Thursday, September 22, 2022

SHERLOCK HONG _____ Wow, happy 10th birthday to this handsome kid detective, still entertaining young readers and inspiring comments like, "Shhh! Eh, don’t talk, this book is very interesting!"

This post took me a long time to write, it started out going in one direction, but it changed into something else along the way, and it kept changing. I've tried to keep all the different ideas I had, all the things I wanted to share, and well, here it is.

I'm very grateful to Malaysian author/editor Brigitte Rozario for taking the photo above, and posting it on Instagram, and tagging me.

(Thanks, Brigitte!)

What you see here is a plenary session about the power of stories, on the opening day of the 38th IBBY International Congress, which was held recently in Putrajaya, Malaysia from 5 to 8 September 2022.

IBBY stands for International Board on Books for Young People, it's an international network of people who are passionate about inspiring kids to read. It's based in Switzerland, more info here.

During this session, Malaysian author Tutu Dutta (see photo, she's speaking, at the podium) mentioned one of my Sherlock Hong titles (The Legend of Lady Yue, featured on the big screen, with the red cover) as a notable South-East Asian book.

(Thank you too, Tutu!)

It's so nice to hear this, because this is the 10th anniversary of our Sherlock Hong series, which started with a simple mystery/adventure story, The Case of the Immortal Nightingale, which I originally self-published as a free ebook 10 years back, in early March 2012.

The series is set in 1891, Singapore, and told from the perspective of a 15 year old boy who stumbles upon some intriguing mysteries around his neighbourhood.

(Backstory: during an earlier trip to London, this boy had a chance to meet the legendary Sherlock Holmes, and was inspired to become a legendary detective too, hence his name.)

I wrote these stories to entertain my two young sons, and also give them a chance to learn how books are created and published. That was the humble start of our Super Cool Books publishing studio.

If I remember right, my storytelling style for the first story actually started out as an experimental mix of influences. But to my delight, as I worked at it, this mashup somehow magically evolved into Sherlock Hong's own distinct voice, an enthusiastic and inquisitive kid determined to find something new to investigate every day.

I would also say that it's this charming first person narrator that created me, the author, and not the other way around. Yes, I should explain more, but another time.

(Thanks, Sherlock Hong!)

When I started promoting The Case of the Immortal Nightingale, as a self-published ebook, I received lots of requests for printed copies. So I used a print-on-demand service to produce a few paperback copies, and distributed these with a bit of help from Monsters Under The Bed, a local company that conducted writing workshops for kids.

(BTW there are photos of all this waiting for you below, hang on, we'll get there.)

Back then, I sent one of these print-on-demand copies to Brigitte at The Star newspaper in KL, who (most kindly) ended up publishing the first ever review of a Sherlock Hong book. She was very encouraging, and this inspired me to write Book 2, Peranakan Princess.

Also, by this time I was ready for something bigger. I got my younger son to illustrate some new book covers, and I self-published enough copies of both Sherlock Hong books to get into the major bookstores and also the libraries, through our distributor Select Books.

I still smile when I think about this incredibly naive family effort — my wife and two sons helping me with the book deliveries, everyone staying up late to pack book orders at our dining table, brainstorming photo ideas for social media, and so on.

As a result of all this, I gained a reputation for being a DIY publisher. I was invited to speak at various events, including the Singapore Writers Festival in 2013, the Singapore Makers Meetup, the Asian Festival of Children's Content, and also at a gathering of startup enthusiasts at the Mindvalley office in KL, which led to a nice collaboration with Malaysian edtech company BrainBytes.

Later on, Marshall Cavendish acquired the series, and to celebrate this we put out two new Sherlock Hong titles, The Scroll of Greatness and The Legend of Lady Yue, with completely new cover designs for all four books, this time featuring illustrations by Anngee Neo.

There were so many other highlights along the way, too many to list here. Maybe in a later post. In my memory, this period still feels like a great whirlwind, as I made more and more connections in the children's book community, from fellow writers to parents to educators to literacy activists to publishers and booksellers.

And most importantly, I learnt a lot from connecting with the young readers themselves. I was invited to speak about Sherlock Hong in schools, libraries, bookstores and at kids' events. From these interactions, I was inspired to develop even more books.

(Thanks, all the children! Although you'd mostly be teenagers and young adults by now, heh.)

To my delight, my books also reached other kids, those who were not so young anymore, but still enjoyed such simple narrative pleasures.

Like, an old friend, Mabel Gan, also a writer of children's fiction, messaged me once to say that her mother was waiting for her at a public library while she ran her errands, and when she got to the library she found her mother reading a Sherlock Hong book.

Mabel's mother was so engrossed that she shushed my friend, and added, "Eh, don’t talk, this book is very interesting."

Mabel sent me a photo of her mother, taken on that day, and her mother has kindly agreed to let me include this below, so do look out for it.

(Thanks a lot, Aunty! And Mabel too.)

