As kids, we all loved a great story that will transport us to fantasy land each time we flip its page. Now in this era of mobile and tablet apps, storybooks have grown out of the paper into fully-fledged, dynamic digital portals that redefine the enchanting experience for children outside the imaginative enclaves of their minds. And this is precisely what Heajun Hong did when she started her own storybook app publishing company, Belmontis Publishers. Being influenced by her experience of raising her daughter, Isabel in a multilingual home, the Korean mother who was raised in Argentina decided to create storybook apps that encourage reading and learning new languages through interactivity.
Her first storybook app, Rom and the Whale of Dreams, which was launched recently on 2 December 2013, has been greeted with thumbs-up reviews from both buyers and online communities. With its eye-catching collage illustration, subtle interactive animation and ingenious storyline about a prince who hails from a land where people have forgotten to dream, and who on a journey of surreal encounters, searched for a mysterious whale which he keeps seeing in his own dreams, Rom and the Whale of Dreams delivers to the children an experience so unforgettable that they’d want to read it again and again.
Don’t believe me? Ask my 3-year-old son, and I’m already past exhaustion trying to wean him off it!
Nevertheless, the three most important languages in the world – English, Spanish and Mandarin – are incorporated into the app, allowing both child and adult beginners to learn the translations (with crystal clear voice-overs) of sentences and words in the story, something I am eternally grateful about which aid in my son’s Mandarin and my horrendous Spanish. Even more impressive, this business venture is Heajun’s first time into publishing, and underneath her success into bringing this project to fruition reveals a bumpy journey of tears, joy and sleepless hours of hard work all spelled neatly into one word – Passion.
I decided to find out more about this bubbly and heart-warming lady whose love for children is reflected in her temperament, and her experience growing up in Argentina.
Describe to us about your upbringing years.
My parents moved from South Korea to Argentina when I was three years old so I spent most of my childhood there. They are very traditional, so we spoke Korean at home and practiced its values. But outside of home, I was a completely different person (laughs)! Then I went to the US for university, studied Finance, and eventually worked in an investment bank in New York for 10 years. Shortly after my daughter Isabel was born, my husband and I moved to Singapore, and I started doing something (publishing) that I’ve never done before. I guess it’s all just a part of the learning curve of life.
Why did you choose Singapore?
I met my husband, Sam in New York through a mutual friend, and to be honest, I didn’t know of Singapore until I met him! He used to talk about Singapore a lot because he grew up here, and I really couldn’t comprehend (due to its small size) what or where it was until I first visited in 2001(laughs). As my parents and siblings were based in New York, and Sam’s family was in Singapore, we could really only spend time with one of our respective families at a time. In 2008, we decided to move here to spend more time with his as we have been with my side of the family during our first 8 years together. It’s so much safer and kid-friendly here.
Was your daughter born here?
No, she was born in New York. We brought her to Singapore when she was only 6 months old to visit Sam’s family, and we moved here when she was about a year old. She’s as Singaporean as any kid here. Her Singlish is perfect! But she does get a bit confused about where she comes from (laughs) because Sam and I share 6 native languages between us!
As an Asian being raised in Argentina, what was it like?
Frankly, as a kid, I was just so busy being a kid that I was not really aware of how different I was. Given that my siblings and I always studied very hard (in true traditional Korean fashion), we were quite popular as many of my classmates’ parents wanted their kids to spend more time with us! On a more serious note, I became more aware of the differences as I got older. Buenos Aires is, after all relatively homogeneous… culturally; I was the only Korean in my class, and along with my two siblings, we were the only Asians in the entire school of about 500 kids!
Was there any specific reason why your parents wanted to move to Argentina?
With the benefit of hindsight, I’m still asking my dad this today! (laughs). In short, it was mainly circumstantial. He wanted to bring us to the US like most families in Korea did during that time, and since it was difficult to go to the US directly, many of them would transit via South America. However, over time my family fell in love with Argentina, so we stayed.
Do you credit your childhood in Argentina to what you are doing now?
