Winning tale of adoption

Who Is The Red Commander?, by author Melanie Lee (above) and illustrator David Liew, wins the Crystal Kite Award in the Middle East/ India/Asia division.
Who Is The Red Commander?, by author Melanie Lee (above) and illustrator David Liew, wins the Crystal Kite Award in the Middle East/ India/Asia division. ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

A book in The Adventures Of Squirky The Alien series is the first Singapore title to win an award from the US-based Society Of Children's Book Writers And Illustrators

For years, Melanie Lee toyed with the idea of writing a children's story about a spiky-haired alien, but could never come up with a compelling storyline.

Things changed in 2012. She and her husband adopted their son Christian, and the spiky-haired alien she had been scratching her head about finally took shape.

Squirky, blue and with a spiky hairdo, is the star of The Adventures Of Squirky The Alien series written by Lee, a part-time lecturer, and illustrated by her friend, David Liew. There are six books in the series, about the alien's journey through space to find his birth parents.

Last Thursday, the third instalment, Who Is The Red Commander?, became the first Singapore book to win the Crystal Kite Award since it was established in 2010.

The annual award by the Los Angeles-based Society Of Children's Book Writers And Illustrators, which has more than 22,000 members worldwide, honours great children's books from the society's 15 regional divisions around the world.

Its members vote for their favourite book nominated in their region. Lee and Liew won in the Middle East/India/Asia division. The Crystal Kite comes with a trophy and winners are also invited to present at the society's international conferences.

The win comes at a time when children's literature from Singapore is getting recognition from abroad.

Epigram Books was in the running this year for the Bologna Best Children's Publisher Of The Year award, while the first three books of husband-and-wife duo A.J. Low's Sherlock Sam series were picked up by American publisher Andrews McMeel Publishing in November.

Lee, 37, says: "It actually felt very surreal. We didn't expect to win because there were two books from India and one from Israel - countries with much larger society memberships - as well as a well-loved Singapore book, A Curious Bundle For Bo Bo And Cha Cha by Jason Erik Lundberg, as fellow finalists.

"We're happy that a Singapore children's book is one of the 15 winners around the world, especially if you think about how small our scene is compared with bigger countries with a stronger literary culture."

And Liew, who is also behind the drawings for Eliza Teoh's Ellie Belly series of children's books, had a huge role in bringing Squirky to life.

Lee recalls how he had suggested doing a "fun alien story" after a visit to meet Christian, who had been adopted from Indonesia.

That set the ball rolling for their collaboration on The Adventures Of Squirky The Alien. It was initially meant as a "fun e-book indie thing", but the series found a publisher in MPH Group Publishing, which had in early 2014 put out an illustrated collection of short stories by Lee.

Christian, who is now four, is one of the test readers for every book, says Lee.

"He was the very first one - then at six months old - who saw the Squirky prototype that David came up with three years ago. He approved by smiling and pressing Squirky's tummy star on my laptop screen."

Lee and her husband, photographer Darren Soh, 40, have had some adoption-related conversations with their son after reading the books with him.

She says: "He understands the basic concept of adoption through these stories, but there's still much more for us to talk through as a family. Because he sees his name - 'For Christian' is at the beginning of each book - he sees the stories as belonging to him.

"Last year, he started to get upset when he saw me reading the stories to other children. So we've worked out an arrangement where I'll keep him posted if I have 'Squirky work', but he doesn't have to come along for such events."

So far, about 2,500 copies of the Squirky books have been sold.

Liew, 46, liked the idea of the books being able to make a difference: "I came on board because Melanie's aim of having a book to help adopted kids and their parents understand the issues involved really appealed to me."

Ms Catherine Carvell, regional adviser for the Singapore branch of the Society Of Children's Book Writers And Illustrators, says of the children's literature scene here: "There is no single reason for this flurry of successes, but rather several decades of consistent and concerted effort by Singaporean authors, publishers, government bodies, non- profit bodies and all involved in the industry to improve the quality of Singapore children's books."

The National Book Development Council of Singapore, for instance, has been fostering children's literature here for years now, introducing various awards, such as the Hedwig Anuar Children's Book Award; and festivals, such as the Asian Festival Of Children's Content, which returns this week for its seventh edition.

The Singapore branch of the society has almost 60 members, up from the five it started with in 2010.

Ms Carvell adds: "Today, evidenced by the success of A.J. Low's Sherlock Sam series, Singapore is creating children's literature that is competitive in the global market."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2016, with the headline 'Winning tale of adoption'. Print Edition | Subscribe