BTW Mabel is the founder of Big Eyes, Big Minds — Singapore International Children’s Film Festival, and you can find out more about her book, The Ghost Who Pinched Me, here.

Well, back to the IBBY International Congress photo above — it's been such an honour and privilege to be part of this passionate and generous kidlit community. Some of us go back a long way.

Tutu Dutta is herself a prolific author, and I featured her on this blog some time back, here. Her most recent book is The Blood Prince of Langkasuka, published in 2021 by Penguin Random House SEA.

I remember learning about Heidi Shamsuddin, another Malaysian author who was part of this same IBBY session, through Brigitte, over email, and I soon ordered Heidi's The Door Under the Stairs books from Oyez!Books. Shortly afterwards I featured Heidi on my blog, here.

Eva Wong Nava and Daryl Kho, whose books were also featured on the screen alongside mine, were previously featured on this blog here (Eva) and here (Daryl).

Some years back I also featured Brigitte Rozario on this blog, talking about her Beebo picture books, you can read her interview here. She has since gone on to mentor many young writers in Malaysia, and even publish their stories. You can learn more about her work here.

I'm really grateful to everyone who helped to support the Sherlock Hong series, and recommended it to young readers, and contributed to this literary journey. 

If you're looking for copies, the Sherlock Hong books are still available on Amazon, Book Depository, and Times Bookstores.

On the tenth anniversary of the Marshall Cavendish edition, which will be in a few years, I hope we can put out some awesome reissues, with bonus content, like stories and illustrations and other fun stuff, and perhaps even feature fan contributions from young writers.
I've written and published many more books since, but this Sherlock Hong experience will always be dear to me, because it opened the doors for Super Cool Books and gave us all a complete hands-on education in children's book publishing, with practical and sometimes counter-intuitive lessons that I often try to share with fellow writers and publishers.

Yes, this is a long post, but it's not over.

May I now invite you to take a trip down memory lane with me, because I've compiled some photos below to capture this incredible ten-year journey that Sherlock Hong has taken all of us on.

Hope you enjoy this treat, and do feel free to get in touch if I can assist you in your own children's book publishing in any way.

Let's all keep taking kids on fantastic adventures in their imagination. Let's give them reasons to feel optimistic about the life ahead of them, and show them how language can be used to create a sense of connection and fun.

What we can imagine, we can create.

Come, let's imagine a wonderful world for all the children.


— Don

And now, as promised, here are the photos. The very last photo shows a big Sherlock Hong chocolate cake, it was super yummy. Enjoy!

Yes, this is the Sherlock Hong cake! :)

Thursday, July 28, 2022

LAST KID RUNNING _____ My latest interview is up on Fungamery, go check it out

Delighted to share this interview that I did recently for the Fungamery website. Fungamery is a US-based platform for creating and sharing your own puzzles, interactive adventures, virtual escape rooms and more.

Interview excerpt: 
I also worked on a documentary about a parkour group from London, we brought them to various famous landmarks around Singapore and filmed them executing daring stunts and running sequences there. Through this I got to learn quite a bit about the parkour culture, its history, and why some enthusiasts believe that it could be the most intelligent urban sport form to have emerged. In my series, this was the inspiration for why Dr Yamato wanted to create the Last Kid Running competition, to get kids excited about running, and possibly running on other planets one day.

Read my full interview here.

More information about my Last Kid Running series at this link here, including an exciting unboxing video shared by my publisher Penguin Random House.

Also, you can check out my earlier interview with Daniel Gordon, the creative guy behind Fungamery, I featured him in one of our Gamebook Academy blog posts.

Take care, happy reading, remember to explore your imagination every day, if you don't use it you'll start to lose it.

— Don 

. . . . . . . . . .



The Secret of the Chatter Blocks

Sunday, July 10, 2022

SUPERKICKS _____ Behind the scenes: the official Superkicks futsal tournament that didn't happen

NOTE: Hi! I recently posted an update clarifying Benedict Boo's role in this series, you can read it here. You can also read other posts in the Superkicks: The Secret Journals series here.
Hello! And welcome back. Glad you're following this series of posts about my Superkicks books for kids. These are thrilling and action packed stories about a group of students who get picked to join the prestigious Superkicks football programme.

As I've mentioned before, writers who really enjoy the creative process often keep journals to track everything along the way, from loose ideas to the publishing and business side of things. I'm definitely one of them. Recently I've been going through the old notes in my Superkicks journals, and reminiscing about how the whole project unfolded.

It's amazing that we've published three books so far: Time to Play (Book 1), Best Shot (Book 2), and Dare to Dream (Book 3).

* Yes, that makes it a hat-trick.

I created the series and wrote all the stories, with some help from one of my sons, who co-wrote a few of the really funny bits. But clearly it took more than just the two of us to make this happen. There was a really good team involved, with diverse talents, covering everything from editing to design, illustrations, marketing, distribution, sales, and more.

