by Don Bosco
NOTE: This was first published on The Brilliant Foundation
In 2011, my two sons started to really enjoy reading books. They had many questions about how stories work, how books are made, and why they liked some books more than others. I designed some story-based activities at home to explore all this. This photo shows one of the early things we did, a DIY booklet series featuring an original story, Ghostly. It’s a mashup of all the stuff that my sons were interested in at that time — fantasy elements, origami, jokes, adventures, etc. We gave this out for free, just to share the fun. It was printed at home on my black and white laser printer, and my wife and sons would fold, cut and assemble each booklet by hand. We created other stories too, and I called this range of booklets Foldable Fantasy. I remember one weekend, we were so busy trying to produce a batch of 50 booklets, because people had asked for them. That was when I decided to compile the serialised Ghostly stories and produce a paperback. This book soon ended up on the shelves of the local public library, and some parents have told me that their kids really enjoy it. Parents started to send me suggestions. Requests. Invitations. I felt like I had to take this a lot more seriously.
I spent a few years just mucking around like this, making up stories at home and getting my sons to illustrate them and printing books to sell. Eventually I was talking to publishers about putting out kids’ books together. The first big collaboration was with Marshall Cavendish, for the Lion City Adventures series. I came up with the idea of a 100-year-old adventuring society for kids that’s still active in Singapore today, and they go around the island solving puzzles and mysteries related to Singapore’s history. Each book came with facts and cool trivia about old Singapore. It was so engaging, some people actually believed that this Lion City Adventuring Club organisation exists for real. This photo is from the launch of the first book in this series. I loved how engaged the kids were, and how ready they were to use their imagination and participate in this. Around this time was when I had my big epiphany, that my role isn’t actually to write stories and publish books, it’s to use my imagination to give kids a first class childhood.
Another booklet series we created in the early years was called My Blade Quest. We later expanded this into a paperback series with Armour Publishing. It’s about two siblings, Shu and Jay, who lose their parents in a car accident, and they end up inheriting the massive collectible card game empire that their parents created from scratch. However, there are some criminals who want to steal this business from Shu and Jay. The siblings race all over the world to rally their parents’ old collaborators and stand up to the bullies. As parents, we have moments where we wonder what will happen to our kids when we’re gone, and how we can best give them advice about this. This was my solution, to write it all up in an adventure-thriller. This photo is from my book launch appearance at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content.
As I published more and more books, I also had the responsibility of promoting the books and developing a presence on social media. I’m quite a shy guy, and it felt stressful. Then I decided that instead of just promoting my books, I would use this opportunity to share everything that I knew about writing and publishing, and help others get published too. I called this project 100 WRITERS, because that was the target I set for myself, to help or inspire 100 writers get published. I gave talks, held workshops, distributed free PDF guides, answered emails from budding writers, etc. This photo is from one 100 WRITERS meetup co-organised with StoryCode SG, a community network for transmedia creators. We met late at night, and many of us hadn’t had our dinners, but even from this photo you can clearly sense the buzz and the passion in the room, because they were all working on and presenting their own stories, and when you’re expressing yourself in such an authentic way, you really come alive, you’re fueled by your own power.
We created so many stories in the early days, I partnered with a local technology company to publish our stuff on the iPad through our own Super Cool Books app. Since we had our own ebookstore, we could include all kinds of quirky bonus content. In this photo you see Jimmy, from BrainBytes, an edutech company in Malaysia, conducting a reading session in a school using our iPad app. Instead of having to ship books across territories, we could get education partners to use the app, and they’d have access to our custom catalogue of stories. Around this time, I remember being busy setting up connections with educators, parents and literacy activists who were working all over the world, from Singapore to Africa, Nepal, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and the US. And then I realised that while I love to think and create and publish, I get quite overwhelmed by the networking and logistics responsibilities. It requires a completely different set of skills. It was a difficult decision, but I had to focus on developing new books. Maybe one day I’ll get to revisit this with a team of collaborators. That’d be awesome.
