• Etsuko Nozaka leads a workshop on “paper theatre” books, known as kamishibai, at the gathering of bibliophiles from around the world./Photo courtesy of TK Park
  • Susana Maria Notti from Argentina shaing Techniques for Promoting Children’s Literacy

Not exactly kids'stuff

Art May 18, 2017 01:00

By Muenfun Nilkuha
Special to The Nation

The folks who make children's books discuss digital and other challenges at a global conference in Bangkok

It was a powerful statement for our digital age: More than 300 people from 23 countries, all involved in children’s books, gathering in Bangkok to discuss what the future holds for their craft and for print in general.

The third Asia Oceania Regional Congress of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) was held from May 9 to 12 at Central World’s Thailand Knowledge Park. 

IBBY has more than 70 national associations around the globe. ThaiBBY was the host for this conference.

IBBY president Wally de Doncker said the board works not only to promote reading and try to give kids everywhere the same chances to enjoy reading, it also fosters mutual understanding among the world’s peoples. 

And, he said, in an age when the line between truth and lies is increasingly blurred, being well read and able to think critically has become all the more important.

The theme for this session was “Read = Life: Reading in the Digital Age”. Writers, illustrators, publishers, storytellers, teachers and other specialists in the subject of children came from as far away as Uganda, Canada and New Zealand. 

TK Park acting director general Rames Promyen noted that the digital age has significantly changed people’s ways of life, and meanwhile children’s stories have moved to digital platforms. Questions arise. How important does reading remain for people today? Should children’s books be any different in the digital era? How can parents and other adults continue encouraging children to learn through reading?

“We had talks and workshops running in parallel in four different rooms, on many interesting topics related to the changing world of children’s reading,” Rames said. “We looked at cultural diversity in children’s books and many other aspects. 

“As digital lifestyles take over, learning to adapt to the new media is a challenge. Efforts to find a balance between digital and printed material will continue – we have to learn how to use every format to enhance the value of reading among children.”

Takaaki Kuroda, chief editor and general manager at Japanese publisher Gakken Plus, gave a talk about “fusing” books and technology. 

Sharing the latest innovations seen in Japan, he said it was found that digitised textbooks are no match for printed ones. So the idea was to mix the two, beginning with a “Music Study Project” series with synthesised Vocaloid “characters” singing songs about history, physics, mathematics and chemistry. 

Vocaloid software, which renders the human voice more robotic-sounding, has proved highly popular among Japanese youth and produces star performers.

“Digitising printed books as e-books isn’t always good for children, so we’re trying to use the best points of both technology and paper, fusing them and making them attractive and easy to use,” Kuroda said. 

“Our goal is to make learning more enjoyable and increase the number of children who can actively learn on their own.”

TK Park executive adviser Dr Tatsanai Wongpisethkul and children’s book editor Rapeepan Pattanawech talked about “Diversity through Picture Books”. 

The “Local Knowledge Book Series” available at TK Park, with titles from every region of Thailand, provides an example of how local content can be created even in remote areas. The project started in southern Yala province 10 years ago, amid tremendous local support, when a branch of TK Park opened there.

“The key thing is to maintain the local point of view while sharing ideas, stories and information about culture, religion, race, language and tradition, and then connecting them to the outside world,” Tatsanai explained. The picture-book series is available at 34 TK Park-allied libraries in 34 provinces.

Thomas Merrington, who handles the Peter Rabbit brand for UK-based publisher Penguin Random House Children’s, described how he goes about building the popularity of the most beloved of Beatrix Potter’s animal characters. 

Beyond Peter Rabbit’s perennial appeal in the classic storybooks, he said, bringing the character to more young parents and their children involves licensing, retail product, animated appearances and – the latest development – a full-length film scheduled for release next year.

Among the workshops at the conference, the Mokomoko Group, the Japanese pioneer in “paper theatre” picture books fashioned from cloth (an art form known as kamishibai), had a member of the International Kamishibai Association of Japan showing folks how it’s done.

Susana Maria Notti from Argentina led a workshop titled “Techniques for Promoting Children’s Literacy”, and the Tokyo Children’s Library had one on “Storytelling in the Digital Age”.

To celebrate the success of the congress, several tour-outings were organised for the final day, one of them to the Wat Thatthong kindergarten playground. 

Wisdom Playground Foundation president Dissakorn Kunthara came up with the concept, giving youngsters a place to splash in water, climb ropes and watch the world from a tree house. It stimulates thinking and imbues the desire to explore and make sense of the unknown, a concept Dissakorn termed “mind-based learning”.

Vijaylakshmi Nagaraj, an author and storyteller from India, attended the congress with fellow members of the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children. 

“It gave me an opportunity to meet and listen and talk to delegates from various countries,” she said. 

“It was interesting to note that many of the issues we face are similar, though the responses are diverse. But we’re all sincere in reaching out to children, encouraging them to read and creating fresh ideas through technology. At the same time, our shared concerns about the adverse effects of technology were also dealt with.”

For a gathering of people who tend to be cautious about electronic communications, there was no hesitation as it ended to cement new friendships by forging links on – what else – the social media. Thousands of Twitter and Facebook messages from now, they’ll be meeting again in person at the next congress, in Beijing in 2019.