Singapore book for special needs kids lauded

In the coming months, children with disabilities around the world - such as those who are blind or have dyslexia - will be able to read the Chinese story of Si Ma Guang, the boy who hurled a rock at a giant vat to save a friend from drowning in it.

For the first time, a book from Singapore has made it to a prestigious global collection of outstanding books for children with special needs.

Si Ma Guang And The Giant Jar - written by Ms Lee Seow Ser, 43, and illustrated by Ms Tan Ai Khim, 35 - is among 50 titles newly compiled by the Switzerland-based International Board on Books for Young People.

The board is behind the prestigious children's literature prize, the Hans Christian Andersen Award.

Every two years, it also puts together the best books for young people with disabilities.

These have to be for or about people with special needs, and the collection currently has over 4,000 titles in 40-plus languages.

The goal, said the North York Central Library in Canada that houses the books, is to "encourage inclusion at every level".

Si Ma Guang And The Giant Jar, based on a Chinese fable, is a rarity in that it caters to children with various disabilities.

It has Braille dots for the blind, and text in font that is specially designed for readers with dyslexia.

It also has embossed elements, so readers can feel the outline of a jar, for instance.

Said Ms Lee: "We want kids to learn values from this story. Si Ma Guang was courageous to break the jar, unlike other children who panicked and ran away when their friend in the jar was drowning."

Ms Leigh Turina, project leader for the collection, told The Straits Times: "The book was selected as an outstanding example of a tactile and Braille book in the category of specialised formats."

The 50 titles selected this year will be displayed at the Bologna Children's Book Fair in Italy in April, and then go on tour in other countries, including Britain, China, Japan, Turkey and the United States.

They will then be placed in the North York Central Library.

Si Ma Guang And The Giant Jar is the first Singapore-published book in the collection since it was started in 1985.

That it took Singapore over three decades to make it to the collection underscores the paucity of works of local literature that have been modified for children with special needs.

It is very rare to have local children's books in Braille, let alone those with tactile pictures and text in dyslexia-friendly font - which means that a blind child can read the same book alongside another child who is not blind.

One key reason is cost, said Ms Hidayah Amin, founder of local publisher Helang Books, which published Si Ma Guang And The Giant Jar.

For instance, it cost over $6,000 to print 200 copies of the book.

Funding was mostly out of the team's own pocket, with a few sponsors making up the rest.

The money will not be easily recouped through sales owing to the niche market, she said.

Some copies went free to visually impaired students at Lighthouse School. Its principal, Mr Koh Poh Kwang, said the team was "innovative" in producing such a book with the various special features, adding: "It's a brilliant idea to bring kids of different abilities together."

More can be done to support local authors in producing books for children with special needs, said those in the social service sector.

Said Ms Hidayah: "We went to some government agencies, asking them to buy our books but they said they could not be seen as endorsing a certain book, or that they could not support us as we are not a charity. But without funding support, it's difficult to have more copies out there for special needs children."

Disabled People's Association executive director Marissa Lee said: "Much like the importance of having local role models, children with disabilities should also be able to read Singaporean stories that are inclusive. Those with disabilities can start to feel marginalised at an early age. Getting children with and without disabilities to read this book can help bring them all closer together."

This article was first published on Feb 06, 2017.
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