I've just returned from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, where SCBWI Tokyo RA Holly Thompson and myself co-ran a two and a half day workshop for children's book writers and illustrators. We set off on this trip not really knowing what to expect due to communication hiccups during planning, so ended up taking a lot of material with us to cover all possible angles. We flew in on Thursday, one day later than scheduled as our flight was postponed over 30 hours due to severe wind conditions in Ulaanbaatar. Despite this the workshop went ahead as planned, we just lost our free day.
Arriving around midnight we were met by the on-the-spot workshop organizer, SCBWI ARA Batjargal, (known as "Batji"), a much travelled journalist who spoke a few words of English, and our interpreter, a tall muscular language teacher who introduced himself as "Boris", though his real name is Mongolian.
The entrance to our apartment
Our accomodation consisted of two rooms in a dilapidated Soviet era apartment block, although we were told it was better than average by Ulaanbaatar standards.
It reminded me of an old student bedsit in Manchester. Not having any running hot water for half our stay was the biggest problem, but we managed, making do with cold showers. Every morning at 6:00am the piped radio began broadcasting the national anthem, which awoke us with some authentic local ambience.
View from our balcony towards the Monastery. Note the two city Gers
At 9:00am daily we were collected by Batji and driven down bumpy split roads to the Press Institute, the venue for our workshop. Despite constraints on facilities Batji was a marvel of efficiency.
Talking to Batji & Boris
He'd notified every attendee of our delayed flight and adjusted schedules accordingly, he'd managed to find a projector so we could run Power Point presentations, every participant had a name card, and coffee/tea breaks were included so none of the participants became overly fatigued. In a country of meat eaters they even looked after my vegetarian requirements.
Workshop attendees at lunchtime - Mongolian tea, rice and scotch eggs, with salad.
As far as possible all our requests were ably looked after by Batji and our dynamic interpreter and guide Boris. The two of them ensured the workshop and the trip ran with smooth professionalism.
The class had 40 participants, including some of the leading children's authors in Mongolia. As a large number of children's books seem to be self published there was a fair variety of talent. The ages ranged from 70 to 10, the oldest being a teacher and well known writer of numerous children's books and film screen plays.
Our youngest attendees....
...and oldest (on the right)
Holly in action
Holly and I co- presented the workshop, speaking in succession, Holly for the writers, me for the illustrators. Holly had the biggest task, as few of the attendees spoke any English, yet she was there to help with their stories. Illustrations at least speak the universal language of visual communication.
John in action
character development exercise
It was therefore a workshop with many challenges, but we nevertheless covered over the two and a half days the whole gamut of children's publishing, from story ideas to story boarding, submissions to marketing and promotion.
Worked up storyboard by M. Chimeddorj
Boris translated everything with unflagging dedication from beginning to end, all the attendees took copious notes.
The only part that really failed to come together was a morning of critiques on the second day - after a successful character development and story-boarding activity the previous day I asked the illustrators to bring their portfolios and book dummies in for discussion, but only three brought any work in at all, and then it was just a handful of loose sheets and paintings, no portfolios. I realized that in all likelihood few illustrators here actually possessed anything approaching a portfolio. There were nevertheless some good artists.
Holly in pensive mood
Holly had an even bigger problem as the attendees were not keen on critiquing amongst themselves, they wanted to hear Holly's opinion of their work. So all the stories had to be translated by Boris, which proved a monumental task that exhausted everyone, especially our hard-working interpreter.
We learned a lot through this and other experiences. Children's publishing in Mongolia is in a state of development. The population of the whole country is less than 3 million, and as the number of people who can afford to buy children's books is very small, the market is limited. We were told most publishers are in fact printers, a lot of books are self-published by authors paying out of their own pockets, who then sell the books themselves. Commissioned work often seems to be comic style art, judging by what we were shown during the workshop and saw in a bookshop. The most visible producer of children's literature is Irmuun Agency, which serves as a printer, publisher and agency. Two of the editors from Irmuun attended the workshops, one of whom showed us their published children's magazines, which lean heavily towards brightly coloured comic styles drawn by computer.
The editors from Irmuun joined in the character exercises
We were also honoured to meet with the illustrator Bolormaa Baasansuren, who's fabulously lush artwork took first prize in the 2005 14th Noma Concours competition in Japan. Her picture books are produced in Mongolia by Munkhiin Use, although two, The Tale of the Housewives Hair (Mongol no Kuroi Kami), and My house is a Ger (Boku no Uchi wa Geru) have been published in Japanese by Sekifusha publishers in Fukuoka. Holly had interviewed Baasansuren for a forthcoming article on the Noma award in the Kyoto Journal, so it was a great pleasure to meet her face to face when she dropped in to present us with signed copies of her beautiful books on the second day. She's by far the leading international light in children's illustration to appear from Mongolia, we were surprised that many of the attendees at the workshop did not know her work.
