When she was pursuing her postgraduate studies in Australia in 2005, Melanie Lee had an idea of writing a children’s book about a pointy-haired alien. But it was not until years later that the 38-year-old author revisited her alien friend.
In 2012, Lee adopted her son, Christian. As the Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information alumna sought ways to talk to him about his adoption story, Lee found existing books to be sorely lacking in terms of representation.
“When I borrowed books from the library on adoption, I found that they were quite limited. The range was always about an angmoh (Western) family or about adopting a kid from a third-world country,” said Lee.
"If kids don’t see themselves in stories, they can’t really see their place in the world.”
As such, she turned to that pointy haired alien from her student days for help. It all gelled together when her friend, David Liew, casually pitched to her the idea of writing a book about her titular alien.
That was how her award-winning series on adoption, dubbed “Squirky the Alien” was born, and Liew hopped on as the illustrator for the books.
Lee went on to write six books in the series, many of which have received numerous accolades. Her third book – “Who is the Red Commander?” – was presented the Crystal Kite Award, which is given to outstanding children's’ books published around the world by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. The fourth book in the series – “Where is my Mama?” – won the 2nd prize for the Samsung KidsTime Author’s Award.
In the series, Squirky, a blue pointy-haired alien realises he is adopted from another planet and goes on a search for his biological parents.
“I thought it’d be good to have something a little more universal, so I talked about this alien orphan character, and I wanted to include things that my son liked as well,” said Lee. “It was very much for him: a story about his own adoption.”
The “Squirky the Alien” series was instrumental in helping Lee and her husband talk to Christian about his adoption story when he was three years old. She shared that Squirky helped Christian cope with the news and whenever he encountered something, Christian would often turn to Squirky as a frame of reference. Oftentimes, Christian would quip, “that happened to Squirky too!”
Lee also intended the book as a guide for her son if he ever wanted to search for his biological parents in the future, as the book details how she and her husband would support him.
“He sees (the series) as his own stories. I told him ‘I wrote it for you’ and he sees it as his,” she added.
Lee’s time in WKWSCI also helped her hone her skill in writing. One of her favourite modules as an undergraduate was photojournalism.
“That’s where I got the storytelling bit of journalism,” she said. “Photojournalism was good because with the visual element, the storytelling element gets switched on. To capture certain moments or emotions in photos which can translate to your writing, I think that was very powerful.”
Lee said that other journalism courses she took also helped sharpen her craft as a writer. This came in especially handy in the Squirky series, where she had to write simply and succinctly as her audience was mainly children.
Although Lee did not initially have lofty dreams for the Squirky series, she has found great joy in knowing that people around the world love her books. She often receives emails from parents across the globe telling her how Squirky helped their adopted children understand their situation.
And alongside Squirky’s growth in the series, Lee eventually started to think about a bigger idea beyond just writing for her son.
“(As much as) it is a personal project, there was a bigger idea at the back of my head – that the idea of representation was very important,” Lee said, referring to how some existing books on adoption lacked representation of Asian children.
She added: “It made me all the more think if kids don’t see themselves in stories, they can’t really see their place in the world.”