Welcome to the new blog!

Welcome to my new blog!

With Jack busy work on this literary fiction for adults, I’m embarking on a solo journey in the world of children’s lit!

As a first installment, here’s something from the archives: a post about my amazing trip to the United Arab Emirates in April 2018! Enjoy!

I just got back a few days ago from an unforgettable whirlwind trip to the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (SCRF) in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates! Let me take you on a quick tour!

The adventure began at the Vancouver International Airport, where security stopped me for extra inspection. They didn’t like the look of the steel wire armatures on the x-rays, but they had a chuckle when I opened my box to show them this:

I tweeted about this, and hilariously, YVR tweeted back at me:

Who knew an airport could have a sense of humour?

The patron of the SCRF is His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, commonly known as Sheikh Sultan III, who is the sovereign ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah. His generous patronage included bringing authors, illustrators and other creatives from around the world to the SCRF all-expenses paid. The incredible experience began with a business class seat to Dubai. Trust me, this is way above my usual standards for air travel!

The Sharjah Emirate is “dry,” meaning the sale or possession of alcohol within Sharjah is almost entirely forbidden. I was told that this had less to do with the strictures of Islam (after all, you can get alcohol in Dubai, right next door), and more to do with the untimely death of Sheikh Sultan III’s son, who was a notorious party-goer. Who knows where the truth lies. At any rate…

I left on a Friday morning in Vancouver, and touched down at about 6:30 pm on Saturday night in Sharjah (+ 11 hours). It was down to business the very next morning! My session at the Festival was entitled “Star Wars and beyond: unique illustration and storytelling by Holman Wang,” and it was part of a program series called “Cultural Corner.” Weekends in the UAE are Fridays and Saturdays, so Sunday is actually a school day, and the students who came to see me were on a school field trip.

I could tell you about the session, but I’ll let this amazing video do the talking (I didn’t even realize they were filming during my presentation!):

The video above wasn’t the only surprise—I was also flabbergasted to learn that my session had been reported on by the Daily Pakistan! Here’s a great photograph from the article (love the fish-eye lens):

I have to admit, the students were so quiet and polite during my presentation that I wasn’t sure if (i) they could really understand English particularly well, or (ii) maybe I was just not making a connection with the students. But at the end of my session, I opened things up for questions, and I was blown away by the thoughtful and articulate questions they had for me in English, ranging from questions about Star Wars to questions about having the courage to pursue your dreams. I clearly made a connection, as afterwards I was mobbed for autographs and selfies!

I think the students were under some misapprehension that they had met a famous North American children’s author, but I wasn’t about to burst their bubble! It was wonderful to see their enthusiasm, and I just tried to soak in the whole experience.

If you look closely at the photograph above showing the TV screen, you can just make out that I showed the students a photograph of me playing ice hockey. Gotta cultivate that Canadian mystique, right?

After my presentation, the good folks from Midas PR (the English communications firm that was seeing to our every need during the Festival) brought me to meet the Chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority, H.E. Ahmed Al Ameri (he has the phone in his hand below). He told us that he spent a lot of time in Stockton, California, of all places, where he did some of his post-secondary education. I had the chance to show him some of my needle-felted Star Wars figures:

Later, I also had the chance to show some members of the Festival’s IT team the basics of needle-felting. Gettin’ crafty in the Middle East!

Then I spent the rest of Sunday in Dubai with a friend—author and publicist Lara Starr of Chronicle Books. Here we are approaching the main downtown area:

Below is the Burj Khalifa or the Burj Dubai. With a total height of 829.8 m (2,722 ft) and a roof height (excluding antenna) of 828 m (2,717 ft), the Burj Khalifa has been the tallest structure in the world since its topping out in late 2008.

This is a panorama of the area behind the Dubai Mall, with a portion of the Burj Khalifa visible. Click on the panorama below for a larger view!

Here is one of the many mosques in Dubai, with the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah (a sail-shaped hotel and a symbol of Dubai) in the background:

Lara and I didn’t spend much time in the mega-malls. We were disappointed that there weren’t many unique stores in the malls. Most of the stores were exactly the same as ones you would see in any outlet mall in North America. But we did dash in and out of the Emirates Mall just to see the absurdity that is the artificial ski hill in the middle of the Arabian desert!

As night fell, we checked out a few of the souks (Arab markets or bazaars) in Dubai.

There were loads of spice stores and souvenir stores in the souks. If you’re into haggling for bargains, this is the place for you! Personally, I don’t enjoy the dynamic, but I had to learn to do it. Otherwise, it’s impossible to buy anything without paying exorbitant prices, because the sellers always start negotiations extremely high with spot-them-a-mile-away tourists like me. You learn quickly that if you just feign disinterest and walk away, the sellers will shout after you with prices that drop faster than a stone.

