The man behind the prize, Dr David Kirkham, the founder and director of Calistro Consultants, is a British national who has been visiting Malaysia for almost thirty years now and has a home in Malaysia.
How did the prize come about and how did the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) got involved as the secretariat for the prize? The story is one of serendipity.
Everyone was in a happy and congratulatory mood. I was with an SCBWI member, Ean when Malaysian artist and mentor of SCBWI, Yusof Gajah, strolled over.
Dr Kirkham studied English at Cambridge and geology and geomorphology with London University and has an MSc in Development Management and PhD in crisis management. He now runs a management consultancy and lectures at several universities.
Dr Kirkham’s early career was in the arts. He worked in the theatre, both sides of the footlights, was director of a rural arts centre in the UK, ran a regional film theatre and has directed many productions. He also served for 22 years in the Royal Artillery (Territorial Army).
Having worked in Malaysia and lived here, Dr Kirkham has a soft spot for Malaysia and confessed to being addicted to teh halia, cili padi and durians. His flamboyant personality hides a sharp incisive mind and he has a good understanding of this country.
We had several conversations on the topic of language in Malaysia that would later influence the Calistro Prize.
We wanted the competition in English as it's an international language and also in Bahasa Malaysia as it's our national language. That means we will need to have two categories (in terms of language not to mention the different genres) and we will probably need two sets of judges. And inevitably the question was raised: so what about the Chinese language, what about Tamil and so on. Finally we came to the decision that as we want Malaysian stories by Malaysians, we will open it to any languages in use in Malaysia and in recognition of the importance of the national language, the winning work will be published in Bahasa Malaysia and the original language it was submitted.
We would still want an English version but for that we will look for another publisher, ie it's not under the remit of the prize.
To aid the judging, we require a synopsis in English of not more than 300 words. I think if one cannot summarise their stories in 300 words, they probably don't have a strong story in the first place. Entries will be read by a team selected by SCBWI especially to meet the different languages. The best stories will be put forward to the judges. The judges will compile a shortlist of 10 stories and we will have the necessary work translated into English for final judging.
So writing skills are still important for eg if there were two similar stories, the better written one will have a better chance. We will also help the winners to improve their work (whether text or illustrations) for publication. We can do that if there's a good story.
Does this imply we do not think Malaysians can write? Of course not! This competition is not aimed at discovering literary skills but to encourage Malaysians to tell their stories – they can use words or a combination of words and illustrations.
This is not entirely unusual: the Noma Concours by the Asia-Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO had a picture book award a few years back and various languages were accepted but a synopsis in English must be provided.
We hope this will encourage more Malaysians to tell their stories and that they can learn to write / illustrate better. SCBWI will also be having a schedule of talks and workshops on the craft of writing and illustrating for the whole of next year. We also work with different partners and an important one is the Asian Festival of Children's Content every May in Singapore. Prominent internatioanl speakers are invited to speak at the Festival and we want to encourage more Malaysians to take advantage of that to improve themselves and to network.
Having said all the above, we do not know what submissions we will get and this being the first year of the prize, we would like to keep it open and adjust as we go along. But if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask and we will also be compiling an FAQ.
There is so much more we want to do but we will have to take one step at a time. SCBWI is excited at this opportunity and thank Dr Kirkham for his generosity. This is a good start to the New Year! LT
Note: Linda Tan Lingard is the President of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Malaysia