The Asia Foundation held the first-ever BookLab in the Pacific island nation of Fiji. Ten local artists—six writers and four illustrators—collaborated to write and illustrate 10 new storybooks for children. The theme was Oceans and Inclusive Climate Action—entirely appropriate for a region with the world’s largest ocean, facing the storm front of climate change.
The artists who joined the project were a multigenerational, multiethnic, and multigender group and included two people with disabilities. We forged two new partnerships: the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture, and Pacific Studies of the University of the South Pacific (USP) helped to identify these aspiring writers, and the Fiji Association of the Deaf provided interpretation services for one of the illustrators.
The young authors gave considerable thought to their prospective readers: how to make a child laugh, what words to use and how to use them, and, of course, the importance of illustrations, which cannot be overstated. All were eager for the challenge of writing for kids, and by the end of the four-day collaboration they had composed 10 stories, whose main characters ranged from a disposable mask (we are still in the Covid era) and its adventures in the ocean, illustrating how trash travels, to a young boy encouraging his grandfather to move to a new house to escape sea-level rise, in a story called “Sea Change.”
“Sea Change” is the writer’s personal tribute to her late father-in-law, whom she remembers with much fondness despite their vastly different cultural backgrounds. Her young son inspired Maku, the main character in “Sea Change,” and the grandfather, Tutu, is drawn from her father-in-law. One of the things the author most vividly recalls about her father-in-law, she said, was his big hands. “Maku reached out and gently took Tutu’s big hand,” reads the tale.
Another story, “The Great Council of Fish” explores upwelling in the sea and the consequences of warm ocean currents. The title will resonate with Fijian readers familiar with traditional leadership bodies. In the story, the Great Council of Fish convenes to discuss the problem of food shortage in the ocean, much as the Great Council of Chiefs would convene to discuss issues pertaining to the indigenous Fijians, the iTaukei.