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Boy who writes to the world

British boy Toby Little has written almost 1,000 letters to everywhere on the planet since June 2013, including nine letters to Singapore

DEAR WORLD, HOW ARE YOU?: THE TRUE STORY OF A LITTLE BOY ON A BIG QUEST

By Toby Little

Penguin/Michael Joseph/Hardback/ 256 pages/$32.05 with GST from Books Kinokuniya or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 828.9209 LIT

The only time British schoolboy Toby Little has not been able to write letters in the past three years was last week.

On the telephone with The Sunday Times last Tuesday, his mother Sabine Little said that, on doctor's orders, he had to rest his right hand for a few days after cutting it. His knife had slipped while he was whittling a tree branch in the garden of their home in the English village of Bolsterstone in South Yorkshire.

That hiatus is worth noting because the eight-year-old has been corresponding the snail-mail way with people from every country in the world since June 16, 2013, when he was five-and-a-half years old. That was right after he read the children's book, Letter From New Zealand by Alison Hawes, which explained how an old-fashioned letter travels.

  • Learn how Singapore
    has changed on June 29

  • Fans of The Straits Times' columnist Han Fook Kwang will get to meet him at The Big Read Meet on June 29, when he talks about his new book, Singapore In Transition. Mr Han, who is ST's editor-at-large, will take readers' questions from 6.30pm at the Possibility Room, Level 5, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street. Sign up at any NLB e- Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov/golibrary and look for The Big Read Meet.

    Singapore In Transition is set to hit bookstores from June 6. Look out for it in The Big Read on June 12.

His mother, known as Dr Sabine Little at the University of Sheffield, where she is a language education expert, then set up the website www.writingtotheworld.com, to boost his ambitious effort and for his correspondents to keep track of how he was faring.

His project soon went viral - at one point, he received 4,000 messages on his website in three days - and he has since been featured in The Daily Telegraph, The Huffington Post and on BBC World Service.

At press time, Toby has written 960 letters to all 193 member countries of the United Nations and received 368 letters, mostly from adults and sometimes from children from all over the world, including Dilan, a blind Syrian teen who is a refugee in Iraq.

The best of these letters have been compiled as a book titled Dear World, How Are You?. Launched internationally last month, it is now one of Amazon's best books of the year and a bestseller in Britain.

In the telephone interview, Toby said that last Sunday, just before his whittling accident, he had written "10 letters to people in 10 different countries", including a family of Germanic origin living in Singapore. Their letter is the ninth he has written to Singapore, says Dr Little.

She and her son picked one of these nine letters, from a Singaporean named Bing, to be featured. Bing ended her 2015 letter, on paper with lovely splashes of watercolour, thus: "The crescent moon on our flag represents a rising young nation - we are very proud to turn 50 years old this year!"

  • FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS

  • 1 How might you best nurture and boost a child's curiosity and creative instincts?

    2 What are the best ways to help children grasp difficult ideas?

    3 How are glaciers like honey?

    4 Why are people in different parts of the world not very different?

    5 What keeps the least privileged children of the world going?

Asked why he would not stop writing letters in his own hand, the bright and thoughtful boy said: "I enjoy doing challenges and I wanted to connect the world, by making other people understand more about other people's lives so that everybody can get on, so they won't be scared and there will be less war.

"Everybody can make the world a better place. I'm just really excited when I get their responses. I always really want to open their letters."

You will see why when you leaf through this gem of a book, which not only gives you glimpses of the world through a child's eyes, but also shows you how to see the world anew with an open mind.

The letters are sorted by continents, with Toby's brief, query- peppered missives preceding the responses. Here is one from Swen Lorenz of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) in Ecuador, when Toby asked him whether children could do research: "Children make fantastic scientists and conservationists. Just a few weeks ago, the CDF outreach team were in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island working on giant tortoise research with children of many different nationalities. They tracked tortoises with GPS devices as well as inspected tortoise droppings (don't worry, they don't smell too much!)."

And here is one from a scientist at the South Pole Research Station in Antarctica, named only as James in the book: "You asked what I do for fun. Yes, sometimes we do play in the snow. Sometimes people make sculptures out of snow blocks... Last year, I played golf outside. I'm sure glad they had an orange ball."

