Friday, December 20, 2013

Let It Go, Let It Go

LIANNE ONG is a freelance writer who writes primarily about parenting, education and fashion. Maxilla, her first picture book for children, was written based on events that transpired when her family was living in California. She now lives in Singapore with her husband and their two children, Reuben and Phoebe. Ong recently spoke to ERIC FORBES about her book, among other things

Is Maxilla your first book? What else have you published besides this?
As a freelance writer, I’ve written pieces on parenting, education and fashion, but Maxilla is my first published book.

Can you tell me a little about what prompted you to write and conceptualise Maxilla and how did you got it published?
The real events of Maxilla were captured in our family blog. My mother said I should write a story about it, so I did. I didn’t seriously think about getting it published, until a writer friend, Melanie Lee (the author of Imaginary Friends), offered to introduce me to the editor, Oon Yeoh.

What are some of the challenges of writing a children’s book?
I think as adults we’ve lost a bit of our innocence and it changes how we think and write. Kids are concerned about different things, and seeing events through their eyes is so precious. One main challenge is how to handle complex matters without dumbing down so much, it disrespects the child and doesn’t do a good job of explaining the crux of the matter.

How would you describe Maxilla? What are some of the themes you explore in the book?
Maxilla is a story about letting go and learning that it is often one of the ways to show love. It’s a big deal for children to learn this, and even more so when it is linked to caring for the environment. It’s also about dealing with disappointment. As a parent, it’s a little heart-breaking to see your child dealing with these grown-up things. The story would have had a different ending if Reuben had decided not to let Maxilla go.

Illustrations by SHING

How did you decide on the characters in Maxilla? Were they decided randomly or inspired by people you know?
Maxilla is based on true events that happened when my family was living in the Bay Area, and Reuben, my son, is the central character. Almost everything in the story is true. Here’s a photo of him and the real-life Maxilla. The backstory to the real events of Maxilla is that a family friend had given Reuben a butterfly growing kit. You literally grow caterpillars from the egg to butterfly stage. It’s an amazing process. We watched the butterflies emerge from their cocoons and released them in our backyard later, and that was the first time Reuben had to say goodbye to his ‘pets’. Subsequently when he saw Maxilla the caterpillar at school, he probably thought he could rear her in the same way, but thought he could keep her for the long term.

The writer’s son, Reuben, filming Maxilla’s movements
with a camera given to him by his grandfather.

Tell us a bit about the illustrator Shing. What was it like working with her?
Shing and I were schoolmates during junior college days. She was always artistic and I never doubted she would pursue her artistic passion one day. Working with her was easy, despite the fact that she is based in Japan and I live in Singapore. Working on Maxilla was a learning process for both of us, and we are so proud of our collaboration and work.

Do you think reading matters?
Of course. It broadens the mind, and brings you to places you normally wouldn’t go, lets you meet people you otherwise wouldn’t have known. You get a glimpse of yourself in the process. How do we go about getting more Malaysian and Singaporean children and adults to read? I think teaching kids to love reading is a lot about making happy memories with books for them. We have a ritual with our kids—we read together before bedtime every day, and the kids love snuggling up with us with their favourite books. We try to make it a fun and thought-provoking experience for them, by asking them questions about the plot, how the characters feel and so on. Bedtime stories are usually not a compromise and they get upset with us if we skip it.

What do you think of the children’s books being published by Malaysian and Singaporean publishers? What do you think can be done to improve the quality of children’s books?
Related to the next question, I suppose you’ve hinted at why my eye doesn’t seem drawn to books produced in Malaysia and Singapore as much as it is with books from elsewhere. It matters to me how a book looks—right down to paper quality, font and design. It might sound shallow, but it matters in the overall experience and brings out the illustrations and the story just that extra bit. In the library, when I’m browsing and can only see the spine of the book, I pick up those I think seem intriguing based on how the book is produced.

Malaysian and Singaporean publishers of English books do not seem to prioritise children’s books. What do you think is the reason for this lack of interest?
Really? Honestly, I didn’t know this as this is my first foray into getting a book published. It’s a shame if that is the case! We really need more children’s books from the region.

What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you then?
As a child, I loved Enid Blyton and when I was a pre-teen, I devoured anything by Judy Blume. I discovered that I had a spinal curvature called scoliosis from reading Judy Blume’s Deenie, even before I was diagnosed by a doctor. I went through a very similar experience as the character in the book, and it really helped me get through those angsty teenage years.

What are some of your favourite contemporary books?
I enjoyed Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear (Earth’s Children series) and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.

What are some of your favourite children’s books?
Quite a tough choice, but here are some: Simms Taback’s Joseph Had a Little Over-Coat, Gloria Whelan’s The Boy Who Wished He Could Cook, and Jeannie Baker’s Belonging. All these books have beautiful illustrations (Belonging actually has no text), and a moral. Also the classic The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, sends me to pieces every time—I think adults should read it as a reminder to never forget how children think. Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s The Jolly Postman is such good fun as it’s a parody on familiar children’s fairy tales and classics.

Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why did you enjoy reading it?
My all-time favourite is the Griffin & Sabine series, by Nick Bantock. A mysterious romance and beautiful art that does half the storytelling is a great combination, but really the clincher is getting to unfold the letters and having a peek into their correspondence. There’s something so delicious about reading other people’s mail!

What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading Caroline Cox’s Vintage Jewelry Design: Classics to Collect & Wear. I own and run an online jewellery store, so reading books on the topic is both a pleasure and a necessity.

We are now in the age of e-books. Are you a print or an e-book person? What are your thoughts on e-books and e-readers? Have e-readers won you over, or are you in the “ink-and-paper forever” camp? Or perhaps somewhere in between? Do you think e-books will replace print books one day?
Probably in between. I like the feel of paper, I love coffee-table books and using a favourite bookmark. As a parent, I much prefer reading a print book with my kids, especially when we are consciously trying to curb their time on tablets and gadgets. Still, it’s futile avoiding e-books. I love the convenience of e-books and bringing several titles on a holiday, especially when you’re in the middle of several books at a time, and can’t decide which one you want to read. No, I don’t think e-books will replace print books.


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