Being great fans of her art Holly and I both felt a keen desire to help Baasansuren and other Mongolian illustrators make a name for themselves outside the country. The fundamental problem is simple - with a weak and limited local market for children's books in Mongolia, writers and illustrators are faced with the choice to either create a stronger publishing market locally, or establish a bilingual agency that will promote work internationally. It's a slow process, but as Boris told us, people are aware of what needs to be done and will get there in the end, with help.
We ended the workshop with a talk on promotion, the need for a stronger web presence and a coordinating office to handle negotiation, visit trade book fairs etc, which left Holly and I wondering what we could do ourselves to help put Mongolian children's books on the map. We've a few ideas that might help. Baasansuren joined us again for the last morning of the workshop and talked about her work. The participants were all presented with certificates signed by us and Batji commemorating the event.
The whole thing ended with book signing, gift exchanges, and photo shoots outside the venue.
Some of the attendees outside the press centre at the end of the workshop
Other than the workshop we were escorted around the sights of Ulaanbaatar by the energetic Boris and Batji. Every day the workshop ended at 4:00pm, and as it didn't get dark until nearly 10:00pm we had plenty of time to see the sights.
One of the first destinations was the Gandantegcheling Monastery, rebuilt after it's destruction by Chinese in the 1930's and containing an incredibly tall statue of Buddah. It was breathtaking.
Prayer wheels surround the older buildings. Visitors walk around the buildings, turning each one.
detail of one of the roofs
Next evening after a great dinner with Boris at a Chinese restaurant he took us to see a short performance by the national theatre performers, which included folk singing, traditional dancing, contortionists and throat singing.
Although it seemed to be something staged largely for tourists Boris told me Mongolians also queued to see the performances.
One of the dancers
Whatever the case, I was suitably impressed.
As it was still early we then went to see the Soviet built WWII memorial, perched high on a hillside at the top of a long flight of steps overlooking Ulaanbaatar, presenting a panoramic view of the city from a circular mosaied pedastal.
mosaic and view. The central plinth was in former times lit with a flame.
close up of the mosaic
Further down the hill stood another memorial to a Mongolian built T-34 tank that advanced all the way to Berlin between 1943-1945.
We ended the day in a large modern Irish pub called the Grand Khaan, memorable for it's enormous beer glasses, strangely German stage backdrop painting, and beer promotion girls.
The third and final day was time to relax and really get to see something of the country. We wrapped up the workshop at midday, then visited a bookshop with Baasansuren, researching and stocking up with books for the Chihiro Museum in Tokyo. Then Batji and Boris drove us out into the country to visit an authentic Ger.
Inside the Ger, the owner's mother prepared salty tea and yoghurt
Much to our surprise this turned out to be owned by the husband of Sodnomdorj Tsetsegmaa, one of our workshop attendees.
The Master of the House. On the table were laid cheese and goats's milk snacks, plus the ubiquitous Mongolian tea.
It was a dream come true to sit with a family in an authentic Ger in Mongolia. We were told the Ger was over 50 years old, the owner had in fact been born in it.
Arrival of our workshop attendees We were even more surprised when half the attendees from the workshop also suddenly turned up and crammed into the cosy tent. Mongolian tea and yoghurt were passed around and camera shutters snapped. It was an unforgetable moment.
Holly and our hosts outside the Ger
Eventually we left the workshop attendees at the Ger and drove off deeper into the country to see a large and recently constructed palace hotel built in ancient Chinese style.
The view across the river valley
The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, I felt like we were at the foothills of heaven.
From there we drove down potholed dirt tracks to the river, where once more the workshop attendees appeared, together with the Ger owner - unbeknowns to us a riverside party had been organized. Holly and I were presented with oil paintings as thankyou gifts...
...the vodka was opened, a milk churn served as a cooking pot over an open fire, and we stood soaking in the wonderful air...
...the wild horses wading the river...
...and the incredibly warm hospitality of our hosts.
Boris and cognac
As the sun set we drove back to the city, and topped an already uncomfortable mix of drinks with more beer at the Grand Khaan Irish pub, narrowly missing sumo star Asashoryu, who left as we arrived.
Finally back at the apartment late at night we found our illustrator friend Baasansuren waiting for us with yet another gift of two original pieces of artwork.
I was lost for words. It was the perfect end to an unforgetable trip.
(Many thanks to Holly for some of the snapshots!)