Surrounded by Lego as he talks about his first published book, Brian Kan King-lun removes a head and adds an extra arm to his mini-figure.
“This guy is one of my best guys ’cause he has four arms. And a mechanical sword. And I put a cape on him. So ... yeah, he’s pretty great.”
Brian isn’t your typical author. For starters, he’s eight years old. But last summer, Partridge published the American School student’s first book, The Tale of Tom the Turtle.
In addition to being a student author, Brian is doing something else not many of his peers are doing: trying to save the planet.
His book has an environmental angle, and encourages readers think about how they can protect the environment.
“Building is always harder than destroying,” says Brian. He’s talking about Lego, but after a moment he reflects that it’s the same with the environment. “It takes me a whole afternoon to put together some of my Lego structures. But they can be torn apart in minutes. A rainforest, or even a single tree, takes 20 years to grow. But you can chop it down in two minutes. And once you do, that’s it. It’s gone.”
He thinks his classmates care about the environment, but they need to think about how they can reuse or recycle things.
“For example, if I get bored of a Lego structure, I will take it down and rebuild it; turn it into something new. People should do that with all of their stuff to protect the environment,” says Brian. This inspired him to write his ideas down.
“My mum suggested I try writing one book. I said, ‘I want to write five.’”
“He’s kind of stubborn,” whispers his mum, Wong Wai-yin, as Brian goes to rummage through his book shelf.
“Hey, I heard that!” he shouts, as he returns with a stack of Scholastic Scope magazines – his inspiration.
“I have a monthly subscription,” he says, proudly showing off all of his copies, along with his collection of National Geographic Kids magazines. “These are what really got me interested in the environment.”
What drove Brian to finally put pen to paper, though, was when he read the news last summer about how microbeads are killing fish in the waters around Hong Kong.
“I felt sad when I learned how people keep damaging the environment,” he said. “I want to remind everyone we should protect it for our future.”
But having a great story is one thing. Convincing others that it’s a story worthy of publication is another. An excerpt from his story won a competition, and that gave Brian, via his mum and dad, the confidence and motivation to approach a publisher. His mum sent photos of all his original writing and drawings, along with a letter explaining who Brian was, and the book was published for the international market. But at US$20, it’s not cheap for a children’s book.
Making money was never the motive, though. Brian has always said he wanted to donate all the book’s profits to charity, but he and his mum felt that people wouldn’t buy it at that price, even if it was for a good cause. So, they asked the publisher if they could produce their own Hong Kong version. They worked with Hong Kong Commercial Press to develop a local version of the book, which sells for HK$65. All of the profits from the sale of both versions of the book go to Greenpeace.
Like most Hong Kong students, Brian has lots on, and writing a book meant added pressure. During the summer, he went to charity events across Hong Kong, did book readings for disadvantaged members of the community, and spoke at some environmental events.
“It’s tough. [When I was writing it last summer] My mum said the deadline was next Sunday. I was shocked because I was only half way,” he said. “It took me six hours to do one picture. I split it into blocks of two hours and worked on it every night from 6-8pm during the summer holidays.”
So what’s the hardest thing about writing a book when you’re eight years old?
Brian, who also illustrates his own books, says it was the sketching. Although he loves drawing and is a talented artist, he admits it was hard to draw the exact same character over and over again, with a different expression each time. Accepting that his work could be improved was also difficult, which made editing a challenge. Brian would insist his story was perfect, but his mum would suggest that he make a few changes.
“The story did not take long to write, just a few hours. But the proof reading and editing took like, forever,” he moaned. “Editing takes a lot of skill and work. For me, it’s hard. It’s like if you have a plain [Lego] mini figure. I always think that’s the best, but then the next day I might think it could be improved.”
For anyone who wants to follow in Brian’s footsteps, he has some advice: check that you have a good idea.
“It’s the same with my Lego: I always ask my dad if he thinks my structures are a good idea,” says Brian. “Be patient, don’t give up, and don’t get frustrated when you need to make changes. Every time I changed something, I learned something new!”