Founded in 1963, Hans Andersen Club has been committed to fostering parent-child communication and a reading culture through picture storybooks. May Wong, Executive Director of Hans Andersen Club, has served in the esteemed organisation for over two decades. She shares, “20 years ago, there were very few platforms within the Chinese community that actively promoted reading. We wanted parents to view picture storybooks as valuable parenting tools. By instilling a reading culture in our community, we hope to journey alongside this generation of parents who are both avid readers and aspirants.”

The fifth C of 21st-century education

20 years ago, it was quite a challenge to find suitable picture storybooks for toddlers and junior primary school students in Hong Kong, let alone a centre solely dedicated to picture storybooks. A local non-profit organisation named after Hans Christian Andersen, a renowned Danish fairy tale author, Hans Andersen Club is a pioneer in Hong Kong for promoting creative storytelling and parent-child reading through picture storybooks. With five social services centres across Wong Tai Sin, Lamma Island and Tai O, Hans Andersen Club has an impressive collection of 5,000 picture storybooks, ensuring that children in the community can indulge in the pleasure of reading. May states, “We firmly believe that children should enjoy reading from a young age. Reading stories is an excellent way to reinforce their memories of positive virtues. Moreover, reading fosters children’s problem-solving abilities and learning skills valued in the future society by encouraging them to actively identify and resolve the challenges they encounter.” She emphasises that children should not solely focus on academics, and reading should never be viewed as a mere extracurricular pastime. It is a delightful and fun habit that enriches our lives and nourishes our souls.

The rapid pace of global development has made it challenging for students to access essential knowledge that aligns with the current world trends, such as the popular field of AI, through the traditional school curriculum. Therefore, the education landscape of the 21st century places great emphasis on the four C’s: collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. May adds, “We believe ‘character building’ is another essential C.” This year, Hans Andersen Club has taken a significant step by introducing its top 10 book picks, divided into the categories of personal growth, family relationship and friendship. By immersing themselves in these stories, children can develop positive virtues whilst honing their five C’s. The list includes “Giraffe’s Swimming Lessons”, “I Want to Become My Mum’s Phone”, “The 11th Finger” and more. According to May, all 10 books are easily accessible in public or school libraries. The aim is to educate parents about the vital role of reading in children’s character development. “Reading is especially important for underprivileged families. Knowledge is power, and grassroots children deserve equal opportunities for development. We aim to demonstrate that reading is an affordable and effective way to nurture young minds. Numerous resources are available for parents who are willing to begin the reading journey with their children.”

Hans Andersen Club also publishes its own picture storybooks regularly. One noteworthy example is an picture storybook titled “Kom Tong Hall and the Masked Detective: The Search for the Ho Family Treasure”. Published in early 2023, it was a collaborative effort with the Hong Kong Museum of History. This unique picture storybook invites children to solve the mystery and catch a cunning thief as detectives. Young readers are also introduced to the architectural characteristics and historical significance of the Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum, which was formally the residence of local businessman Ho Kom-tong. May remarks, “Picture storybooks are flexible tools that can teach children about museums. Captivating stories can dispel the notion that museums are dull and inapproachable. Moreover, picture storybooks have the power to ignite children’s curiosity and love for reading whilst cultivating their reading habits.” Hans Andersen Club has an exciting collaboration in the works with famous local illustrator Wan Pak-huen this fall. They plan to publish a community picture storybook centred around Lamma Island early next year.

Collaborated with the Hong Kong Museum of History, Hans Andersen Club published the picture storybook “Kom Tong Hall and the Masked Detective: The Search for the Ho Family Treasure”.

Integrating storytelling into treatments to reduce school bullying

The power of picture storybooks extends far beyond teaching children about museums or the outlying islands. It turns out that reading at a young age can address children’s behavioural issues, such as aggression and bullying. Hong Kong is facing a growing problem of school bullying, even ranking as the most severe among 72 countries and regions. A 2020 study revealed that a staggering 44% of local students had been subjected to cyberbullying, with 4% admitting to being bullies themselves. Recognising the urgency of the situation, Hans Andersen Club and the City University of Hong Kong (CityU) have been in collaboration for 10 years. Their joint efforts led to the world’s first story intervention therapy. This innovative treatment combines the power of picture storybooks and interactive games to instil positive values, foster empathy and improve emotional intelligence in children. Ultimately, the therapy aims to reduce children’s anger issues and correct their bullying behaviour. May states, “School teachers and administrators should be aware of the positive impact of reading in building a more harmonious campus.

