Travel writer Isabelle Demenge on putting the fun into family getaways

Did you know that there are more hand-held devices in Hong Kong than people? Or that unlike most other countries, banknotes here are issued by local banks rather than a central bank?

If you’ve ever cast your eye along the kids travel section in your local bookstore, you will no doubt be familiar with Isabelle Demenge’s colourful Leap & Hop guides. Packed with fascinating facts and fun activities, the books aim to engage kids on “grown-up” trips – i.e. they keep the “I’m boreds” at bay when you want to step away from the kids club and soak up a bit of culture. After all, there’s nothing worse than whinging children when you’re trying to trying to figure out your Manet from your Monet in the art galleries of Paris or attempting to strike a bargain in an Indonesian market.

So with her own kids in mind, Demenge set about putting a few activities and bits and pieces together to engage her young family and keep them interested on a trip to Cambodia back in 2010.

“The book looked a lot different to how it does now!” she laughs as we catch up at Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club last month. “I’m a bank lawyer by trade so I guess it looked a bit textbook, there were no illustrations at that point.”

Two more books followed – Sri Lanka in 2011 and India in 2012, “we always do a big family trip over the Christmas vacation,” – but they were still without illustration or colour. “I did my best but yes, I think they were pretty boring to look at,” she admits.

But they achieved their aim and she sent them to a printer who rolled off a copy for her own family and one for her nephew’s, and then a friend asked if perhaps she could have a copy for her own trip, and then another friend asked, and word spread until eventually Demenge thought there might be traction in the books and approached a publisher.

“I was put in touch with somebody from Asia One, which is based in Hong Kong. It was all a bit of a steep learning curve and I think I was very lucky. The publishers were interested because they were looking to branch into the children’s market and I already had the three books to show them.

“So then I needed an illustrator to polish up what I had, and through a friend of a friend I met French illustrator and graphic designer Emilie Sarnel. She was very interested and I felt she really understood what I was trying to achieve – I was looking for a sort of grown up, whimsical style which she does very well.”

Today, Demenge has eleven publications under her belt (including Bali, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Myanmar, New York, Paris, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Vietnam) with a twelfth, Mongolia, due out this month.

And Mongolia, she enthuses, was her favourite trip to date. “It’s always been on my bucket list, and we eventually took the plunge and went last October, so it was a bit outside of the ideal summer travel season, and it was cold. But it was absolutely amazing. The kids had such a great time – all that space. It was magnificent.”

The books are painstakingly researched. Demenge starts the writing process with an itinerary (“a grown up itinerary, I’m not even thinking about the kids at this stage”), then she researches and drafts up the background – the religion, the currency, the flag, the cultural traditions and so forth – and then the second part is the hands-on “things to do” section which weaves into the general information. This second part she makes up, then lays it out, prints it and hands it over to her kids to road-test.

“Actually this is called the guinea-pig book – my poor kids, they’ve always had the guinea pig, never the real thing!

“Sometimes it’s great, it all works. Sometimes they come back and go no, mum, that bit was really lame. Over the years I’ve developed more of an idea about what works and what doesn’t. But luckily for me, I have three boys with very differing interests – one is passionate about drawing, one is very active, and so forth – so when I write, I’m always thinking, is there something here that will engage all of them? And then the book is passed on to Sarnel to work her magic and make it look fabulous.”

The text is dense with information, so how does this work with younger readers?

“Yes, there’s a quite a bit of reading, I’ve tried to include lots of information,” she says. “But parents of younger kids have told me they use the books as an entry point into the country’s culture – they read aloud, and then get the kids involved in the activities. Of course with older kids, of maybe nine and upwards, you can give them the book and let them disappear with it for a couple of hours. The idea is to find ways kids of all ages can engage with the local culture.

“And when you’re travelling there are always these dead moments, like in a restaurant when the food takes ages to arrive, so it’s great for them to have something they can get on with, maybe creating a mystical creature or re-designing the local banknotes. Sure, sometimes they’re on their iphones, but if you have a rule that mealtimes are tech-free, then this is the perfect opportunity to play a game or talk about what they’ve discovered. And in a temple, there’s no wi-fi. They have to engage. And I think if you give kids stimulation, they’ll embrace it. Running around completing a scavenger hunt at Angkor Wat is going to be much more interesting than trailing after mum and dad.”

More books are in the pipeline, Mongolia hits the bookshelves this month, and then Demenge is thinking about Israel. It seems you can’t put a good woman – or a good book – down.