He has discussed accents and Singapore's sex trade amongst several other controversial topics, but this Children's Day, Neil Humphreys is putting aside his monthly columnist title to share a bit about his other job—writing amazing books for kids. We have a tongue-in-cheek chat with Neil about the latest adventure in the series of Abbie Rose, and the magic of storytelling.
ESQ: What made you start writing children's books?
NEIL HUMPHREYS: My daughter! My wife and I would read to her every night, even before she was born (true story, a fetus can hear voices!). And like all literary genres, there were good books, great books and bloody awful books. I certainly wasn’t arrogant enough to think I could write a great book, but I believed I could do better than the ‘bloody awful’ books. The trouble is, of course, that old cliché rings true – everyone thinks they can write a children’s book. So I insisted on certain things in my books: First, the best illustrator in Singapore (Cheng Puay Koon). She would never say that herself (that’s why she’s the best), so I’ll say it for her. Second, there had to be an authentic, quirky, inquisitive female voice. The central character had to sound like a real child, warts and all, rather than a one-dimensional archetype. Third, the adventures couldn’t be parochial and esoteric (the messages are as global as they are Singaporean). Fourth, the key themes had to be something that I was genuinely passionate about (the environment, protecting our flora and fauna and so on), so I would sustain my enthusiasm for the subsequent storytellings. And finally, and most importantly, puerile puns and jokes about bottoms and smelly underwear should be included whenever possible. Whether it’s children’s literature or adult non-fiction, the same basic rule applies. There’s a half-decent chance of the message being remembered if it comes with a punchline.
ESQ: What went into creating the character of Abbie Rose?
NEIL HUMPHREYS: That’s actually a really interesting question. For various reasons, I have only really ever lived with women. I grew up with my mother and sister. I now live with my wife and daughter and, for several months of the year, my mother-in-law as well. I feel so blessed! But that upbringing shaped my views on, well, just about everything, but certainly shaped the character of Abbie Rose. When my daughter was a toddler, we’d watch the usual animated characters on TV cartoons and I found some of the female characters irritating. They were either dull, archetypes, like a prepubescent Mother Teresa, or they were just pining after the male characters. And then the wonderful Charlie and Lola came along – a great children’s book series turned into an equally fabulous TV series. Here was a young female character I could relate to as a father of a young female character. Lola was irreverent, fussy, impudent, demanding, curious, adventurous and, at times, just plain wrong. She was, in essence, like every other five-year-old girl. Plus, there was a very British sense of humour that I found appealing, too. But really, Abbie Rose the character is how Abbie Rose my daughter used to be (oh, I miss her. They grow up too fast!). She came up with the magic suitcase. She came up with the idea of travelling to different countries and habitats, using the magic suitcase as a portal. The vocabulary, like saying REALLY, REALLY a REALLY, REALLY lot of times, and everything being FANTASTIC and the BEST EVER, all came from her. I just plagiarized my own daughter essentially. Of course, once she understands the concept of royalties and intellectual property, I’m finished.
ESQ: How do you feel about Abbie Rose getting her own TV series?
NEIL HUMPHREYS: There was always an inkling that the Magic Suitcase might have enough ingredients for a TV series – but only if the concept was executed properly. To steal Ricky Gervais’ point, the creative process is really all about having a good idea and then trying to mess it up as little as possible through the development stage. Luckily, I saw Puay Koon’s first illustrations and I remember thinking, ‘shit, this could actually be a TV series now.’ I think PK’s work is exceptional. In the case of the Magic Suitcase, the final product exceeded my expectations, and that’s all down to PK’s magnificent illustrations. It’s a real collaboration in that sense. The TV networks seem to like the strong female character, the jaunty style, the environmental message and, of course, PK’s illustrations and designs. So now, I’m in that exhilarating/terrifying position again. We have an idea and a story, but don’t know how it’s going to end up on screen. But we’ve got a committed production team working on it, an investor who happens to be a passionate environmentalist, which certainly helps, and the animators are about to start on the first season. It’s exciting. It’s also a great laxative.
ESQ: What's the take-home message in the latest adventure?
