Many might have seen her on the big screen, but not many know that Sharon Ismail is also an author – not of a book or two, but of three books! And despite being busy and having two children, Sharon is still an avid traveler ☺️ Read on as she shares with us her views on traveling as well as some tips and tricks for traveling with children in tow!

What inspired you to start writing books after being in the acting scene for a long time?

I was heavily pregnant with my first child and was told by my gynae to stop all work as she didn’t want me to get into labour early. So I was under “house arrest” and bored. She told me to read, write, do something! So I took her seriously and began what I thought would be a family scrapbook project – a story about my mother’s childhood, with family photos, to present to her grandkids after they were born. My brother’s wife was also pregnant so my mother was due to be a grandmother for the first time. I thought it’d be a cool gift for grandma.

Out of the blue, a good friend of mine told me about a publishing grant by the National Book Development Council of Singapore and Media Development Authority for first-time writers. First sign. Then, another good friend told me he had always wanted to illustrate a book. Second sign. I wasn’t sure we could win the grant, but we did! Another sign. So it all fell into place pretty serendipitously, I must say.

The first good friend is now bugging me to do more with publishing and the second is media personality Khairudin Saharom, a long-time collaborator and friend from the days we hosted Selamat Pagi Singapura together on MediaCorp Suria.

From that first edition of my first book, What Sallamah Didn’t Know (now a P6 English text under MOE’s STELLAR syllabus), I’ve been amazed with this unexpected development in my life. I did not intend to be a writer, but we’ve seen two re-prints of What Sallamah Didn’t Know, and it’s been translated into Malay, Chinese and Tamil. My second book was a bilingual pre-schooler book called Makan Time! with media personality Rilla Melati Bahri.

My third book, The Ghost with Dirty Feet, is the sequel to What Sallamah Didn’t Know and it’s just out! We had a successful book launch at My Imagination Kingdom, a children’s bookstore at OneKM Mall, on Sun, 22 Jan. I was overwhelmed by the support of my readers and happy I got the chance to meet them.

Your first book is based on the life story of your mother. Sharing such a personal story must be tough, but rewarding. What has been the most rewarding experience for you since you started writing books?

I think my mother had a tougher time with it, to be honest, because I showed her baby photo in What Sallamah Didn’t Know!

The most rewarding part about writing is hearing our young readers and parents share their thoughts on the story – which parts they liked, made them sad, and importantly, what the story made them think about. I honestly think stories shape humanity, so it’s important to capture the stories of our everyday life and everyday people. Values and emotion are universal, regardless where the stories are set in.

Parents have written to us to share how What Sallamah Didn’t Know helped them start a conversation about adoption with their own adopted children. Having people tell me that my story has helped them create new, positive beginnings in their lives is the highest compliment I could ever receive as a writer. It is a humbling experience and motivates me to continue writing.

The theme of family is recurrent in your first book and its upcoming sequel. Could you tell us more about your new book? Are there any lessons families travelling together could draw from your books?

What Sallamah Didn’t Know is about Sallamah, my mother, and her discovery that she was adopted.

The sequel, The Ghost with Dirty Feet, follows Ali, Sallamah’s youngest brother, and his experience with adoption. When the family fell on hard times, Ali was worried that he would be given away again. After all, that was how he ended up in this family, with his adoptive parents and siblings. So Ali’s story is about finding his place in a family who had “chosen” their children from other families.

If I were to highlight a key takeaway for families (travelling or otherwise) from my book, I’d say enjoy the little moments you have with your loved ones. Big moments may have drama and fireworks, but when we look back on memories, it’s often these little moments that we remember with fondness. How a little one grabs your hand unexpectedly, and your marvelling at how tiny it is, the look on my daughter’s face with her first slurp of hot soba on a wintery night in Tokyo. Every family has these moments, no matter where we come from or travel to. And that’s the beauty of family.

As a mother of two girls, would you encourage your children to travel? Why?

Yes, I would highly encourage it, especially since they enjoy it. It’s good to be curious about other people and places. It’s good to realise how vast the world is, and how much of an impact we can have on the world, regardless of how tiny we are as individuals.

I like the idea of limitless and borderless possibilities. My hope is that my girls grow up realising how fortunate they are to be able to expand their horizons with travel and use those opportunities to make a positive impact on others’ lives in whatever way they can.

In this day and age, why do you think that it is especially important for Muslims to travel?

I think travel is beneficial for everyone, Muslim or otherwise. It’s good to see other ways of living and to experience other points of view. It can be humbling and inspiring to know that our way of doing things isn’t the only way to live life. At the same time, it is an opportunity to enable others to learn about us. Travelling facilitates understanding and respect among people of different cultures and backgrounds – and reinforces the point that, at the end of the day, we all have the same goals and aspirations regardless of where we come from.

