Writer-director wins children's book prize

Kelly And The Krumps' author Ken Kwek and illustrator Lolita Chiong.
Kelly And The Krumps' author Ken Kwek and illustrator Lolita Chiong. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Singaporean writer-director Ken Kwek, known for controversial films, has won a prominent children's book prize.

On Sunday, the 41-year-old won the Hedwig Anuar Children's Book Award for his 2019 novel, Kelly And The Krumps, together 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 foul 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 first digital edition of the Asian Festival of Children's Content.

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. Lee is 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 satirical films Unlucky Plaza (2014) and Sex. Violence.FamilyValues, which was banned in 2012 and later reinstated with an R21 rating after edits.

He also wrote This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls, a play about sexual misconduct, which was 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 and 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 examination 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 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 at bit.ly/KellyKrumps_Kwek

• This article includes affiliate links. When you buy through affiliate links in the article, we may earn a small commission.


Big Bad Wolf Book Sale comes to Singapore

Major Malaysian book fair The Big Bad Wolf Book Sale will be coming to Singapore for the first time, albeit virtually.

The flash sale - which carries more than 40,000 titles and 20 million new books, including fiction, non-fiction and children's books, at discounts of up to 90 per cent - will run from next Thursday to Sunday.

Founders and married couple Andrew Yap and Jacqueline Ng said at a Zoom press conference on Thursday that they had always wanted to bring the sale to Singapore, but got around to it only this year because of high logistics costs.

Because of their mission to make books affordable for all, they had also prioritised moving into countries with less access to books, such as Myanmar or Cambodia.

Mr Yap, 43, said: "Because of the pandemic, we pivoted to become an e-commerce company and one of the first countries we thought of was Singapore."

Big Bad Wolf began as a warehouse sale in Kuala Lumpur in 2009. It has since expanded to 10 other countries and territories - including Indonesia, South Korea and Dubai - and held 33 events last year. It has also held online sales in Thailand and Sri Lanka.

Mr Yap said there were teething problems with website infrastructure. "It's like building a car that you have no time to test-drive because it's a flash sale and we have to fix it as we go along. There were many challenges, but none of them detrimental."

Besides huge discounts, the sale also offers a flat shipping rate of $4.90. Delivery is free for orders of $99 and above.

Mr Yap and Ms Ng, who are Malaysian and Singaporean respectively, also founded the BookXcess bookstore chain in Malaysia, known for the towering walls of books at its Penang and Johor branches.

Mr Yap hinted that they were in talks with OCBC Bank, their partner for the upcoming sale, to start a Singapore outlet.

"The book-selling business has totally changed," he said. "You see standalone bookstores downsizing or closing. We need help - we can't do it alone.

"The Big Bad Wolf sale here will be a good gauge of the Singapore market. We are preparing ourselves to be in Singapore - we're not sure when, but we will be."

• For more details, go to sgsale.bigbadwolfbooks.com

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2020, with the headline Writer-director wins children's book prize. Subscribe