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Lana Sultan: Children’s literature with a conscience

As any mother, Lana Sultan, appreciates a good children’s book to read to her son and daughter. As a mother of two as well as an author, Sultan is actively contributing to children’s literature while fortifying her stories with wonderful messages of tolerance, appreciating beauty and culture, and living green. Her latest, “What A Place!” is making positive waves with both children and parents. Born in 1979 in the United Kingdom and growing up in Jeddah, she made homes in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, the UK, Spain, and China in the last 15 years. Since 2013, Sultan has been living in Beijing with her husband and two children. In these past three years in China, Sultan has formed an intense desire to learn more about the vast Chinese culture and language.
With a degree in English literature and linguistics, Sultan uses writing as a form of self-expression and to imaginatively explain issues that are important to her in a manner in which children will understand and enjoy. With her “The Amazing Adventures of Echo Boy” she introduces children to living a green life and the idea of being eco-friendly. “Once Upon A Mutant” deals with the concepts of “tolerance, self-acceptance, and change.” With the increase in multiculturalism of our times, her latest book, which is her fifth, creatively mixes English and Mandarin to portray a year’s worth of a young girl’s adventures in Beijing. To explain further, Sultan shared with Arab News her journey to children’s literature, her books, and the latest on her bilingual “What A Place!”

What brought you to a career in children’s literature?
I’ve always loved reading books, but writing allows me to express my thoughts and feelings about topics or issues I feel strongly about in a way that are easily accessible to children. I also enjoy the creative side behind writing a book. It allows me to create the book’s environment, characters, and plot in my own imaginative way without any boundaries.

Please elaborate on your latest book, “What A Place!” What inspired this story and why did you decide to make it a bilingual book?
After living in Beijing our first year, we had the privilege to experience one of the oldest cultures in the world through the four seasons. We lived through the changing colors and the extreme weather patterns. We made friends who introduced us to all the different celebrations throughout the year. Each celebration or festival comes with its own meaning, purpose, and food. The whole cycle also opened my eyes to the generosity and the warmth of the people. I felt that I wanted to capture all of that richness and warmth into my next book through the eyes of a little girl growing up in the city.
In Beijing, we live within a mixed society with friends from both the local Chinese and global expat communities who have made Beijing home. I noticed that there was keen interest from both sides to learn about each other. Everyone seems to have a desire to learn something new. My children were also learning Chinese in school and I wanted to make sure I offer them something that they can explore in two different languages.

Are you considering translating your books into other languages to reach a wider readership?
I love the idea and I am always open to new opportunities. Of course, I would like to ensure that it is not a typical standard translation, but rather an artistic one. I would like the emotion, the feeling, and the rhymes to be translated as well. This is my first printed bilingual book because I was able to work with the publishing house in Beijing to translate the story while keeping the rhyming tone. Artistic translation is much more difficult to do than standard translation. The person must master both languages and understand the subtle references and the cultural quirks behind the writing. Most importantly, the author’s feelings, purpose, and view of the plot must be reflected in the translation.

What inspired the Eco Boy series, and will there be additions to his adventures?
The “Amazing Adventures of Eco Boy” series is very special to me. First of all, it is my first book. Secondly, it tackles a topic that is very dear to me; which is green living. Of course the option remains open to add to the series. However, I wrote three books in that series in a span of three years from 2010 to 2013. I feel that I have exhausted that series. Don’t get me wrong, I love that series and both children and their parents love it, but I also didn’t want to be boxed as an author into that series only. I wanted to explore other creative avenues and that is why I wrote “Once Upon a Mutant,” and “What A Place!”
Every time I venture into a new project, I learn more about myself, and my literary capabilities. It also allows me to expand my horizon as a person. Every new project gives me the opportunity to meet new people, new illustrators, try new ideas, and explore new styles.

You’ve written five books until now, what do you hope children take away from your books?
First and foremost, I hope children simply enjoy the book. Of course, we people are unique in our own way. We all have our own personalities, so people tend to react differently to surroundings, experiences, and books. Therefore, I am sure each individual child will have his or her unique takeaway. To me, all that matters is that it is a positive one.

What sort of feedback do you receive from children as well as parents about your stories and characters?
Overall, both parents and children have reacted in a very positive way to the books. When I first released “The Amazing Adventures of Eco Boy,” children fell in love with him. Some children have told me that “The Amazing Adventures of Eco Boy” is their favorite book ever. Others have dressed up as Eco Boy and Bio Girl during Book Character Day along side other famous and global known characters such as Harry Potter, Cat in the Hat, etc.
For “What A Place!” specifically, Beijingers (people of Beijing) fell in love with the book. The local people loved the fact that a foreigner wrote a book that details their city in a way they have not done so before. Some have said that they take certain cultural habits or norms for granted. Therefore, they no longer see them in the profound way an outsider would do. They also fell in love with the detailed illustrations, which captured cultural details that are very significant and date back to tens, hundreds, and thousands of years.
Expat children and adults living in Beijing also reacted very positively to the book because it sparks certain memories with them of their time in Beijing. In fact, many young college students who are studying Mandarin in Beijing, teachers, and adults have purchased copies of the book for themselves. They felt that the book is a memoir of their time in Beijing specifically and China in general.
My son, my daughter, my husband, and I also feel that this book is a personal diary or photo album of our time as a family in China.

Do you have any updates on “What A Place!” or new projects in the works you can share with our readers?
Beyond my wildest expectations, “What A Place!” has been an instant hit here in China. The book is selling in 10 outlets in 3 different cities (Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu). Of course, China as a country is extremely advanced in e-commerce with a highly developed set of platforms. Therefore, I was able to immediately sell my book through an online shop on the WeiDian platform. The book was featured in a number of publications here in China including a full page in China Daily; which has the widest print circulation of any English-language newspaper in China. It was also featured in both the English and Mandarin editions of “Beijing Magazine.”
As for new projects, I am always ready to move on with writing my next book. People only get to see the final product when it hits the shelves, but “What A Place!” was a two-year project that kept me engaged for quite a long time. Nonetheless, I do have a new idea, which I plan on starting to work on soon.
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For information on Lana Sultan and her books please visit her website www.LanaSultan.com or her Instagram @WhatAPlaceByLanaSultan.

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