The experience of moving to Argentina from Korea, and subsequently from Argentina to the US, is a key reason I am who I am today, and why I place so much emphasis on making my apps multilingual. My parents knew no Spanish when they first moved to Argentina, and I find my parents amazing in that they did this twice – moving to Argentina with no knowledge of the language and culture, and then moving to the US when they were in their 50s, starting to adapt to a totally different environment all over again. As a kid, I learned Spanish faster than they did, so I would help my parents with translations at the bank, at school or elsewhere in Buenos Aires. Today, the world is so much more connected across multiple dimensions, and knowing multiple languages is more important than ever.
Anything you miss about Argentina?
The people – they are just super super friendly. The ease with which you can walk into a café, and strike an easy conversation with a stranger at the next table… It’s a much warmer culture in general, something I don’t feel as much elsewhere. I also miss my friends a lot and let’s not forget the food. The relationships that we form as children are often different than those we develop as adults, so some of my best friends in the world are still there.
Do you think there are more Asians in Argentina now?
Unfortunately not. This is purely anecdotal, but I did not see a single Asian person when I visited Buenos Aires for a month earlier this year. That said, I have heard there are many Chinese immigrants now in a certain part of the city which I have not been to. Argentina is very far away from Asia, and with its economic issues, there is still a long way to go before it becomes more attractive to foreigners as a place to migrate to.
So, why did you decide to start Belmontis?
Belmontis was born about 2 years ago out of an initial desire to start a library of multilingual books for Isabel. Both Sam and I loved to read when we were growing up, and I always wanted a library or reading room of my own. Since we speak 6 languages at home, and Isabel adores books, Sam and I thought multilingual books would be a great way to cultivate that interest in a way that would reinforce her natural language skills. However, we could not find many multilingual books of good quality, so we translated our favourite stories for her. As time passed, I started creating entirely new stories to read to Isabel. It was then that I decided to start Belmontis.
Is the Spanish language in your books specifically Latin American Spanish?
Very good question! It’s the same language, but Spanish does have different “colours” in different parts of the world, so Spanish in Argentina is different from Spanish in Mexico and other Latin American countries and so on. But we want our books/apps to be universal so we try to be as neutral as possible, working on a Spanish language that works across most countries.
(Take a sneak preview of Rom and The Whale of Dreams’s interactive app in this video below:)
How did your book, Rom and the Whale came about? Was it invented by you?
Well yes and no. I had the concept. I was actively involved in all the creative elements of the book – editorial, design, animation, interactivity, translation, etc, even adding original content. But I really took on more of a “publisher” role. I recruited, directed and coordinated these amazing artists from around the world. They are some of the most talented people I have ever met, and Rom and The Whale of Dreams would not have been possible without them.
What can users expect from your apps?
With today’s technology-driven platforms it is easy to engage children with fancy interactive features and visuals – the way video games do. I think we are different in the sense that we want our apps to be books and not games. Our goal is to create timeless stories and characters that will ignite the imagination of our young readers the way that the best books have always done. We used technology as a means to enhance, not replace, that experience.
It’s quite impressive that as your first time, you managed to pull this through successfully.
Thank you! The journey has been full of ups and downs, but I’m lucky to have met some incredibly talented and passionate people along the way, which made all the difference. Also, seeing Isabel excited every time she saw what I was working on was very encouraging. It has definitely been a very productive and humbling process.
Is Belmontis your first entrepreneurial pursuit?
Yes – it’s the first one that has actually come to life!
What other books can we expect from Belmontis?
We are already working on our second and third books. They are amazing and I can’t wait to surprise people with them!
What’s the future plan for Belmontis?
Going forward, we will continue to source for original manuscripts from around the world. We want to build a library of quality storybook apps that parents, children and others can keep coming back to. We have a social responsibility component to our company as well. We want to help children in need, and are in the process of partnering up with a charity.
You can download Rom and the Whale from iTunes here for just SG$3.98 (approx. US$3.14).
All Belmontis Publishers’ apps are available for iPads with IOS 6 and above.
Find out more at http://www.romandthewhale.com/
This article was published on Vida De Latinos’ online magazine, 1 April 2014.
Would you like me to write your article?
Feel free to get in touch today.