Lara and I also crossed a canal on a small vessel for 1 United Arab Emirates dirham, which is only about 38 cents Canadian or 30 cents American.

This all happened on just my first day!

The next day, Monday, I did a school visit at the Sharjah Indian School. The school has an unbelievable student body of nearly 13,000 students on two campuses! We were told that tuition is about $175 dollars Canadian a month (or about $135 USD a month), which represents peanuts for some families and a huge economic hurdle for others. Nevertheless, the school does what it can to accommodate everyone who wishes to attend.

Here I am, talking about hockey again (of course, I mostly talked about my books):

Later in the afternoon, I finally had the chance to wander the Sharjah Expo Centre to experience the Festival. Each year, the SCRF attracts over 300,000 visitors!

Here is one of the exhibition halls during a quiet time (after the school groups had already left):

The round display cases housed an exhibition of pop-up books through the years, which you can see more of here.

The exhibition hall was filled with numerous free-standing pods in which various themed children’s activities took place, such as the “Ideas Incubator” below:

Wandering around the many publisher stalls, I saw a few instantly recognizable English-language favorites translated into Arabic:

While I was in Sharjah, I stayed at the Sharjah Hilton. Here’s the beautiful walkway along the water just in front of our hotel (click to enlarge):

We were able to eat at the buffet for our meals, which included food from all regions of the world. Sometimes, we were able to sample traditional staples such as Middle Eastern flatbread known as saj, cooked up fresh before our eyes!

I spent my last morning in Sharjah literally rocking the Casbah—visiting the Al Qasbah area and listening to tunes on my headphones! The shopping and cultural center was beautiful, but quite dead. It may well have been the temperature at the time (around 34 degrees Celsius or about 94 degrees Fahrenheit) that kept the tourists away.

The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly a tour of the desert on my last night. I attended the excursion with other authors and presenters from the Festival. First, we visited the Mleiha Archaeological Centre, which showcases artifacts that indicate anatomically modern humans were in the Mleiha area between 130,000 and 120,000 years ago. Then we went on a dune ride. The video below doesn’t quite capture how harrowing some parts were, but it will give you a little flavour (and the music was playing in the car, just to heighten the drama!):

One of the stops in the desert was “fossil rock,” which is actually part of the remains of an ancient sea bed:

Most of the time, when an oceanic plate meets a continental plate, the oceanic plate is pushed underneath in a process called subduction. However, sometimes, an oceanic plate is pushed above the continental plate in a process called obduction. So, what we see in the desert near Mleiha are portions of a former sea bed that have been pushed up into the Arabian desert over time.

We know “fossil rock” was formerly part of a sea floor because you can actually see fossils of ancient sea creatures embedded in it! The contrast of the fossils is enhanced when a little water is poured on the rocks, as in the image below:

Here’s our intrepid caravan of dune-riding vehicles:

And here’s a panorama of the Arabian desert (click to enlarge):

Here I am playing tourist:

…and taking desert selfies (my wife thinks this should be my new author photo):

Then, for the absolute cherry on top, we had dinner in the desert. We drove up to an incredible set-up in the middle of the desert, with dining arrangements in both Eastern and Western styles:

There was even a carpeted tent, which I promptly sacked out in, as I was a little nauseous and tired from the dune riding!

After dinner, we had the chance to look through a powerful computerized telescope at various heavenly bodies. I saw the craters of the moon with my own eyes, and my friend Lara even took this photograph by simply putting her phone to the viewfinder of the telescope! Just stunning!

The next morning, I was back on a plane for a 24-hour+ journey back to Vancouver. Here’s our plane from Seattle during our descent into YVR (with New Westminster and Surrey visible below):

The trip was—in a word—amazing. I may never have the chance to go to the Middle East again, so when the opportunity came up to go to the SCRF, I definitely couldn’t turn it down. I missed my wife and kids, and the jet lag was horrible, but it was all worth it. Hopefully, I’ve left a little tiny bit of inspiration with the students I spoke to, and perhaps one day some of them will travel to distant lands to spark a love of reading, writing and book-making to a whole new generation of young minds.

السَّلَامُ عَلَيْكُمْ‎ As-salāmu ʿalaykum (“Peace be upon you”).


UPDATE: The School Library Journal published a short article about SCRF in May 2018, with photos by Lara Starr. Check it out!


Many thanks to Lara Starr, who took almost all of the photos of me that are not selfies!

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