Picture books help children understand death, depression

Feeding Time (far left), a short story about a child who uses a wheelchair, is by Suzanne Kamata and illustrated by Felicia Hoshino. Si Kian (left), by Weng Cahiles and illustrated by Aldy Aguirre, is about a 17-year-old student who was killed by thr
Feeding Time (left), a short story about a child who uses a wheelchair, is by Suzanne Kamata and illustrated by Felicia Hoshino. Si Kian (right), by Weng Cahiles and illustrated by Aldy Aguirre, is about a 17-year-old student who was killed by three policemen in the Philippine drug war.PHOTO: FELICIA HOSHINO, THE PCIJ STORY PROJECT

Tough topics such as death, disability and depression might be thought too difficult for children, but books can help young readers understand these issues.

The Asian Festival of Children's Content, which runs from tomorrow to Sunday and deals with diversity in children's books and young adult fiction, will not be shying away from sensitive subjects.

This is the 10th edition of the annual festival, which is organised by the Singapore Book Council and will feature more than 90 sessions and 150 speakers.

The panel Dealing With Difficult Topics In Children's Literature will discuss three picture books, Jun And The Octopus by Ekkers, a resource for child sexual abuse prevention; Brave Maeve by Joanne Poon, about childhood cancer; and Grey Bear Days by Sabrinah Morad, which touches on parental depression.

Singapore Children's Society advocacy and research deputy director Lin Xiaoling, a panellist, says that adult caregivers may struggle to broach these "scary" topics or avoid them as they believe children lack the cognitive ability to understand them.

"Picture books are a wonderful way to counter this resistance," says the 36-year-old. "Illustrations fill in the subtext that sometimes words are not enough to convey and, together, they reach out to the child reader at a level that is easily accessible."

Two-time Philippines' National Children's Book Awards winner Weng Cahiles will be talking about trauma and her 2017 children's book Si Kian, which she created with photojournalist Kimberly dela Cruz and illustrator Aldy Aguirre to tell the story of Kian Loyd Delos Santos, a 17-year-old student who was killed by three policemen, a casualty of the Philippines' war on drugs.

"Kids and young adults need to know that these things do happen to people their age," says Cahiles, 33, noting that children as young as three have been killed in the drug war. "Kian could be their classmate, a friend, a neighbour. It may seem harsh, but this is our reality now."

  • BOOK IT / ASIAN FESTIVAL OF CHILDREN'S CONTENT

  • WHERE: National Library, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Tomorrow to Sunday, various times

    ADMISSION: From $15 (a lecture, concession) to $260 (regular all-access pass) from afcc.com.sg/2019/page/tickets

Japan-based American author Suzanne Kamata will be discussing special needs representation in children's literature. The teenage heroine of her young adult novels, Gadget Girl (2013) and Indigo Girl (2019), is inspired by her own daughter, who is biracial, deaf and has cerebral palsy.

"In the past, a lot of stories involving disability were about overcoming or curing the disability, or even becoming free from disability through death," says Kamata, 53. "It's important for everyone to realise that people with disabilities are more than just their disabilities and that they enjoy their lives.

"It's also important to normalise disability. If children are accustomed to seeing representations of people with disabilities doing ordinary things, they will be more accepting when they meet someone with a limb difference, for example, or someone who communicates via sign language."

A new initiative at this year's festival is the Young Book Reviewers online podcast, in which students from secondary schools and junior colleges will review Asian children's and young adult books.

There will also be a showcase of the results of a GIF-making competition held last month, in which participants had 24 hours to create a GIF inspired by selected works from the festival's featured authors.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2019, with the headline 'Picture books help children understand death, depression'. Print Edition | Subscribe