It’s also a chance to throw ourselves off balance a little bit. Our everyday life can be too routine and familiar, so breaking that sparks off fresh energy, and we come back refreshed. Physically tired, perhaps, but creatively charged, with new perspectives, hopefully.

What are some of the challenges you have faced while travelling and how did you learn from them?

I’ve been very fortunate; no bad experiences to traumatise me. I think the most challenging was when we went with our girls, then 4 and 1 year olds, on a 10-day, 4-country Europe tour. In winter! Travel logistics were a nightmare because there were layers of winter clothes, diapers, milk powder, baby food, nap times, baby slings, strollers etc. to think of. It was exhausting!

Travelling might be tougher with children in tow. Do you have any tips for parents who travel with their children?

Plan ahead destinations for the day and prepare everyone so they know what to expect. Kids will still ask plenty of questions, sometimes repeatedly, but it gets easier. Just ask Google!

When we travel with kids, we basically cut down what we want to cover in a day. It’s usually one activity before lunch and one after lunch to allow for a slower pace of travel. They’ve got shorter legs, they walk slower. They get tired faster than we do. Earlier nights are the norm; that means no late night suppers or walks when the girls are with us!

Break up the journey from one place to another. My girls love food, so a quick break in a café or a food stop with local delicacies distracts them from long walks to our destination. This forces my husband Jo and I to take a more leisurely pace, and see the world through their eyes, so we notice more things, and are more conscious of the experience. This improves the quality of our sightseeing, I believe.

At the end of the day, just enjoy the trip. It’s a chance to really be together 24/7 discovering new places as a family. Make memories. It’s not going to be picture perfect all the time. But that’s what make memories beautiful.

What are your travel must-haves?

On the very practical list: the non-negotiable stuff – passports, some cash, and two credit cards that work overseas. (Make sure you activate the magnetic strip function for cards too, because many merchants overseas still use the swipe function which is no longer practised in Singapore).

On the “Mum” list: hand sanitisers, wet wipes, tissue, my / my husband’s name cards stuffed in our girls’ pockets when we go to crowded places (our contact details if the girls get lost, touch wood!), notebooks and markers to keep them occupied, and a spare phone for them to take photos and catch Pokemon with (they understand the phone belongs to us, so it’s limited use for them.)

The girls get to take two of their favourite stuffed animals to travel with us each time. These provide a sense of familiarity for them, and bedtime is more comforting for them. In general, they’re easy to pack for now that they’re bigger.

They like to read, and they like to eat. So as long as these needs are met, they’re game to explore wherever we travel, walk distances, brave cold weather, etc. They’re cool like that.

On the “me” list: a warm hoodie for the plane, useful for naps and privacy on planes. My phone charger and a travel adapter. Changi Recommends’ pocket WiFi (remember to reserve ahead of time). Basic meds like paracetamol, inhaler.

And most importantly – an open mind.

What are 3 of your favourite destinations, and why?

Top spot: Pole Pole Resort at Mount Gassan, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan, ranks top in my list. Apart from the picture postcard snow landscape, the hospitality by the team was homey, sincere and just so welcoming. It’s a resort run by Teiji Okuyama, his son Noboru and a lean team of multi-taskers. Teiji-san was our host and professional ski instructor. Noby-san was our travel guide and a ski instructor too. He brought us to visit Ginzan Onsen, the little village the series Oshin was filmed at! The chef Atsushi Motegi is a mountain trekker who takes guests on hikes in friendlier weather. It’s like Club Med married Airbnb!

The team prepared Halal Japanese meals for us and we were so touched by their attention to detail. Knowing we were Muslims, they showed us the halal items like mayonnaise used in their recipes. We were perfectly happy with the Japanese experience, but when Noby-san whipped out a packet of sambal belacan (just because he thought we might miss chilli), my husband and I knew Pole Pole would have a special place in our hearts.

2nd spot: Bali. We visit Bali almost every year and stay in different villas each time. The laid back vibe, the food, the scenery is just seductive. Each time we visit, it’s an entirely different experience. It helps that a group of us celebrated our birthdays there two years ago. That was a fantastic trip with our closest friends – celebrating three birthdays and my wedding anniversary.

The 3rd spot is still vacant. I’m waiting to see where I’ll fall in love with in 2017. Any suggestions?

Fill in the blank: My hope for the world is that…

…we remember to be kind and use kind words as much as we can. Words have the power to heal or harm. And sometimes we underestimate that. In the crazy aftermath of 2016, I think kindness is all the more necessary for humanity.

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