The principal platypus was at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore earlier in June.
Sayoni and I seem to be invited by turns to the AFCC in Singapore. Maybe the AFCC can only handle one platypus at a time! So this year it was my turn.
It’s great to see how the festival is growing every year. There are more sessions, more participants and more excitement. In the early years, there were focussed sessions about children’s literature in the different Asian countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. It was a window into their worlds. But the festival has moved on, as these things do and must. Now the sessions are more about craft—how to write YA novels without mushiness, how to write nonsense and humour, how to tackle difficult themes in YA—which is great for aspiring writers looking to hone their skills. There are those who prefer the earlier format and those who prefer the current one. The answer, as always, probably lies somewhere in the middle.
The tone of the AFCC this year was set by the keynote address on the first day of the Writers and Illustrators Conference, by Candy Gourlay, one of my favourite writers. I was about to say ‘Asian writers’, but that’s not true. I don’t like Candy’s books only because of their Asianness. I like them because they are amazingly good books. Nor do I think that they are only good in comparison to other Asian books. Candy spoke with humour and passion about the disconcerting fact that when people (even anglophone Asians like us) make lists of the best children’s books, they consist almost exclusively of books from the US and the UK. She talked about how while growing up she thought Filipinos were not allowed to be in books. Which is why we need more books by Asian writers, peopled by Asian kids.
As usual, the sessions I attended were determined less by what I wanted to attend and more by when I was free. Fortunately, I was able to attend the very animated and exciting session on whether publishers should blindly follow trends, featuring two good friends, Tina Narang of Scholastic and Sarah Odedina of One World Books. By the end of the hour, we wanted the discussion to go on, and it was with reluctance that we let ourselves be herded out of the room.
The First Pages session was very lively. It’s always fun when the panellists disagree with each other. Some of the comments were brutal, but that’s the point of the exercise. With an anonymous submission, the writer gets an honest opinion, which is actually great for a writer who wants to improve her writing. But at the moment when your fledgling work is being torn apart, it might be difficult to see it that way!
My sessions were fun – for me, anyway! I spoke about humour in children’s books and got the participants to write a bit. Some of them shared their writing, and some of it was really funny. I also had a panel discussion, with Shirin Bridges—a session consisting of one Head Goose and one Principal Platypus! We almost burst into song, ‘The goose and the platypus went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat …’ (Shirin actually did break into this song on Facebook.) We chatted about the challenges and blessings of being both, an author and a publisher. Our experiences were uncannily similar in some ways and surprisingly different in others.
This year, China was the focus country. So there was a Children’s Literature Lecture by a Chinese author and a fabulous evening of Chinese music and food. The young musicians of the Teng Ensemble played some traditional Chinese instruments, but the music they made was contemporary and quite wonderful. The central courtyard of the library had a stall with beautifully illustrated books from China.
Dashing from one venue to another, listening to wonderful speakers, debating interesting topics, meeting kindred souls from across the ocean, catching up with friends for coffee, lunch and dinner, stopping at the festival shop Closetful of Books to see how the books were doing—the AFCC keeps one on one’s toes, physically and mentally.
The last time I was at the AFCC some of us discovered salted caramel ice cream at the Rabbit Owl Depot across the road from the library. This time, we conducted that solemn ritual of ice-cream-eating once again. We felt we owed it to our friends who couldn’t make it, and remembered them fondly as we licked our bowls clean. One of the best things about AFCC is the way friendships are forged across continents: there were speakers from the US, the UK, Australia, Portugal, Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines, among others. The festival acts as a catalyst in creative collaborations which would never have happened if there had not been this space to meet, interact and get to know each other.
Mr Ramachandran, Kenneth Quek and their indomitable team worked ceaselessly to make everything run smoothly. I hope they are getting their hard-earned rest now. But soon, it will be time for them to get started on AFCC 2016!