And we’re back with another in our “Behind the Blog” feature series! This month we’re thrilled to be highlighting Gathering Books, an incredible international children’s literature blog based in the United States, Singapore and the Philippines!
Hope you enjoy!
Hello! Please introduce yourself (yourselves) to our readers.
Hi! I’m Iphigene. I’m a multi-hyphenated individual (translates to: I have many jobs). I consider myself a jill-of-all-trades. I’m the Philippines-based member of the team. I’m mostly responsible for the technical stuff on our site. At times I do write reviews, contribute to Poetry Friday and write articles here and there.
Hi, I’m Fats. I am a contributor to Gathering Books. I met Myra and Iphigene in college, when I was still living in the Philippines. I moved to the United States in 2006. I worked as a nurse in California for three years until I moved to Ohio in 2014, where I landed a job as a circulation assistant at the Wayne County Public Library. I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember.
I like to think of myself as the Mother of GatheringBooks. Iphigene and Fats used to be my top students when I was still teaching undergraduate psychology courses in the Philippines – so I also regard them as my “psych babies.” I moved to Singapore in 2008 and I teach at the university (National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University). I serve as the Program Leader of the Masters of Education in High Ability Studies and have a special passion on the psychology of gifted and talented individuals, and high creatives. As a clinical psychologist, I am also fascinated with the transformative power of reading and its links to social and emotional learning. I also serve as the Chairperson of the Program Committee for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content which happens every year in Singapore. Fairly recently, I have been asked to serve as the Director of Reading Resources for a UK-based NGO, Think Equal, which is endorsed by UNESCO.
How would you describe Gathering Books?
Gathering Books is a passion project by people who have a love-affair with books. I also think of it as a resource and we wish people would see it as such. We try to go beyond standard reviews and talk about a book’s theme and meaning. We also try to feature literature that represents diverse groups of people.
Gathering Books is a nook for all readers. We are passionate book-hunters and book-gatherers. We like explore themes and discuss social issues in children’s and young adult literature. We are proud to feature a smorgasbord of children’s books and YA novels that other people could use as resource materials.
GatheringBooks is our book-haven. We aspire to have bibliophiles from all over the world perceive it as such. I’ve always found refuge in literature, and through our site, we hope to offer sanctuary to those who are seeking the right book that is perfect for them at the right time. We share our reading experiences with books, rather than write summary, plots and such – we are trained in psychology, not literature, so we tend to occasionally content analyze what we read according to themes, meanings, and motivations – character profiles and sketches, juxtaposing it with our reader response and what is going on in the world. We live and breathe books, so we share our book hunting expeditions from around the world, and also endeavour to give tribute to book creators through our author and illustrator interviews. We occasionally feature poets and have academics, teachers, and librarians share their thoughts about reading.
Why did you decide to start your blog, and how did it come about?
Gathering Books first and foremost was an actual book club Myra organized for two highly gifted children. Myra invited Fats and I into the group and we would meet once a month to talk about books that we have decided to read. Then Life Happened, Myra moved to Singapore and Fats to the USA. I stayed and attempted blogging about the books I read and my life in general. In May 2010 Myra attended the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore and was inspired to take the concept of GB online. She messaged me and after two weeks the site was up.
Iphigene makes it sound very simple – but it did take an enormous amount of work in the beginning. We were all blogging at the time in the now-defunct Multiply and writing about our thoughts on books. So, I thought it would be good to consolidate all of our existing reviews in one site – and use it as a resource for book lovers. As a teacher educator, most of my teacher-students would ask me for book recommendations – and so I sensed a great deal of potential with our website, which I envisioned to serve as a repository for teachers, parents, or just about anyone who would like to know more about books. We are voracious readers, and we value the kidlitosphere/YA blogosphere and the community that we have joined and are privileged to be a part of through this virtual space. We are grateful to get to know so many new titles, so many new authors, and so many new friends through this network – it truly is a warm and inviting community, and we are proud to be an active part of it.
How do you decide on your different themes?
We normally talk about the themes a few months before the new year. Most of it is based on gut-feel. We think about things we want to talk about, things we haven’t talked about or represented, and as well as what’s going on in the world. Recently we had a mental illness theme (Mentally Yours) which I personally suggested as it seems relevant to today’s society and because a lot of books are being published with these themes. At times, we do change our themes mid-way into the year when we feel there is a more important issue or topic that needs to be dealt with.
I remember the very first time we had a reading theme back in 2010 – I noticed in our Singapore library that there were shelves of picturebooks based on songs – and so we had our very first Picturebooks that Sing reading theme. Initially, we did it for just one month, then we realized that we would only be able to feature very few books that way. And so, we thought of doing it every two months. Iphigene, with her creative prowess, and her self-taught stellar graphic design skills – elevated and solidified our themes even more with her widgets and art. We do decide all the themes one year in advance. We start brainstorming around first week of December – we throw around stuff that we like and enjoy reading that year. But more than anything, we also try to push our reading boundaries by ensuring that our themes would lead us to new reading adventures.
Can you describe the Asian children’s literature scene? Do you think certain cultures/languages are more prominent or have a more robust scene than others? Are there gaps in the literature that you think need to be addressed?
