Teaching kids to care for animals

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  • Monday, 25 Mar 2013

It's not every day you find a children's book that teaches kids to take care of animals and not abuse them. What makes The Adventures Of Tabby The Cat more interesting is that the book, published in Malaysia, is written by an American who doesn't have children and doesn't work with kids.

Unlike most children's book authors who write their books after becoming parents or spending a lot of time with children, author Michael Helfman, 31, has no kids and didn't spend time with kids when he came up with the story about 10 years ago.

“I just had a lot of free time. When I was a kid I loved children's books. I had books on Curious George, Babar and Thomas The Tank Engine. My parents were big book buyers. I probably had 200+ books and I used to read them all. I loved them.”

He is the oldest in his family and has three brothers and two sisters. His dad left when he was 12 and he had to help take care of his siblings. This is probably when his paternal instinct kicked in.

“Maybe it stems from that, but at the time, I just felt a children's book was the best way for me to do it because of the way the story was constructed, which is simple and easy for children to relate to.”

The Adventures Of Tabby The Cat is Helfman's first book. It is a story he wrote after his experience of working at the circus.

The story tells of a cat named Tabby and his brother Spooky who are separated after Spooky is adopted by a kind lady. Tabby ends up in the circus where he has to perform a really dangerous trick of jumping off a high platform.

Helfman believes kids will be able to relate to Tabby because he has a missing tooth. Children who are just losing their milk teeth will feel they have something in common with Tabby and won't feel bad about losing teeth.

“I also don't think I had the skills to write a novel at that time. So, I thought a children's book was the best way to convey the message.”

Welcome to the circus

Helfman, the founder of design and media company Maverick Media, explains that when he first graduated from college, he worked as an associate producer for a circus.

“At the circus I encountered several interesting people and in fact that trick that Tabby does in the book (jumping from a high platform onto a pillow) is a real trick which was done while I was there. It has since been banned in New York state for animal cruelty, but in other US states it's legal and is still being performed,” says Helfman.

While at the circus, he saw animals being treated poorly and it had an affect on him.

The Tabby in the book is actually based on a real cat that his family “adopted”. One day, Helfman and his family came home and found a cat on the porch. They already had a black cat named Spooky then and didn't really want another cat. They tried shoo-ing it away but it kept coming back every day and eventually they fell in love with it and started giving it some milk and food. Weeks later, it started coming in the house and it became the family cat after a month or so.

“The thing is, the cat was old and already missing one tooth, and it got me thinking. So, I asked my brothers, what is the story behind this cat? Why did this cat just show up on our doorstep one day? This was after I had worked at the circus and I just came up with the story that Tabby was a circus cat who escaped the circus and made her way to our house.”

That's how he came up with the story about 10 years ago when he was 22. So, The Adventures Of Tabby The Cat is based on real life experiences mixed with fiction.

Not knowing any illustrators then, Helfman put the story aside and waited for the “right time” to come. He never forgot about it. The right time came last year.

“After being in and out of Malaysia for two years, I decided to publish it. I thought this would be a great accomplishment for me. That's when I went on the hunt for an illustrator,” he says.

Finding Tabby

Helfman spent a year developing and working on the illustrations with student Emily Loh just to make sure every character looked exactly as he wanted them to look.

“We went through many different versions of Tabby before we figured out who Tabby really was. We sat together once a week for over a year developing the characters and working on the illustrations to get it right. I saw it as a Disney-esque kind of adventure,” says Helfman, who admits he is considering writing more books about Tabby the cat.

“I would certainly like to do more books about Tabby and, if I do, I'll probably bring some of the other animals into the stories a little bit more. It has some moral values but a lot of it is an adventure. We'll try to integrate the two as we go on if the book is well received.”

Teaching kids

Although he is now allergic to animal fur, Helfman admits to loving animals. In fact, he grew up with a dog and two cats.

Helfman thinks his book is a good tool against animal abuse and would love to get a broader audience for the book and message.

“Sometimes you can't fight something head on. I think something like this is more impactful than trying to fight something head on because through books you can reach children at an early age.

“However, I don't want to drill it into them. I think that kids have to see it themselves and maybe that's the best way to learn sometimes. When you keep telling someone to do something, sometimes they don't want to do it.

“But if they realise it themselves that it's the right thing to do, then they understand. I think it's probably the parents' job to help convey the message through the book.

“I think kids will learn a few things from the book – the importance of family and love and how strong it is because that's what Tabby is trying to get the whole time, to be with his family; obviously also the care of animals – we want children to know that animals have feelings too and they should be treated properly, not abused; and I want the readers to have a good time, to feel the downs and the ups. I want it to be a good story – not only can you learn, but I also want you to be entertained at the same time.

“I'm not trying to 'convert' anybody with the message. I just wrote this story and I hope people enjoy it. I hope that the message comes across and maybe they'll understand but I don't want to come off as an activist or anything like that. I just think it's a great story and I want people to appreciate it and hopefully they can learn something from it,” explains Helfman.

Future plans

With his background in film, Helfman says he would like to turn the Tabby story into animated film shorts, similar to the Upin & Ipin five-minute segments, and eventually turn it into a full-fledged movie.

Helfman would prefer to do it here independently with Asian talents.

“I spend most of my time here and I think Asia's on the rise. I think it would be great to do something completely here that could be seen on the world stage.”

Films to books

Helfman originally came to Malaysia a few years ago to work as the country manager for a magazine called Wall Street Market Research. His work involved producing a report on Malaysia. When it was done, he was asked to move to the Philippines. But having grown to love Malaysia, he chose to stay here instead. So he started his own company and called it Maverick Media.

He now spends 60% of his time in Malaysia, which is his base for collaborations in Asia. He does a lot of media and advertising and last year he produced and directed a feature film entitled The Borneo Incident, which is due to be released in Malaysia this year. He spends his time travelling between US, Malaysia and countries in this region.

Although feature films and children's books seem worlds apart, Helfman says they are similar in that they are both creative outlets.

“At the end of the day, I think it's all about creativity, whether it's film, art or writing, and I think that is the motivation for writing a children's book or doing a film. And I think that's something that needs to be promoted more in schools.”

* The Adventures Of Tabby The Cat is currently available in MPH Malaysia and Singapore. Its Facebook page can be found here.

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