Singapore writer Don Bosco creates fantasy entertainment for a new generation of readers, young and old.
It began when my eight-year-old son became a big fan of the Beast Quest books from the UK. In trying to help him find other suitable fantasy titles to read, I grew to enjoy the genre. But one thing I noticed, I hardly came across any fantasy books for young readers that were based on Asian characters, or inspired by Asian legends. There are some, but not many.
And then I met the publisher at Select Booksin Singapore, while working on a book project. Over time, we exchanged ideas about developing an exciting fantasy series for kids. This would be set in Singapore and feature lots of references to the local culture and history. How could we make this as engaging as the other titles that dominated the shelves at local bookstores and libraries?
When I spoke to educators and other parents about their children’s reading habits, they readily confirmed how popular fantasy books are with young readers. I also saw for myself how kids draw inspiration from fantasy stories and apply these ideas creatively in their everyday lives.
So one day I actually sat down to turn all the story ideas into an actual series concept. It took a few drafts to refine the manuscript. The result: Book One of the TIME TALISMAN series, titled The Secret of Monk’s Hill.
The story starts in present-day Singapore, when young Justin Low and his good friends Emily Anson and Roz Hamid come across a mysterious talisman. It sends them back in time to an alternative history of Singapore. They run around tackling challenges and exploring a magical colonial city where alchemists struggle for power. Even in the most unlikely places, though, they manage to find helpful allies, from righteous warriors and eccentric mystics to performing artists who are willing to risk their lives to protect their communities from the forces of evil.
As a publishing experiment, Select Books initially released The Secret of Monk’s Hill through their Autumn Wonders imprint as an ebook series in three installments. The complete edition finally came out in December 2011, with some bonus content. Three months later, Book Two: Newton’s Curse was released.
Since then, I’ve been working on other titles too. Like, I created a colourful character named Sherlock Hong, an inquisitive teenager who lived in colonial Singapore about a hundred years ago. One day, he hears about a local necromancer who intends to bring a dead nightingale back to life. Of course he gets curious about this and starts to investigate. In the process he uncovers a sinister criminal plot and learns some valuable lessons about how the world works.
I was excited to hear that The Case of the Immortal Nightingale —Sherlock Hong’s debut adventure — seemed to resonate with many readers, young and old alike. I got in touch with ParenThots, a parenting website in Malaysia that I’ve been following for a while. They recently ran an encouraging review:
“Children as young as eight years old will enjoy reading this book and might even want to know more about what old Malaya and Singapore and their inhabitants looked like. Parents can use the book as a talking point about local history and geography.
I look forward to more books set in region and would love to read about Sherlock’s adventures in Malaya!”
It gives me great pleasure to use my stories to highlight the old customs and legends of our region, and acknowledge local names, settings, traditions, food, culture and history. This creates a unique reading experience. From talking to readers, I sometimes get a sense that I’m connecting with an underserved community here. At the same time, I think the stories are able to entertain readers all over the rest of the world too.
But I’m not too focussed on delivering history or heritage lessons. As a mode of entertainment, my stories are character-driven. I make sure the good characters are really fun to follow, and the bad characters are fascinating to observe. To satisfy even the most reluctant readers, I keep the plots fast-paced and packed with surprises, and spice it all up with tasteful helpings of magical action.
Young readers get to see the heroes overcome obstacles through bravery, loyalty and collaboration. And hopefully they realise that these are indeed the key qualities for living an adventurous, fulfilling and magical life.
From the old days it has been acknowledged that once a story is shared, it becomes a valuable communal resource. For this reason I’ve been distributing some of my stories as free downloads, or in a mini-book format under my Foldable Fantasy imprint. I’ve just started working with different social organisations in the region to distribute these free resources for teaching literacy and creative writing. I’ll let you know how this develops.
A selection of my stories are being developed for the Worldreader project, which distributes digital books to kids in the developing world, and improves their lives by facilitating literacy development. They have an ebook app that works on any basic phone, and turns it into a powerful reading device. It couldn’t be more perfect – my fantasy stories being shared via a science fiction-ish network. Magic indeed.
Join Don Bosco’s Book Club, or visit his website to get his ebooks and download free learning resources.