By Felicia Low-Jiminez
I confess that I have never met Don Bosco in person. We’re friends on Facebook, we’ve exchanged emails, I have copies of his books, but I’ve yet to meet the man face to face. However, his reputation precedes him. Don is known as an innovator in children’s book publishing, someone who’s constantly coming up with new ways to entice kids to read, and a writer that takes risks with his projects. Plus, and perhaps most importantly, Don is also known as a Super Cool dad. He is perhaps one of the few writers I know who not only draws inspiration from his two sons, but directly involves them in writing and illustrating the books that he publishes. I honestly can’t imagine a better way to encourage and groom a new generation of readers and writers.
Tell us more about your newest book, Lion City Adventures.
Lion City Adventures is marketed as a book for children (8 to 11), but now we’re discovering that parents, teachers and other adults are fascinated with it too.
The book features 10 very different locations around Singapore, from the Singapore River to Little India, Gardens by the Bay to the Mint Museum of Toys.
The aim is to introduce children to Singapore’s rich heritage as well as its modern marvels, and we’ve done this by mashing up different types of content. Each chapter contains an exploration guide for the place, colourful illustrations, child-friendly activities, pages for sketching and journalling, and also a role-playing challenge where readers help to solve a mystery.
We’ve tried to be a little more creative with the role-playing aspect. There’s an epic background narrative about an old exploration society started by three children in Singapore back in 1894, called the Lion City Adventuring Club, and this runs throughout the book. Also, when readers get to the end, there’s an official Lion City Adventuring Club certificate waiting for them.
By introducing this alternate reality element which celebrates curiosity and exploration, we can eventually expand the story out of the book and into a wider trans-media package, with print, digital as well as real-world experiences. And so this book is an introduction to all that.
The Lion City Adventuring Club seems to have such a rich history! Does it really exist?
Yes, of course! There are two versions of the club. One is an alternate reality construct inside the book, and this provides a context for young readers to solve mysteries, explore the story world and enjoy some role-playing fun.
The other version of the Lion City Adventuring Club is a real-life group that we want to create around the book, so that we can have excursions, meet-ups and holiday activities for children, all inspired by the themes in the book.
The book covers ten locations around Singapore. What was the research process like and how long did it take?
We had a hard time trying to keep it down to just 10 locations! In the end we had to prioritise based on relevance, accessibility and experiential value. We chose the final 10 locations to reflect Singapore’s diverse cultural heritage, help parents plan their own outings, and also inspire young tourists.
I’ve done a lot of research on many of the locations previously, when working on magazines or books or TV shows, and even during my post-graduate work, so it’s all quite familiar. Melvin Neo, who edited the book, also knows the locations well, after handling so many local cultural and architectural book projects.
The Mint Museum of Toys was one location that I had to visit and work on from scratch. The amazing thing was that my son had been on an excursion there the year before, and he could still remember the layout of each floor and how the toys were organised. I checked everything he said against the photos and videos I took during my visit. It was remarkable.
So with all this, it took us about three months to put the book together and send it to the printer.
Yes indeed, and they were particularly excited about working on the mystery segments involving the Lion City Adventuring Club. That was when I could really see how much the idea would appeal to children. Also, it was a great thrill for them to follow the entire production process and see how the Marshall Cavendish team put together the illustrations and page designs. My two sons had illustrated our first paperbacks, in their young and scrawly style, so they could appreciate the talent and the work that went into this.
You are well-known for being an innovative self-publisher with Super Cool Books. Lion City Adventures is your first foray with a traditional print publisher. Could you tell us how this came about?
There’s an interesting saying, that it requires 10 years of work before one can experience overnight success. In this case, you might say it took me closer to 15 years, heh.
I actually started working on children’s books at Marshall Cavendish around 2002. My first project was to develop some new series concepts to be presented at that year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. And after that I did a range of other stuff, from reference books to co-publishing projects and corporate books.
This lasted a few years, and I’m still in touch with the people I worked with. Last year, Melvin Neo, who’s now the managing editor, showed me a few of their older titles which have been successful for a while — these were Singapore exploration books and local activity guides for parents — and we talked about whether we could put a new spin to this tried and trusted format.
Just as a creative challenge, I tried plugging it into our Super Cool Books story world and spinning off an alternate reality context for it, something that we could develop into a richer and more original experience. And it took off from there.