NEIL HUMPHREYS: We need to learn to co-exist with the other animals around us. The theme is universal, but particularly relevant in Singapore now. As we move towards our ‘city in a garden’ goal, we are going to experience more wildlife encounters. If we treat each other sensitively and intelligently, we will all get along just fine. If we don’t, if we encroach, if we get too close for silly selfies, if we antagonise our fellow animals, then there will be conflict. Then they’ll be those fearful calls for culling. Then we can’t really say we live in a city in a garden.
ESQ: Why did you decide to focus on otters this time?
NEIL HUMPHREYS: All of the above, but the otters are also an obvious example of how lucky we really are. I was lucky enough to meet a group of international otter experts recently. They came from all over the world to marvel at our native wildlife. Some of them had studied otters for 30 years and had never enjoyed a wild encounter before. Then, in a single morning, they saw a family of otters TWICE. They saw the first family at Pasir Ris Park, then a second family at Marina Bay and were genuinely shocked. Those experts believe that Singapore is an example to the world of how otters and people can co-exist in a dense urban setting. In 25 years, we’ve gone from having no otters at all to around 60. That’s something to be proud of. And it’s something to protect.
ESQ: Do you write the books to be read by the children independently or for their parents to read to them?
NEIL HUMPHREYS: Great question. And the answer is both. The books are deliberately written for both pre-readers and emerging readers, anywhere from 0-8 years old really. And even then, there is plenty of research to show that children of all ages still enjoy being read to (as do adults, which is why audio books are so popular). I’ve had some lovely emails from parents who tell me they read the books to their children, acting out the voices, performing the funny physical stuff, which is wonderful. Time is always precious, but 10-15 minutes spent reading to a child will benefit the little one forever.
ESQ: What can children get from books that they can't get from their parents or teachers?
NEIL HUMPHREYS: Freedom! No one is telling them what to do or how to think! No one is telling them how to interpret the stories, the characters and the voices. They can take the Magic Suitcase books, like all books, in any direction they like. Independent reading encourages independent thinking, imagination, curiosity, analysis, interpretation, reasoning and all those other skills required in just about every 21stCentury workplace. God knows, I’ve met enough people who didn’t have those skills in the workplace. They obviously didn’t read enough as kids!
ESQ: What can children get from your books that they can’t get from others?
NEIL HUMPHREYS: My child-like curiosity, Abbie Rose’s quirky behaviour, Billy’s sardonic outlook on life – in other words, unique voices. Books will often share plots and character tropes, but hopefully, the voices should always be different.
ESQ: Do you feel that the art of storytelling got lost in this digital age?
NEIL HUMPHREYS: From Homer to the iPad, every new generation, every new media platform creates a new level of hysteria concerning the demise of the written word or the art of storytelling. And yet, it endures. A good story is a good story, whatever the format. I’ve read short stories in self-published books that have moved me tears and sat through 200-million-dollar CGI movie blockbusters that have bored me to tears. Good storytelling in the digital age is like a weed in a pavement crack. It will find a way through and get discovered in the end!
ESQ: What's the greatest joy about writing books for young minds?
NEIL HUMPHREYS: That’s easy. I turn up at a school for a Magic Suitcase storytelling. The children don’t know me. And children are the greatest critics. They have no filter, no patience for bullshit. I’ve got to earn their time, their attention, through the quality of my work, in a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds. If they don’t like the work, they will switch off. The teachers will cajole them to listen, order them to be quiet, but I would already know that I’ve lost them. The book didn’t captivate them and I would’ve failed. So I love that challenge. I really do. I love watching them, all wide-eyed and open-mouthed, laughing at the silliness, copying the characters’ antics, worrying for Abbie Rose, helping her to escape, telling her what to do next and then asking me loads of breathless questions about the books. And then they leave, high-fiving the daft ang moh and giggling their way back to class, without realising that they were learning the whole time, learning about biodiversity, climate change, urban encroachment etc. And I think, ‘this is the greatest bloody job in the world.’ And it really is.
Neil Humphreys will be doing storytellings and book signings on 13 October, 2 – 3 pm at Buds by Shangri-La and 27 October, 2.30 – 3.30 pm at Happy Castle, Century Square. Register at GoGuru, admission is free.