Film-maker Ken Kwek wins children's book award with funny novel where exam pressure meets hip-hop

Singaporean writer-director Ken Kwek and illustrator Lolita Chiong. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Singaporean writer-director Ken Kwek is perhaps best known for film controversy, but his latest award is for a children's book.

On Sunday, the 41-year-old won the Hedwig Anuar Children's Book Award for his 2019 novel, Kelly And The Krumps, with emerging illustrator Lolita Chiong.

Kelly, a schoolgirl faced with the pressure of the impending Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), secretly joins a hip-hop crew and attempts to win a dance competition to pay off the debts of her twin brother, who has fallen afoul of an online gaming syndicate.

The biennial award for children's literature, named for the first Singaporean director of the National Library of Singapore, was given out this year in a virtual ceremony at the close of the Asian Festival of Children's Content's first digital edition.

Its organisers, the Singapore Book Council, reduced the cash prize from the usual $10,000 to $3,000 each for the winning writer and illustrator, citing the economic impact of the pandemic.

The prize, which is for Singaporeans or permanent residents, received a record 87 submissions this year, a 33 per cent increase from 2018, which were whittled down into a shortlist of six.

This year's judges were National Institute of Education lecturer Donna Lim and illustrators Charles Santoso and Lee Kow Fong, better known by his pseudonym Ah Guo. They praised Kwek's "keen understanding of the local child's world" and Chiong's "tongue-in-cheek illustrations".

Kwek is most recognised for his adult material, such as his satirical films Unlucky Plaza (2014) and Sex.Violence.FamilyValues, which was banned in 2012 and was later reinstated with an R21 rating after edits. He also wrote This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls, a play about sexual misconduct staged last year.

In 2018, however, he dove into the more innocuous arena of middle-grade books with his best-selling debut novel Timothy And The Phubbers, which like Kelly And The Krumps was illustrated by Chiong and deals with the impact of screen culture on children.

"Phubbers", a portmanteau of "phone" and "snubber", refers to those who ignore others in a social setting in favour of their phones.

"For the first time in history, we have a whole generation of children growing up with a screen culture that is ubiquitous, addictive, and which manipulates their desires and self-image in ways that can be incredibly unhealthy," says Kwek, who is married to actress Pam Oei with a son, nine.

He got the idea for Kelly's dance crew from a hip-hop class his son attended.

"I met kids from very different cultural backgrounds, with a diversity of styles. There was the nerdy Chinese kid with specs, the funky Malay boy with spiky hair, the Japanese girl who dresses like a manga character.

"Yet as a hip-hop crew, they achieved a kind of alchemy, combining teamwork and synchronicity with freestyling individuality."

He also wanted to look at exam pressure. "PSLE stress - you went through it, I went through it, my son will go through it. But today's kids, and their parents, are more miserable than ever before, with many feeling compelled to put themselves through the wringer of a multibillion-dollar tuition industry.

"This book brings comic relief to a painful rite of passage that every Singaporean child goes through today."

He turned to children's fiction for the sake of his son, he says. "I wrote these children's books to make him and his friends laugh. I want to delight."

Kelly And The Krumps ($13.80) is available here.

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