Emily Lim is the author of many, many picture books including Prince Bear & Pauper Bear, A New Home for Kai Kai and Jia Jia, and Tibby the Tiger Bunny. No stranger to pictures himself (he's been writing them for over 13 years and his latest is Sam, Sebbie and Di-Di-Di: A Day with the Duchess), Dave Seow interviewed her for the Book Council blog, and asked her many questions pertaining to her writing, her inspiration, and her son, Caleb.
Dave: Emily, you’ve been winning awards since you started writing: the MDA First-Time Writers Award in 2007, 3 IPPYs [Independent Publishers Awards], a Moonbeam Medal, a Writer’s Digest Award, you were shortlisted for the Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award, and you were nominated for Mediacorp’s Woman of the Year Award last year. Which award means the most to you and why?
Emily: Tough question! Every award has meant something to me. But to pick one, I would say Mediacorp's Singapore Woman Award Honoree 2013.
The other awards were book specific whereas SWA was for how my books and writing as a whole has inspired my readers. The path of a children's book author in Singapore is an unchartered one and this was for me, an encouragement and validation of the importance of us local authors writing for our children.
Dave: As a children’s picture book author, what do you have to say to people who think writing picture books is easy and are rather dismissive of the genre?
Emily: Well, in 2007, I chose to write my first manuscript for the Book Council’s competition as a picture book because I thought it was easy and required the fewest words!
I stand corrected as it's so hard to distill a story into 500 words whilst making sure it includes a fleshed out character, plot, beginning, middle and end. So, try writing that and we should arrive at the same conclusion :)
Dave: A lot of aspiring writers and illustrators have an idealized view of the publishing world and what it actually means to be an author. What advice would you give them about the industry?
Emily: It's harder than it looks and even harder now because there's so much competing for the young readers' attention these days - smart phones, smart toys and the like. Write because you believe in it because that is what will sustain you through the days when no one shows up for your author appearance at a bookstore!
Dave: You’re a member of SCBWI [Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators] and you went to the Rottnest Retreat in Australia last year as key speaker. What was that experience like?
Emily: Rottnest was both an important personal and professional experience for me. It was the first time I ever attended a retreat and Rottnest set the bar on venue and programme - it was idyllic, inspiring and superbly organized.
As the first Singapore representativ sent by the Book Council (and the only Singaporean there), I wondered what I could possibly offer in my one hour presentation to a room of over 40 Australian authors and illustrators, many of whom were multi-published multi-award winning.
Aside from that, I enjoyed the camaraderie that SCBWI WA [Western Australia] members have and how they were so warmly welcoming.
Dave: What’s your creative process? And how long does it take you to finish a children’s picture book manuscript?
Emily: It usually starts with a seed of an idea, which could be sparked by an image or words from TV, a book or a newsclip. I would let that idea germinate in my head as I went about my daily life until the semblance of a story formed.
Then I would type out my first picture book draft in one sitting and spend many weeks revising and self-editing.
Dave: How has your son Caleb inspired you? Does he give you any ideas? Will you write a story about him in the future?
Emily: I had visions of myself overflowing with ideas and writing many books for Caleb. But I ended up with writer's constipation instead. It's so much harder to write for my own son because I set that bar too high.
Dave: Aside from your son, Caleb, who is the first person you show your completed manuscripts to?
Emily: I don't show Caleb my manuscripts at this stage because he would just rip them up (after scrawling all over them…ouch).
The first readers used to be my niece, who is now too busy with schoolwork, and best friends, who are now too busy with parenting school-going kids. I now have a few online critique partners from SCBWI US whom I trade critiques with.
Dave: You write your own original stories and you’ve also been commissioned to write stories. Which do you find more challenging?
Emily: Writing my own stories is definitely more challenging for me as it's very personal. My clients are also kinder on me than I am on myself! Of course, with commissioned work, I also have a theme to work from and full payment on completion so that gets me cranking up my writing juices faster!
Dave: You’ve written books for the Ear, Nose and Throat Centre and the Assisi Hospice for children. How challenging is it to come up with plots for a children’s book about a visit to the doctor or the hospice?
Emily: For A Visit to Dr A, I sat in Dr A's clinic through an afternoon of him seeing patients and that gave me enough material to work with.
For the Assisi Hospice, the idea of how to depict the cycle of life came to me at the point when I agreed to help write the story for them.
Dave: Your book Prince Bear, Pauper Bear was staged at last year’s Asian Festival of Children's Content by The Learning Connection. What was it like to see your story being dramatized?
Emily: I gave TLC a free hand in the production and was thrilled to see how well they brought the book to life on stage, how the children interacted with the stage actors and how the show travelled to several preschools.
Dave: Now that you’ve established yourself as a successful, award-winning author of picture books, you’re now venturing into the chapter book medium. Could you please tell us what your book is about?
Emily: Actually, I still have a long way to go as a picture book author. But I am now interested to try writing for an older audience, so I recently submitted a chapter manuscript for a competition based on a local character. It's back to Writing 101 for my foray into chapter books, though, and I will take my time to learn the ropes again. Now that I am taking care of my little one full-time, I don't have big chunks of time to read and soak in books at libraries and bookstores the way I used to when I first started writing picture books.
Dave: The children’s book market in Singapore is still in its relative infancy, but it is slowly gaining recognition thanks to the First Time Writers and Illustrators Initiative, the National Book Development Council of Singapore, and the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. What changes would you like to see in the children’s publishing scene in the future?
Emily: Right now, there's only a small number of writers in Singapore. Of the small number of us, most of us either have day jobs (and for mums out there, full-time parenting counts!) or other freelance income sources to sustain us because the Singapore market is small.
I think we need all the support we can get from bookstores and media reviews. It's hard to get visible shelf space and review space since most of that goes to the big publishers given their big book lists.
It will also be great if one day, we can get to a vibrant licensing market as that will help get our books into other Asian markets and beyond. I think the Book Council has of course done an amazing job already of getting AFCC to where it is now, but we need more passionate advocates to support it so it can develop even further.
You can read more about Emily Lim on her blog, Mum-Mum's the Word (where she has her own set of author interviews), and more about Dave Seow at his blog, David Seow, Children's Author. If you're interested in learning more about this year's Asian Festival of Children's Content, please visit the AFCC website. And if you want to attend, you should buy your tickets today, as it's the last day of the Early Bird specials! You can buy tickets to at the Eventbrite site for both the Conferences and the Masterclasses.