Helping kids create imaginary worlds

Norwegian writer Tone Almhjell loved role-playing games and reading fantasy stories

“I was always happiest when I could sit on my own and make up stories.” - Norwegian writer Tone Almhjell (above) -- PHOTO: LINE ALMHJELL
“I was always happiest when I could sit on my own and make up stories.” - Norwegian writer Tone Almhjell (above) -- PHOTO: LINE ALMHJELL

Tone Almhjell, author of the best-selling children's fantasy The Twistrose Key, hopes to help children here create their own imaginary worlds at the Singapore Writers Festival.

The 41-year-old Norwegian writer's workshop and appearance form part of the expanded Little Lit! programme for children aged four to 12, which runs during the festival from tomorrow to Nov 9.

"People say it's easy to write fantasy because you can make things up, but actually, it's hard," Almhjell, says in a Skype interview from her home outside Oslo.

"When you play, you can always make things up, it's like stream of consciousness. But when you write a story, you need to build a world that's believable. What do the people in this world eat, what's the weather like? All these things you don't need when you play."

The married mother of two is perhaps the biggest name heading down for the festival's three-year-old free programme for young readers.

The Twistrose Key, the story of a young girl who saves a lost prince with the help of a beloved pet, was named one of the best books of last year by influential review site Kirkus Reviews, and received rave reviews in Publishers Weekly and The New York Times.

Other writers from overseas featured in Little Lit! include French graphic designers Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud as well as novelists Sally Rippin and Jacqueline Harvey from Australia.

Singapore speakers include best-selling authors of children's books such as Adeline Foo (The Diary Of Amos Lee series), Eliza Teoh (Ellie Belly series) and picturebook writer Emily Lim, as well as 12-year-old Amon Chua, whose fossil-hunting adventure Walking With Dinosaurs! was published earlier this year by Teoh's Bubbly Books imprint.

The Little Lit programme was started in 2011 and feeds into the Words Go Round sessions held every year at schools for older children and teenagers.

Festival director Paul Tan says both are meant to "inculcate a love of reading and writing among children and teens in Singapore and help them to understand works from Singapore authors".

About 600 parents and children attended the 13 events during last year's Little Lit. The Singapore Writers Festival this year worked with the National Museum of Singapore and local poet and storyteller Roger Jenkins to curate about 50 events for children, including meet-the- author sessions, and storytelling, craft and writing workshops.

Almhjell is looking forward to meeting the children here during her first visit to Singapore and is curious about the games they play in an urban setting.

She grew up close to nature and spent summers on her grandmother's farm, playing outdoors and hunting "zombie monsters" with friends.

Some of her childhood games made it into her novel, which was written in English and picked up by the Penguin Group via the intervention of an online friend and fellow-author, American Laini Taylor, who writes young adult fantasy series Daughter Of Smoke And Bone (2011, Hachette).

Almhjell feels she has much in common with the children she writes for. She never quite left the world of imagination. When she stopped playing with dolls, she went on to role-playing games and continued reading fantasy stories. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings was the subject of her master's thesis in English Literature from the University of Oslo.

"I was always happiest when I could sit on my own and make up stories," she says.

That was why, after five years working on the online arts beat of a regional newspaper, she gave up journalism to stay home with her children and write.

She began The Twistrose Key a decade ago after her pet gerbil died and part of the charm of this novel is the way it deals with grief and death in an age- appropriate manner, neither talking down to young readers nor softening the harshness of loss.

"As a child, you're rarely allowed to get close to death. When a pet dies, it's really close, the closest you get to experiencing the bad part of life," she says.

The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival.