The Asian Festival of Children’s Content was designed to bring together ‘anyone interested in quality Asian content for children’. And in that, it has succeeded quite satisfactorily.

Last year, 813 delegates and 8,814 general visitors listened as 151 speakers shared their experiences and learning. The corresponding figures for 2011 were 608, 1200 and 70. Thirty book launches, 104 sessions and four conferences made up AFCC 2013 with 3 awards being announced.

In this interview, executive director, R Ramachandran, talks about the Festival and related issues.

Q. What does the India Focus mean for Singapore in general and AFCC 2014 in particular? And what is the criteria for choosing a country focus partner?

A. Singapore has had almost 50 years of close ties with India since its independence. And, yet, very few Singaporeans have intimate knowledge of India. So the India Focus is aimed at drawing attention to India and Indian culture in general.

This is very important for AFCC because Singaporeans as a whole know very little about Indian literature, particularly children’s writers and their books. For example, Ruskin Bond, who has dominated the Indian children’s literature scene for almost four decades, is not known in Singapore. The same is true for almost all the writers and illustrators working on Indian children’s literature. The objective of the Indian focus is to promote Indian writers and their books in Singapore and, through AFCC, to the rest of Asia.

We give preference to countries in Asia that bid to be the Country of Focus at AFCC. Such bids are considered by the Board of Advisors and accordingly selected. India bid in 2012 to be the Country of Focus in 2014. In 2013, China successfully bid to be the Country of Focus in 2015. We will be considering bids for 2016 this year, and Japan seems to be the current frontrunner.

Q. It has been 10 years of the Writers and Illustrators Conference and four years of AFCC. Is it growing in the direction you had envisaged? Were there any course corrections necessary?

A. Certainly. For instance, we introduced the Country of Focus in 2011 and the Philippines was the first Country of Focus in 2012. We also introduced the translation track that year to emphasise that great literature is often in a language other than English. I believe that translation is the key to promoting the sharing of books amongst Asian nations.

In addition, we have begun to focus on young adult literature to identify good books for our teenage population. These are some of the new programmes we have introduced to better understand Asian literature at home and abroad.

We did have to make one major shift. We had focused on children’s writers and the creators of children’s content, but there was no focus on the children themselves. Accordingly, we introduced sessions where children discussed their favourite books and writers, and what they like to read and why.

In subsequent years, we have also introduced programmes specifically for children, such as storytelling and creative writing. This focus on children will grow significantly in the following years as it has proven popular and has added a sense of wonder to the AFCC. It lends credence to our belief that children’s literature should be created with children, and not in isolation.

Q. What are the similarities – and differences – that you see in children’s publishing in Singapore and India?

A. There is no real basis for comparison. Singapore is a dwarf compared to the colossus that is India. Children’s books in all the main languages of India has been thriving and are being read and used in schools widely. The quality of the publishing, the writing and illustrations have improved, and there appears to be a much reduced dependence on imported content.

Singapore relies on the US and Britain for children’s books in English. Books in Chinese, Malay and Tamil are imported from China, Malaysia and India respectively. Almost all of its non-fiction books are also imported. There has been increased interest in local children’s books in recent years with the government providing assistance to publishers and children’s writers. Help is also given to writers and publishers to promote locally-published books to other countries, but we cannot yet hope to match the juggernaut that is India.

Both countries should pay greater attention to the quality, range and reach of local books, and increased attention should be given to translation of their books not only to English but to the other Asian languages. Like India, Singapore primarily promotes its books to the West. Both countries should focus more on promoting their books to Asian countries as well.

Q. How does the AFCC aim to bridge the two cultures? Have initiatives like the Scholastic Asian Book Awards helped? How many entries do you get for the Awards? Has the number increased?

A. The understanding of the two culture begins by participating in each other’s literary activities. Indian writers and illustrators regularly take part in AFCC, and they have been invited to take part in school and library events in Singapore.

Our writers visit India as well and take part in Indian festivals such as Bookaroo, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival and the New Delhi Book Fair. The Singapore writer and illustrator Susanna Goh’s book, Fun in the Opera, was first launched in the New Delhi Book Fair. The purchase of rights of Singaporean books (for example, Adeline Foo`s book, The Diary of Amos Lee) for the Indian market also help spread our local works.

As writers become better known, their books become part of library collections and also get sold in bookshops. The Scholastic Asian Book Award also helped to bridge the divide. We get over 150 submissions during the submission periods, and a large number of them are from India. The winning titles are published and distributed all over Asia. The Awards help generate more books based on Asia and Asian themes, and these assist in the better understanding of Asian cultures.

Q. The AFCC is a gathering of providers of children’s content. It is also an exchange platform. Is there any measure by which you analyse whether the discussions, ideas and strategies that emerge from these panels filter – actionable terms – to the actual reader, the child? For instance, has there been a rise in translation and exchanges within Asian countries?

A. There is no formal evaluation. Participants do not feedback any major breakthroughs, but it is evident that AFCC is a great meeting point for writers of Asian content. It brings awareness to develop content based on Asian for children and the problems and the challenges. Recently, we ensured that this happens by collecting the key papers to be published in a book form. We have published the proceedings of 2012 and the proceedings of the 2013 will be launched at this year’s Festival.

AFCC is helping children’s literature as is evident in the increase in participants year over year from all over the world. This, in turn, leads to things like the translation of various books into not just English, but our other three national languages, which means these books can find wider audiences in not just China, Taiwan, Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka, but anywhere else in the world these languages are read. Adeline’s books have been translated into Chinese and Indonesian

Recently, the National Book Trust (NBT) India translated the Singapore-published book Water into Tamil. Joint publications are also put together because of the meetings that occur at AFCC. For example, Near and Dear, a joint Singaporean-Australian publication that will be launched at AFCC this year, features seven authors from Western Australia and seven from Singapore writing about the theme of family.

The AFCC also allows for a closer connection between literary institutions from different nations like the NBT India, the National Book Development Board of the Philippines, Western Australia’s writingWA, Malaysia’s Kota Buku and, of course, our own National Book Development Council. AFCC also emphasizes the market potential in growing Asia. Increasingly, publishers and other media platforms are looking for creators with great content at this festival.

Q. What is the AFCC’s vision of children’s content in Asia?

A. The ultimate vision is that children’s content from Asia will be read and appreciated by not just Asian children, but by children all over the world.

Within Asia, our children should be exposed to books by our local authors early and often. And just as our children have grown up with Western children’s books, Western children should also grow up with Asian books. When these things happen, children will be better equipped to understand the wider world around them, and the world closer to home.

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