Dr. Annis Fung, Associate Professor of the Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences at CityU and Chairperson of Hans Andersen Club, defines bullying as calculated acts of physical violence, verbal intimidation or boycotts for personal gains, such as money, material possessions and power. Bullying is often started by smart students who lack empathy (proactive aggressors) as they believe that harming others will be beneficial to them. Moreover, many children may experience an emotional breakdown when being misunderstood or offended at school. As they resort to retaliation as a means of self-protection, they become reactive aggressors. If left uncorrected, these children may gradually identify with their bullying behaviour and transition from passive aggressors to active bullies. Story intervention therapy aims to correct distorted cognitive patterns, teach emotional management skills, foster empathy towards bully victims and ultimately raise awareness of the grave consequences of bullying with the help of picture storybooks, role play and scenario-based discussions. After a successful research phase, Hans Andersen Club launched the “Read-to-Change” project in 2020 to introduce story intervention therapy into primary school campuses, tackling the root of bullying and reshaping the mindset of high-risk children with proactive or passive aggressor traits. Dr. Fung stresses the importance of early intervention, as proactive and passive aggressor traits can be identified as young as four to six years old. Therefore, Hans Andersen Club plans to extend the project to local kindergartens in order to reduce the likelihood of bullying among children in the future.

The research confirmed the effectiveness of story intervention therapy in managing children’s anger issues, successfully reducing their aggressive behaviour by up to 50%. A follow-up study conducted six months later revealed that the subjects showed no resurgence of aggressive behaviour; there were also notable improvements in their anger management skills.

Reading as an essential vehicle for parent-child bonding

Picture storybooks typically have more pictures and fewer words. They incorporate engaging storylines that allow children to immerse themselves, take on different roles and enjoy an enhanced learning experience. May has met numerous parents who are concerned about their children’s lack of interest in reading at home. Therefore, they bring their little ones to Hans Andersen Club’s social services centres in the hope of cultivating their love for reading. “Indeed, most children are willing to sit down and listen quietly to our stories at the centre. Picture storybooks have a kind of magical charm. Regardless of how energetic children are, they immediately become captivated once the storyteller begins narrating. In fact, parents need not resort to forceful measures to encourage their children to read. It has been proven that when children are genuinely interested, they will naturally pay attention. While reading is an accessible educational tool, many parents often underestimate their own ability to utilise this resource. The role and responsibility of parenthood are irreplaceable. Parents should lead by example and cultivate reading habits alongside their children and let them progress at their own pace. There is no rush to push children into memorising vocabulary as it would make reading a tedious and stressful task.” May also points out that many children particularly enjoy spending quality time with their parents before bedtime, and storytelling serves as a vital medium for parent-child bonding. Parents should not feel restricted by their way of expression because the interaction between parents and children cannot be confined to words or storylines.

Many parents aspire to hone their storytelling skills to foster a greater love for reading in their children. Hans Andersen Club offers a range of helpful tips in this regard. First, it is important to ensure that the bookshelves at home are tailored to children’s height so books are within easy reach. Second, harness a variety of voices when portraying different characters to add depth to storytelling. For instance, use a deep and resonant voice for big, ferocious beasts, and shorten words, speak faster and repeat phrases for smaller creatures. Third, parents can also engage in interactive reading by incorporating dialogue and asking various types of questions during storytelling, such as fill-in-theblank questions, recall questions, open-ended questions and those related to real-life experiences. When selecting an picture storybook for children, parents should consider factors like their children’s age, preferences, the size and weight of the book, the colour palette, the ratio of illustrations and words, the placement of the images and text, the pace of the story and the book’s recommended age range. Making the most of community resources, such as public libraries, can also broaden children’s reading horizons. Hans Andersen Club organises regular storytelling workshops for parents each season to strengthen their storytelling skills.

Hans Andersen Club introduced its top ten picks which are easily accessible in public or school libraries.