I’m not an expert on this, but my overall impression:
It’s very exclusive, by that I mean it’s rare to have these children books available in another Asian country. So, most of these books are limited within one’s own country.
I think a lot of it is still preachy. We’re seeing more and more that children’s literature is being less about the lessons to be learned, but more a reflection of life and whatnot, but majority of Children lit in Asia still tends to focus on ‘what we can learn from this.’
Publication quality isn’t where it should be. The local publishing industry is still young. In the Philippines, children’s literature is still growing. It’s hard to find hardbound, quality picture books in the country, but I also see that more and more writers and illustrators are dedicating themselves to this field, but the quality still needs to be addressed.
My recent AFCC attendance in Singapore made me realize there is so much interesting children’s literature all over Asia, but you wouldn’t find these books outside of their country of origin (or at least, very rarely). There’s so much educating and marketing that needs to be done. Making these books part of school curriculum, exposing people that there is good literature in the children’s book section that is written by Asians.
This is precisely the reason why the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore was conceived – to make the Asian children’s literature scene more dynamic and vibrant, with a great potential for intercultural collaboration and networking (which includes translating and publishing books). We also have countries of focus starting in 2012 with the Philippines, Malaysia in 2013, India in 2014, China in 2015, Japan in 2016, Indonesia in 2017. I have yearly edited books that feature the notable conference presentations from the previous year – but what is even better is that the
books have an entire section devoted to our featured countries – with voices of authors, publishers, editors, academics sharing their views about children’s literature in that particular country of focus – this definitely addresses a serious gap in the literature, or so I hope to believe.
What are some of your favourite genres or authors to read and/or write about?
Personally, among the 3 of us I was the one who struggled with children’s literature and YA, for the most part I read literary Fiction, Classics, Poetry and non-fiction. I love Haruki Murakami, Elif Shafak, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, Pablo Neruda and recently Benjamin Alire Saez. I enjoy books that deal with psychology, philosophy, theology, etc. Over the years though I have expanded on my reading and now have a healthy dose of Children’s book and YA. I generally like contemporary literature. I like reviewing and talking about books that deal with Mental Illness, traumatic childhoods, LGBTQ issues and just minority groups. I like my books at bit difficult to read, but hopeful. I also like books that are very real where the characters are palpable. I find that being able to break these books down, write about them and make people understand their value is my own contribution to the difficult conversation.
I read a whole lot of fiction. I love children’s books (early readers, middle grade, chapter books, and graphic novels). I’ve developed a fondness for YA books for the last year, thanks to my book subscription boxes and Iphigene’s recommendations. I occasionally read non-fiction, juvenile or otherwise. Some of my favourite authors include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami, Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, Patrick Rothfuss, Garth Nix, E.L. Konigsburg, and Mo Willems, to name a few. I collect books about Sherlock Holmes and beautiful editions of the Harry Potter series. Olivia is my spirit animal and I could get lost in the world of Calvin and Hobbes.
This is a tough question to answer. My reading genres and authors usually depend a great deal on our reading themes. At the moment, as I prepare for our upcoming Literatura Europa reading theme, I’ve been reading a lot of novels set in Europe. I do love Elena Ferrante, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ray Bradbury and take refuge in the poetry of Rumi, Neruda, Luis Cernuda, and Mary Oliver. I am a picturebook fiend though, I don’t think I can last a week without reading a picturebook. At the moment, I am serving as an international research fellow at the International Youth Library in Munich – reputed to be the largest library in the world for international children’s literature collection (and it’s housed in a castle, no kidding), and so I spend my days immersing myself in picturebooks from around the world, with Google Translate as my trusty best pal. A few of my favourite authors (from the children’s lit/YA scene) include Shaun Tan, Margarita Engle, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, Raina Telgemeier, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Neil Gaiman. I am also fascinated by Norwegian book creators Gro Dahle and Svein Nyhus, Oyvind Torseter and Stian Hole. I love German artists Wolf Erlbruch and Binette Schroeder, the collaboration between Swiss artists Germano Zullo and Albertine. I also love how Roberto Innocenti and Anthony Browne push boundaries in picturebook making, as well as Australian authors Matt Ottley, Margaret Wild, Ron Brooks, and Armin Greder.
What are some of your favourite children’s book blogs to read?
To be honest I don’t read that many children’s book blogs. I do read a few book blogs, here are the ones I do visit in a fairly regular basis:
Seven Things Before Breakfast
Bookwars (I have been following bookwars since it began for its diversity.)
I like Book Riot, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, and Brainpickings (when it features children’s books). Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to read anything online.
I am also a huge fan of Brainpickings – I love practically everything that Maria Popova recommends. I like Book Riot and follow the stuff that they share. But more than anything, I enjoy the Monday reading community hosted by TeachMentorTexts and Unleashing Readers, people from Poetry Friday, and Nonfiction Wednesday as hosted by Kidlitfrenzy, not to mention DiverseKidLit (brainchild of Katie of the Logonauts) which we co-host along with so many awesome bloggers from around the world. The kidlit community has just been so welcoming and it is wonderful to exchange book thoughts and reading recommendations with passionate, like-minded individuals.