The sun was beating down as I approached Sg Apong Primary School with my kind guide and driver, Mas. Everything in the school seemed well ordered and quiet. The library I was ushered into was well ordered and quiet. I took my props out of my huge bag and organised them in a well ordered and quiet manner. I looked at the books on the shelves. They were in Malay and Chinese. There were a few in English.
It's a Chinese language school, Mas explained.
Hey ho, I'll act up. I'll use lots of mime, I'll ask the teachers to help me, I thought.
The children soon filed in, and they waved and said Hello. Sixty eight kids in all, sitting in neat rows, looking at me expectantly.The head teacher came in and introduced me.
I started on my Powerpoint. And all seemed to be going well, as I explained where I got my ideas from. Can you see what's in this picture? I asked, as a photo of an orang-utan holding a stick like a pencil appeared on the screen.
It's orang-utan said one.
Yes, and what's it going to do?
There was no reply.
Will it write a story?
Still no reply.
Don't they understand? I thought.
But no, they just weren't used to being asked.
I read from my book and they enjoyed being entertained.
I wore my dragon ears and they laughed.
I let them smell the real gobstoppers I had brought along.
When there was lots of text on the Powerpoint, they read it out loud. Wow - they were doing my job for me!
Soon a few of them were bored. They were talking. A teacher poked one of them gently. But I didn't mind the little buzz of conversations. I suspected they were hungry. And I had a couple of very bright kids in the front row (put there deliberately) who were drinking in my words.
Then I started drawing. I got the idea from Candy Gourlay and had practised for weeks and weeks, perfecting a simple picture that the kids could follow. I had simplified Charlotte Micklewright's illustration of Freddy and thought through simple stages the children could copy. Charlotte's drawings are adorable, so it was a happy experience.
While I was drawing there was silence. Complete and utter silence. Not a single titter.
You could have heard a mosquito biting my ankle, it was so quiet. And when I finished they gave me a round of applause. Gosh! I have never had a round of applause like that, at least not within living memory. It made me so happy I repeated the exercise at the end, letting them call out 'ear' or 'nose' or 'tooth' as took their fancy. This time they were willing to participate. Very willing.
Then the second surprise of the day. The teacher presented me and Mas with presents. Mine was a large drinks container - Tupperware - and was decorated with a handmade paper rose. Wow, thanks you, I said. Shall I fill it with gobstoppers?
No, water! they replied.
Doh! Silly me.
We handed out stickers and the kids rushed off to lunch. I had enjoyed myself and I had learned a fantastic lesson.
These kids love watching. And reading out loud. It was to stand me in good stead for the rest of the book festival.
(This young lady even copied my hasty dragon picture...later during the library sessions.)
On the way back to the car, we passed a class of older students reciting some Chinese text. I can't remember reciting things at school at that age. Maybe at seven years old, going through our times tables. Or repeating the odd word in French when we were older. But it was strangely comforting to hear them speaking 'as one'.