How did you start writing stories and why did you decide on children’s books?
My professional experience creating stories actually started with indie music. When I was 19, I was lucky to be in a band called the Twang Bar Kings, together with Leslie Low, who went on to form really prominent Singapore groups like Humpback Oak and The Observatory. We were featured in magazines quite regularly, and I asked my journalist contacts if I could contribute music articles and reviews too.
So I became an entertainment and lifestyle writer, and this lasted over 10 years. Whatever the assignment, I always tried to weave it into a slightly gonzo narrative, and make it as entertaining as possible. At the height of my craft, I was proudly writing bizarre stories about motorcycle helmets, instant noodles, cheap wine, etc., all with a rich tabloid flair.
For a long time I fantasised about writing science fiction novels for a living, in the style of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson. Or cryptic thrillers with ambitious world-building and a sense of manic futurism. But then, in 2011, I started having to make library runs twice a week for my two sons, who were devouring picture books and chapter books at a crazy rate. For every 10 books that I lugged home, they might enjoy maybe three or four. They taught me to be a lot more discerning about children’s books.
One evening after dinner we were chatting about why there weren’t any local titles like the Beast Quest series from the UK, which my older son absolutely loved. The more I tried to explain to him how the international publishing industry worked, the more he shook his head and insisted that we would have to do something about it in Singapore.
I was putting together another book project then, and had a meeting with the publisher at Select Books. We ended up talking about developing a new fantasy series for kids, set in Singapore and featuring lots of references to local culture and history.
This was how my sons and I ended up creating the Time Talisman series, about three young friends in Singapore who get whisked back in time to fight bullies and change the city’s destiny. Select Books put these out as ebooks, under their Autumn Wonders imprint. And everything else grew from that.
What do you think about the current state of children’s books publishing in Singapore?
It’s amazing how I’m constantly coming across new books, writers, illustrators, literary events, and even publishers here in Singapore. Also, many of my friends have received grants to work on their own book projects. Which is great. There’s definitely a nice sense of community here, and a lot of enthusiasm.
At the same time, I’m always hearing comments from industry veterans, like, “Don’t be too clever, just do X, because that’s what the grants people are looking for”. Or, “We’ve worked with schools a lot, so take our advice, better do Y, or else you won’t be successful with them”. It’s like the industry’s really focused on this Grants & Schools formula. And that might not be good for developing our creative capital.
I’m thinking that perhaps Super Cool Books might try publishing an anthology of children’s fiction rejected by the gatekeepers. Champion all the outliers and see what happens. Hmm. This might turn out to be a really fresh and groundbreaking book.
Do you think it’s important for kids’ books to have an educational element to them?
Kids always have a burning desire to be educated. This is something I noticed after becoming a parent. They go around the world and see everything as a mystery, a puzzle, a challenge to be figured out.
Even a silly joke book with toilet humour, or slapstick stories about clumsy kids behaving badly: children find great educational value in them. Just maybe not in the way that adults might approve of.
But children eventually outgrow their younger selves. When they’re older and they look back, they’ll treasure the books that provided them with kind insights and sincere companionship. They’ll appreciate authors who explain the tricky bits of life in an honest and non-judgmental way — like what JK Rowling managed to do with her Harry Potter series. And that’s how certain titles become classics. They’re educational like that.
Which is why when I work on my books, I remind myself that I’m not writing for children, I’m really writing for future adults.
What’s next for the Lion City Adventuring Club?
We’re meeting people about events and excursions, and there’s talk about a sequel. But what could turn out to be even more interesting is that I actually wrote myself into the book at the end, as a minor character. In this alternate reality world, I was a writer for the Lion City Adventuring Club’s newsletter in the 1990s, during my teens, and I worked directly with some of the group’s more prominent leaders.
So I’m planning to write a set of short stories about my character’s experiences in this world, solving mysteries around the city and unearthing strange artefacts from Singapore’s colonial and pre-colonial past. It’ll be like an urban exploration thriller for kids.
As a child, whenever I discovered a book I really enjoyed, I would always wish that I could somehow enter the pages and interact with the characters. And now I actually can, thanks to this Lion City Adventuring Club! Wow. My spine tingles, just thinking about this.
Lion City Adventures as well as the rest of Don Bosco’s books are available in all good bookstores in Singapore.
To find out more about Don and his projects, head to his website at Super Cool Books.