Children relate their experiences and feelings in the most fascinating and amusing ways. But their stories are often insightful and profound, giving us a glimpse of how they view the world.
During the pandemic, the view for Hannah and Callum Goh and Zach Bautista was from the confines of their homes. They wrote, illustrated, and published books that deal with the complex topics of death and loss, of not losing hope and chasing one’s dreams.
The Magical Rainbow
by Sebastian Isaac “Zach” Bautista, 8
Sebastian Isaac “Zach” Bautista is a book author at age eight. He was only four years old when he first created the story behind his book, The Magical Rainbow.
“It is about a boy patiently waiting for his dream, the rainbow, to appear. He wanted to see his dream, so he went outside and climbed a rock,” Zach tells The ASEAN.
Zach’s mother, Lauren, says it all started as a bedtime story.
“He loves listening to bedtime stories. He would never go to sleep without asking mom or dad to read a story. When he was four, we literally ran out of story books to read! That prompted us into creating our own bedtime story. Every night, Zach would add something to the story—new characters, new scenes, descriptions of characters, descriptions of scene settings,” explains Lauren.
But it was not until the COVID-19 pandemic that Zach and Lauren thought of writing down the entire story. “We finally made the magical rainbow story into a real book, and it took us two months to finish writing itbecause we needed to change some parts of it and make it longer,” says Zach.
“I want kids to remember to never stop dreaming, always be hardworking, and always be patient because your dream will come true as long as you are hardworking,” says Zach when asked about what message he wants readers to take from his book. “And always never forget to help other people,” he adds.
While Zach likes imagining and telling stories, he was not always fond of reading or writing. “I used to not like writing. But when I made my very own book, I started to like writing because it’s very fun. The things I like to write about are cars and racing,” says Zach. “The books I like to read are about science and adventure. I love to read Geronimo Stilton books, Oliver Twist, and Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I also like to read The Magical Rainbow.”
Lauren adds that Zach has scribbled a few other stories in his notebook. “He has a short story about a school mentor who suddenly passed during the height of the pandemic when the kids were adjusting to online classes,” she mentions. “He wrote about how it broke his heart.”
Writing and publishing the book gave Zach and his parents a project to focus on during the pandemic lockdown and helped allay Zach’s negative feelings. “It was hard to not be with my friends, classmates, teachers, lolo (grandfather), lola (grandmother), ate (older sister/ female relative), kuya (older brother/male relative), my baby cousin, and all my family members. It was so hard because I cannot be with them, doing fun activities with them, and being in the playground, eating together, and so much more,” he says.
Lauren notes, “Zach was very active before the pandemic. He trained for his school soccer varsity team twice a week. We had to be very patient in making him understand why he couldn’t go to school, go to soccer training, go out to see his lolos and lola and cousins. He would cry at night because he was scared that anyone from his family and friends might get sick and die of COVID-19. For a time, I’d say this project took his mind off his fears.”
Art also kept Zach preoccupied during the long confinement. He drew his version of a “magical rainbow,” which became part of the book’s back cover. He also completed four paintings and sold one of them so he could donate the proceeds from the sale to medical frontliners.
Lauren says the book has received very good feedback, but she laments the lack of response from local publishers. She says they had to self-publish the book. Lauren wishes children are given more opportunities to let their imagination run wild and write and share their stories with other children.
“As of now, copies have been sold in the Philippines, US, UK, and Australia through Amazon,” Lauren says. “We’re just happy that our dream of working together to write a book and ‘put it out there’ was finallyrealised. We were able to demonstrate proof of concept that anyone can publish a book, too, especially child authors. We hope that our experience will encourage other child writers to publish their own books.”
Steps to Heaven
by Hannah Goh, 12 Illustrated by Callum Goh, 9 Singapore
Death and coping with loss are difficult topics to tackle in a children’s book, but 11-year-old Hannah Goh had a story to tell. Her first book, Steps to Heaven, was inspired by the experience of losing her beloved godmother to cancer a few years ago.
“She was so inspiring. I wanted to write a story about how people can live their last days gracefully like my godmother did. The story is about Gracie’s nai nai (grandmother), who is still very cheerful and positive even when facing a tough illness,” Hannah says.
She began by creating a collection of short stories for her godmother, whom she visited in the hospital. Hannah saw her godmother made the most of her remaining days by helping others, particularly people with autism. Hannah says her godmother showed her that death should not be feared.
“I think death is not always as scary as we might think. I want children to know that their loved ones are going to a better place. So, it was a simple storyline with repeating concepts. There are parts of the story that would be repeated. For example, when there was a change, Gracie would always ask her nai nai what was going on, and her nai nai would say, she was climbing the steps to a better place”.
Hannah collaborated with her nine-year-old brother Callum on the book’s illustrations. For Callum, who was then only seven, the challenge was visualising Gracie’s nai nai’s deteriorating health and depicting the concept of heaven. “After we read the book, we started to decide how to draw it,” he says. Callum finished the drawings in six months with his art teacher’s guidance.
To make the book more engaging, Hannah and Callum hid an image of a mouse on every page so readers could try to find it. But, for most parts, Hannah gave Callum the freedom to interpret her words into drawings. “I think I like digital art, but I also draw with pencil or watercolours,” says Callum when asked about his favourite medium.
Hannah believes writing from a child’s perspective can be very helpful, especially when discussing a difficult topic. “Everyone can make a difference no matter how young they are,” says Hannah.
“I think I want to write about problems that are real in life, and I try to find a solution for it in the stories so that when others read it, perhaps they can also be inspired to change. I also get inspired by my mother, who enjoys telling me different imaginative storylines,” she explains.
Her mother, May, an occupational therapist, believes children should be free to read and write for pleasure. “When children learn about things in the world, they can use their imagination to write about it freely. Hopefully, their writing can be more for joy rather than to earn marks in exams,” tells May.
The Gohs worked on Steps to Heaven during the pandemic, it was around the time when they lost other loved ones due to cancer. So, it became a family project that they hoped could help parents and children talk openly about the circle of life. “We are glad to hear that this book is being used as a conversation starter for families and could help them in going through the difficult process of losing their loved ones,” explains May. “If we think that children are too young to understand and hide from them or ask them not to ask, then it will be hard for them or they may become fearful.”
Before meeting their current publisher, ChinKar Tan from Write Editions, Hannah’s book was turned down by many other publishers, who were not keen to publish a book about death. “We have so many children’s books written by adults, but what is important for us is how we can understand children from their world,” ChinKar says. “Our philosophy in Write Edition is that if a book is good and can make a positive contribution to society, even if it doesn’t make money, it is alright.”
Nevertheless, ChinKar also wants to ensure that the children write the books for a greater purpose. In late 2021, Hannah wrote a letter to Singapore’s Minister of Education and made a case for the broader distribution of books written by child authors. It worked. She received a reply supporting the use and reading of her book in schools. It is also currently available in national libraries.
Steps to Heaven is on sale and available on Amazon and Kinokuniya. As a homage to the children’s grandmother, the Goh family donates proceeds from the sales to a hospice that cares for patients with cancer.
Hannah enjoys writing for fun and is not pressured to publish. She has also written several other short stories, including one that follows a ten-dollar bill as it travels and is passed from one owner to another around her native Singapore. Another chronicles the life of a water droplet. While she and Callum have no immediate plans for a second book, Hannah also hopes their book can inspire other children to keep reading and writing their own stories.