My sons love to read. But they like different kinds of books. So they don’t discuss this much. But it’s different with computer games. They play together, share strategies, discuss their experiences, and really bond. So a few years back I decided to bring this gaming element into my stories, and create a gamebook with them, where the reader is frequently asked to make decisions and choose how the story should unfold, and ultimately help to solve a mystery. This developed into The Secret of the Chatter Blocks, and we released this as an ebook, with a pixel art cover illustrated by my older son, which is what you see in this photo. After some tweaks, the gamebook is now available as a paperback, with even more pixel art illustrations in each chapter. And since then, I’ve been focused on creating gamebooks. My younger son loves playtesting them and coming up with lots of interesting feedback. Aside: the mug you see here has the Super Cool Books logo. Interesting story about this. For the first few years, I just used a bunch of cute logos, each suited for a different context, because to be honest I had no idea what my direction was, totally clueless about branding and marketing, I was just having fun creating and connecting. And then my friend Soo wanted to feature me in a magazine she was publishing called Xobon, which was dedicated to encouraging kids to express themselves more creatively. This was her passion project, her day job is working on corporate design and branding. When she realised that I didn’t have a proper logo, she educated me on the need for consistent branding, and helped me transform my ideas into this logo. If you look at it right, it’s basically our initials — S, C and B — superimposed and rearranged. It also looks like a $, which I hope is auspicious. Everything I’m sharing here came to be thanks to support from generous people like Soo.
My elder son created more and more pixel art based on my stories. It all looked amazing. Eventually I was invited to do a Father’s Day workshop-cum-sharing session at the local Apple Store, where I could talk about our publishing journey and then, with my son, teach the parents and kids there how to create their own pixel art. What you see here, on that towering giant screen, is my son’s pixel art piece, a street scene from New Toy-ko City, where the action in The Secret of the Chatter Blocks take place. When I stood in front of that screen it felt like I could just jump into that story world and explore the place for days. It was mesmerising and immersive. Now my younger son’s illustrating some of our stuff too, he has a different style, all hand-drawn and charming, he did a drawing of me for the top banner on the Super Cool Books website. Neither of them attended art workshops or had any art training. They’re just having fun and responding to what I do. And I’m just having fun and responding to what they do. I do try not to think too hard about any of this. Or have expectations. I think expectations will sour the process.
This pic is a few years after we published The Secret of the Chatter Blocks. I’m speaking at the official launch of my Last Kid Running middle grade science fiction gamebook series, published by Penguin Random House. Those are my fellow PRH authors, also launching their own books at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. This Last Kid Running series is the most ambitious fiction work I’ve undertaken so far. It’s constantly making my brain expand and pop in new ways. It’s about an eccentric genius who creates a global tech-enhanced running competition to get kids inspired to go outside and run around and make friends all over the world. After I completed two books, though, and was working on Book 3, the pandemic hit. I ditched my original plot outline for this last book and challenged myself to consider: what if this Last Kid Running International Competition was also affected by all the lockdowns and distancing and budget cuts? How would each character respond, and why? And that’s what I’m working on right now, this exciting pandemic gamebook. It’s my way of responding to what’s affecting our world.
In 2019 I wanted to celebrate the eighth anniversary of Super Cool Books, and I did this by organising an online showcase of fellow kidlit writers and illustrators. I was nervous at first because I didn’t know how many people would respond, I figured maybe 10 would be a decent number, but in the end 52 awesome kidlit creators got in touch and became a part of this. Many of them I’ve never met before, quite a few are being published for the first time, all of them have some form of connection with Singapore. In their interviews, they talked about what inspires them, what challenges they face, why it’s important for them to make new books for kids, what else they hope to do. I read those interviews again recently, and their accounts seem all the more vital in these times.
It’s now 2021. Ten years since we sat around the kitchen table at home and came up with the idea for Super Cool Books. My boys are teenagers now. This photo shows a selection of my books at the public library near where we live. The books usually disappear every time the school holidays come around, all gone to different homes to entertain the kids. And then they appear again on the shelves when term starts. Younger parents are now discovering these stories and sharing them with their kids. When I look at this photo, what I see is a record of my parenting journey, making up stories to connect with my family, and sharing this with other families. In this photo, the paperback edition of Ghostly, which we made at home back then as a Super Cool Books release, is running shoulders with Welcome to the Scramble, Book 1 of my current Last Kid Running series, which carries the classic Penguin logo. These feel like my kids too, I hope they go places in the world and have rich lives. What I’ve learnt is that who I am is not made up of any logo, or brand, or strategy, or social media asset, or business plan, or publishing schedule. Instead, I’m the result of everything I choose to respond to, whether in a positive or negative way. That’s what it means to be truly creative, when you take the time to express how you uniquely see, feel and think about something that’s also important to your community, and you share this response in way that lets others realise, “Wow, I might like to explore that too!” At the heart of it, everything’s exploration. And love. I wish you a good year ahead.