When Toby asked a class of five-year-olds in Turkmenistan if they had visited the country's "Gate of Hell" fire crater at Darvaza, they said: "A few of us went camping to the fire crater. It was a lot of fun making paper airplanes and flying them into the middle of the crater. We thought they would explode and catch on (sic) fire, but they did not. The airplanes ended up flying very high above the crater."

With school out, armchair-travel with Toby's book with children. You will likely devour one of this year's best books in one sitting.


Just a minute

THE GOOD

1. Winsome British schoolboy Toby Little set out to write to every country in the world on June 16, 2013. At first, his mother, Dr Sabine Little of the University of Sheffield, was not sure how long it would last or if he would have the stamina to write almost 200 letters. So she started him on five letters and helped him research the questions to ask those he was corresponding with by Googling images of places of interest, the cuisine and famous people of a certain country in which the boy was interested.

Mother and son have done interactive online tours of, among other places, Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for decades, and a salt mine in Poland. The boy would then write each letter composed mainly of questions he had about what he had learnt of his respondent's country.

This careful, nifty approach has since yielded missives chock-full of information, mostly from experts in myriad fields such as animation, archaeology, ice research, industrial engineering, marine biology, medicine, pharmacy and wildlife conservation. 2. Correspondingly, this book is an excellent guide to diverse careers, as each expert breaks down the complexities of his or her calling, as well as extols the wonders of it to readers. In doing so, they share the values that have taken them so far in life. This compilation is also a way to impart good manners to the young. 3. The entire spectrum of humanity seems to be represented in the book, with much compassion and often great humour. Toby's respondents range from Guno of Madagascar, who tells him that his job "is weighing lobsters and fish", to Dr Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the iceberg-doomed Titanic ocean liner three decades ago.

THE BAD

1. The intriguing stories in some of the letters are left hanging, including one in which a woman broke her neck in a car accident, was in hospital for six months and then broke her neck again just as she was about to marry her best friend. It would have served readers better if the editors had followed up with the writers of these letters to wrap up their storylines satisfactorily.

THE IFFY

1. There are no dates to any of the letters and, too often, Toby's respondents apologise for replying late to his letters, which may give the casual reader the sense that the book is creative fiction. 2. Many among the correspondents are Western expatriates working in far- flung places. So there are few insights on the countries from those who were born and raised there.


Fact file

Cuddles for every letter he writes

The love of snail mail may be in Toby Little's genes.

On the telephone with The Sunday Times last Tuesday, his mother Sabine Little, 40, revealed that when she was 12 years old, she wrote to children via the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund.

She recalled: "My parents didn't say, well, you're too young for that, so when Toby wanted to write to Somalia, I said okay, let's have a look at what we can do."

She and her 44-year-old husband, mobile games developer Nigel Little, used to help Toby, their only child, make films about fossils when he went ga-ga over them at the age of four.

When he was five years old in 2013, he asked his mother if he could write to every country in the world after reading a book by Alison Hawes about where a letter goes once it is posted physically.

His mother, who teaches at the University of Sheffield, initially got her friends on Facebook to help find correspondents for her son, but word of mouth soon took over and people began writing in via their website www.writingtotheworld.com, eager to help him out with his writing project.

Toby took 45 minutes to compose his first letter of two lines, to one Patricia in the town of Volcano, Hawaii, in June 2013. He could barely write and spell then and, whenever he got a word, say, "favourite" right, his mum would cuddle him. Dr Little said: "Obviously, he can spell the word 'favourite' perfectly fine now, but we still have a cuddle every time he writes a letter."

Today, he dashes off a letter in five minutes and shows no sign of stopping. His mother, who helps him with his research on every country, took pains to stress: "Nobody is making Toby do this. It's his project. I want to make this clear because, on occasion, I am questioned: 'How are you making him do this?'"

Asked how he felt about being an author, he said: "It was really nice to see my work in a book. My friends tell me they like it and will read it again sometime."

Might there be a sequel to Dear World, How Are You? He said: "I think I'm just going to carry on writing letters."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'Boy who writes to the world '. Print Edition | Subscribe