by Don Bosco, Supercool Books and Founding Member, The Brilliant Foundation
This post took me a long time to write, it started out going in one direction, but it changed into something else along the way, and it kept changing. I've tried to keep all the different ideas I had, all the things I wanted to share, and well, here it is.
I'm very grateful to Malaysian author/editor Brigitte Rozario for taking the photo above, and posting it on Instagram, and tagging me. (Thanks, Brigitte!) What you see here is a plenary session about the power of stories, on the opening day of the 38th IBBY International Congress, which was held recently in Putrajaya, Malaysia from 5 to 8 September 2022. IBBY stands for International Board on Books for Young People, it's an international network of people who are passionate about inspiring kids to read. It's based in Switzerland, more info here. During this session, Malaysian author Tutu Dutta (see photo, she's speaking, at the podium) mentioned one of my Sherlock Hong titles (The Legend of Lady Yue, featured on the big screen, with the red cover) as a notable South-East Asian book. (Thank you too, Tutu!) It's so nice to hear this, because this is the 10th anniversary of our Sherlock Hong series, which started with a simple mystery/adventure story, The Case of the Immortal Nightingale, which I originally self-published as a free ebook 10 years back, in early March 2012. The series is set in 1891, Singapore, and told from the perspective of a 15 year old boy who stumbles upon some intriguing mysteries around his neighbourhood. (Backstory: during an earlier trip to London, this boy had a chance to meet the legendary Sherlock Holmes, and was inspired to become a legendary detective too, hence his name.) I wrote these stories to entertain my two young sons, and also give them a chance to learn how books are created and published. That was the humble start of our Super Cool Books publishing studio. If I remember right, my storytelling style for the first story actually started out as an experimental mix of influences. But to my delight, as I worked at it, this mashup somehow magically evolved into Sherlock Hong's own distinct voice, an enthusiastic and inquisitive kid determined to find something new to investigate every day. I would also say that it's this charming first person narrator that created me, the author, and not the other way around. Yes, I should explain more, but another time.
(Thanks, Sherlock Hong!) When I started promoting The Case of the Immortal Nightingale, as a self-published ebook, I received lots of requests for printed copies. So I used a print-on-demand service to produce a few paperback copies, and distributed these with a bit of help from Monsters Under The Bed, a local company that conducted writing workshops for kids. (BTW there are photos of all this waiting for you below, hang on, we'll get there.) Back then, I sent one of these print-on-demand copies to Brigitte at The Star newspaper in KL, who (most kindly) ended up publishing the first ever review of a Sherlock Hong book. She was very encouraging, and this inspired me to write Book 2, Peranakan Princess. Also, by this time I was ready for something bigger. I got my younger son to illustrate some new book covers, and I self-published enough copies of both Sherlock Hong books to get into the major bookstores and also the libraries, through our distributor Select Books. I still smile when I think about this incredibly naive family effort — my wife and two sons helping me with the book deliveries, everyone staying up late to pack book orders at our dining table, brainstorming photo ideas for social media, and so on.
As a result of all this, I gained a reputation for being a DIY publisher. I was invited to speak at various events, including the Singapore Writers Festival in 2013, the Singapore Makers Meetup, the Asian Festival of Children's Content, and also at a gathering of startup enthusiasts at the Mindvalley office in KL, which led to a nice collaboration with Malaysian edtech company BrainBytes. Later on, Marshall Cavendish acquired the series, and to celebrate this we put out two new Sherlock Hong titles, The Scroll of Greatness and The Legend of Lady Yue, with completely new cover designs for all four books, this time featuring illustrations by Anngee Neo. There were so many other highlights along the way, too many to list here. Maybe in a later post. In my memory, this period still feels like a great whirlwind, as I made more and more connections in the children's book community, from fellow writers to parents to educators to literacy activists to publishers and booksellers. And most importantly, I learnt a lot from connecting with the young readers themselves. I was invited to speak about Sherlock Hong in schools, libraries, bookstores and at kids' events. From these interactions, I was inspired to develop even more books.
(Thanks, all the children! Although you'd mostly be teenagers and young adults by now, heh.) To my delight, my books also reached other kids, those who were not so young anymore, but still enjoyed such simple narrative pleasures. Like, an old friend, Mabel Gan, also a writer of children's fiction, messaged me once to say that she had left her mother at a public library while she ran her errands, and when she came back she found her mother reading a Sherlock Hong book. Mabel's mother was so engrossed that she shushed my friend, and added, "Eh, don’t talk, this book is very interesting."
Mabel sent me a photo of her mother, taken on that day, and her mother has kindly agreed to let me include this below, so do look out for it. (Thanks a lot, Aunty! And Mabel too.) BTW Mabel is the founder of Big Eyes, Big Minds — Singapore International Children’s Film Festival, and you can find out more about her book, The Ghost Who Pinched Me, here. Well, back to the IBBY International Congress photo above — it's been such an honour and privilege to be part of this passionate and generous kidlit community. Some of us go back a long way. Tutu Dutta is herself a prolific author, and I featured her on this blog some time back, here. Her most recent book is The Blood Prince of Langkasuka, published in 2021 by Penguin Random House SEA. I remember learning about Heidi Shamsuddin, another Malaysian author who was part of this same IBBY session, through Brigitte, over email, and I soon ordered Heidi's The Door Under the Stairs books from Oyez!Books. Shortly afterwards I featured Heidi on my blog, here. Eva Wong Nava and Daryl Kho, whose books were also featured on the screen alongside mine, were previously featured on this blog here (Eva) and here (Daryl). Some years back I also featured Brigitte Rozario on this blog, talking about her Beebo picture books, you can read her interview here. She has since gone on to mentor many young writers in Malaysia, and even publish their stories. You can learn more about her work here. I'm really grateful to everyone who helped to support the Sherlock Hong series, and recommended it to young readers, and contributed to this literary journey.
If you're looking for copies, the Sherlock Hong books are still available on Amazon, Book Depository, and Times Bookstores. On the tenth anniversary of the Marshall Cavendish edition, which will be in a few years, I hope we can put out some awesome reissues, with bonus content, like stories and illustrations and other fun stuff, and perhaps even feature fan contributions from young writers. I've written and published many more books since, but this Sherlock Hong experience will always be dear to me, because it opened the doors for Super Cool Books and gave us all a complete hands-on education in children's book publishing, with practical and sometimes counter-intuitive lessons that I often try to share with fellow writers and publishers. Yes, this is a long post, but it's not over. May I now invite you to take a trip down memory lane with me, because I've compiled some photos below to capture this incredible ten-year journey that Sherlock Hong has taken all of us on. Hope you enjoy this treat, and do feel free to get in touch if I can assist you in your own children's book publishing in any way.
Let's all keep taking kids on fantastic adventures in their imagination. Let's give them reasons to feel optimistic about the life ahead of them, and show them how language can be used to create a sense of connection and fun. What we can imagine, we can create. Come, let's imagine a wonderful world for all the children. :) — Don