-telling by the Big Kids

It was a rare opportunity for eight children’s literature authors from China and eight writers from Singapore to forge a new landscape of children’s picture books together. The authors from China weaved stories of nature and family, taking children on an exploration of the world through their vivid writing. Singaporean writers may have come from different fields of expertise, but they are accomplished in their own rights in the local literary scene.

Liew Kwee Lan (Ai Yu), for example, has published novels for youths, and has penned children’s poetry too. Enjoying writing for the young, her story, Seeing, is about beholding the goodness in life through the eyes of a beautiful soul. One of the eight writers, Chew Kok Chang (Zhou Can), who has won the prestigious Singapore Cultural Medallion, has been writing stories since the 1950s and his narratives have accompanied many readers during their growing up years.

There are other prolific Singaporean writers who are new to the writing of children’s books. Nonetheless, as they too have the same childlike sensitivity, their creative works have nourished countless young readers. Through her story, E-reader, which advocates the importance of honesty, widely acclaimed writer Tham Yew Chin (You Jin) hoped that the book would be a lamp to lead children to the treasure trove of books. This also reflects the heartfelt desire of all the writers. Illustrious author, Teoh Hee La (Zhang Xina), used concrete examples to tell a story of family warmth in Medicine, where the realisation of the family’s affection, coupled with hints of bitterness, only dawned upon the protagonist at the end of the narration. The subtle revelation of emotions certainly creates a different reading experience for the children.

Reading during the Age of Innocence

The synthesis of many unique elements in Lion’s Heart, Painted Thoughts showcased the different levels of cultural diversity. Dr Tan Chee Lay, the editor of the book and also one of the eight Singaporean writers featured, had this to say about the rarity of the original creative writings, “I profoundly hope that the children of the two countries would have a shared recollection from reading the book – that at a time during their innocence, they have been deeply touched by the same children’s literature, and impacted by the same exciting illustration; they have laughed at the same amusing scene, and cried at the same tragic ending…”

Dr Tan’s story, Piano Talk, was inspired by his own experience as a parent with a child who hated the dull, monotonous routine of tinkling on the ivory keys, thinking that the drill was meant to take away the freedom and fun in his life. Little did the child realise that the piano has, in fact, inspired dreams and given him more freedom in ways he did not expect.

Dr Tan is an Assistant Professor at Nanyang Technological University, and the Deputy Executive Director of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language. Over the years, he is committed to promoting reading in education and teaching, and introducing new content in the teaching of Chinese language to Singaporean children. As the editor of Lion’s Heart, Painted Thoughts, he felt privileged to gain an insight into the profound literary world of the writers from China that is rich in imagination and vision, as well as the sense of rootedness in life that permeates the works of the Singaporean writers through their unique and subtle style of writing.

In the colourful world of children’s literature, it is common for well-known writers to craft stories for the young ones, such as Lin Liang from Taiwan and Ren Rongrong from China. In the early twentieth century Singapore, the five major bookstores – The Commercial Press, Chung Hwa Book Company, Shanghai Book Company, Nanyang Book Company and World Book Company – had many great and famous scholars who quietly dedicated themselves to writing textbooks for children, editing children’s stories and publishing children’s periodicals.

Sowing Seeds in the Language Desert

The first language of the majority of Singaporean children nowadays is English. Many Chinese families use English at home to communicate too, resulting in their mother tongue succumbing to a mere second language. Thus, unsurprisingly, the status of Chinese language in Singapore has been relegated and cannot be compared with its former glorious days half a century ago. It wasn’t long before the domino effect took hold, and the Chinese book stores have since been suffering under this monumental shift in status. Very soon, they might go into history when no one values them anymore.

However, Singaporean Chinese writers continue to write diligently and untiringly in such an environment because they feel strongly about the current plight of Chinese language. Thus, when their help is needed to promote the importance of Chinese language and preventing it from becoming redundant, every one of them feels they have a personal responsibility to step up to the plate without hesitation.

In the digital age where the book market is swarmed with electronic reading products, paper books grapple with an immense challenge not to be replaced, with the exception of the children’s books which are thriving instead. It is thus very clear that parents still want their children to experience the charm of holding a physical book, flipping through the pages and reading from them. Isn’t this the hope of the book industry as well?

Singaporean students often gripe about the difficulty of learning Chinese, just as You Jin once said that they are “unable to appreciate the beauty of Chinese characters”. Hence, on behalf of local Chinese writers, she urged parents not to use drill-and-practise exercises as the only way for their children to learn Chinese, and the educational institutions not to kill off the children’s interest in learning the language by burdening them with excessive tests and examinations.

If reading and telling more stories is the door to the magical world of stories, then guiding the children to take an active interest is the key. Upon turning this key, it opens the door to a whole new world of experience. But this requires the collaborative effort of the society, parents, family, educators and linguists. After all, where learning and cultivating a love for language is concerned, it takes a village to raise a child too.