* As the popular saying goes, teamwork makes the dream work.

In my Superkicks stories, the football training programme for students is a great success all around. But in real life our journey to promote these books turned out to be a lot more challenging.

For example, there was supposed to be a big Superkicks futsal competition in 2018, to bring some Superkicks action to schools in Singapore.

A number of people worked really hard behind the scenes to put together the administrative and logistics support for this. Pretty amazing effort, which I sincerely appreciate. But in the end this event didn't happen. It had to be cancelled, to some disappointment. (This was a while before the pandemic.)

* You could say someone dropped the ball.

Also, among other proposals, we considered an ambitious plan for a Superkicks tie-up with Shonan Bellmare, a professional football club in Japan. One of our partners said he would bring young footballers from Singapore to visit and train with them. It did seem so promising. Quite a shame that this, too, did not actually happen.

I had to learn some important lessons from all this, especially regarding teamwork, fair play and character values. Like, giving someone a public endorsement before they've actually proven themselves might inflate their sense of self-importance and cause them to get carried away. They somehow forget to be grateful and cooperative.

* They become too big for their boots.

Sometimes we might try to be nice and make allowances, or accept excuses, but this does backfire. It's often important to give honest and firm feedback, and also address the shortcomings openly and frankly.

* Because to really succeed, one needs to cover all the bases.

(Heh, hope you're amused by how I've been working all these * sports phrases into this blog post.)

I've been reflecting on these lessons and recording my thoughts in my Superkicks journals, because this is really good inspiration for future sports stories. It could be a new series about badminton players, or skateboarders, or competitive climbers, or even dart players, the underlying human truths remain constant. And writing fiction is a wonderful way to help young readers develop an awareness about all this.

That's it for now, take care, and always remember to imagine happy days ahead!


— Don



Friday, June 3, 2022

SUPERKICKS _____ What to talk about at our Superkicks school talks

NOTE: Hi! I recently posted an update clarifying Benedict Boo's role in this series, you can read it here. You can also read other posts in the Superkicks: The Secret Journals series here.

My Superkicks fiction series features lots of thrilling action in various learning environments, not just in schools but also at the Superkicks training programme created by Dr JJ Khan, the central mentor character.

These scenarios are all inspired by my own experiences. Fun fact: my first job after my A-Levels, before my National Service, was as a relief teacher.

Later, I completed my teacher training at the National Institute of Education, and went on to do my MA and PhD at the National University of Singapore. That's how much I enjoyed the feeling of learning and growing.

I also love to create rich learning experiences for others. Many of my course mates were educators, and through them I worked on lots of exciting projects in schools, everything from creative arts to science education, mostly involving some new form of interactive or media technology.

Due to recent requests, I'll be offering a new series of Superkicks talks for primary schools, both in person and over Zoom. These sessions can be customised for assembly talks, or for smaller groups.

Here are some relevant topics close to my heart.

Me looking sporty at a school talk, back in
the early years of Super Cool Books.
1. Good Character Values
These Superkicks stories are a great way to get students thinking about their own behaviour, and how this affects the people around them.

What makes a happy team? How can young leaders get respect and cooperation from team members? What is trust, and how is this earned? Why is a sense of community important?

While doing research for this Superkicks series, I was inspired to learn that over the last one million years humans have grown increasingly cooperative as well as empathetic, and these traits helped us thrive and evolve. This is Dr Khan's main insight in training the young players.

By the end of this session, students will learn to recognise basic patterns of team behaviour, with reference to scenes in the Superkicks stories, and also get tips on creating positive, happy teams.
2. Writing with Rhythm
How do I manage to write so many stories that readers enjoy? A big part of this is writing sentences that have a nice, lively rhythm.

Just think of the classic phrase, "once upon a time". It has a catchy, inviting rhythm, "dum-dadum-da-dum", which makes you want to settle in and listen on.

For this session, we will look at one or two very short stories written in an awkward or flat rhythm, and I will demonstrate some quick and easy ways to make them read better.

These tips will help students become more confident and resourceful when expressing themselves.

3. Hollywood Writing Secrets

When writing any kind of narrative, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, it's important to have a basic sense of sequential storytelling, or the piece will end up disorganised and even incoherent.

For this talk, I will demonstrate a simple method that Hollywood scriptwriters use to create coherent and engaging stories, by working with the classic Beginning-Middle-End structure to convey a sense of cause and effect.
Students will get to write their own short story outlines, and receive quick feedback from me.

I'm also open to requests for any specific themes or skills to be covered.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, previously Super Cool Books had an arrangement with Benedict Boo to be our schools salesperson for this series, but now I'm most thrilled to share my enthusiasm and literary mentorship directly in this way. So do get in touch to sign up for these talks, especially if you're a teacher or parent looking to book a session.  

We thank everyone for your generous support of this series so far.

Let's look forward to a great Superkicks experience!


— Don