When I first started writing the children’s and young adult book column “Tots To Teens” back in 2002, there were hardly any good Malaysian children’s books in our bookstores. Have things changed?
There are certainly many more Malaysians writing and publishing books for children, but are these books on bookstore and library shelves, and are Malaysian children actually reading them?
Golda Mowe, the author of Iban Dream, Iban Journey and The Nanobots and Other Stories, thinks not. In her opinion Malaysian books are not attractive to Malaysian children, and one of the main problems we face is a lack of variety.
“How many versions of Sang Kancil can you force a child to read before she rebels? How many ‘I-am-sorry-I-was-bad’ repentance novels can you make a teen read before she throws up?”
Mowe maintains that most Malaysian children’s books are “not fun because they are filled with acceptable but stale ideas”. She finds the characters “too centred around an ‘ideal’”, which makes the stories “terribly predictable”.
Another Malaysian author, Heidi Shamsuddin, feels that we don’t have enough “good quality local books spanning different genres and topics”. “As a result,” says Heidi, “children who do read are naturally drawn to books that are already out there and easily available – bestsellers, like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Roald Dahl, etc.”
She thinks that, having started on these books, children find it easier to just “continue reading in the same genre and they may view local books as being a little too different”.
However, she feels it’s just a matter of capturing the interest of kids at the right time. “Children usually start to read when they’re about seven to 10. For this group, once they’ve found a series or author they like, they will be quite loyal.”
The trick is getting them reading Malaysian books in the first place. “I am confident once they start reading my books, they will be engaged enough to carry on reading,” she says, but acknowledges that it’s difficult having to “compete with the likes of David Walliams and Jacqueline Wilson” whose books are so much more easily available that her Door Under The Stairs series.
Heidi’s time travel books, which aim to make Malaysian history more accessible, are currently sold at two stores in Kuala Lumpur, Silverfish Books in Bangsar and Kinokuniya Bookstores in Suria KLCC. They are also available on her publisher’s online bookstore, oyezbookstore.com. However, you won’t find them at the larger chain stores.
Silverfish and Kinokuniya cater to niche customers – the few Malaysians who support local authors and foreigners who purchase Malaysian children’s books as souvenirs or holiday gifts – but these books need to be widely available in the big chains, up and down the country, as well as in all public libraries and schools, not just two bookstores in KL’s most affluent areas.
Right now, you need to actively and patiently hunt for Malaysian children’s books and this is not an efficient way to encourage more Malaysian children to read them.
Tutu Dutta, the author of several Asian folktale collections and the picture book Phoenix Song published by British multicultural imprint Lantana Press, feels that it’s pre-schoolers who are benefiting from the increased output by Malaysian publishers “because of greater awareness among younger parents and their desire that their children ‘see themselves in their books’ to build self-esteem and cultural awareness”.
She doesn’t think Malaysian teens are very interested in local authors.
“I believe there is fierce competition from books from the West, more developed world, etc. We lack the marketing reach and slick production the major publishers have. Teens choose their own books and are subject to peer pressure. They may be more aware of books published in the West than those published in Malaysia. We are less ‘cool’ and less interesting.”
Dutta also feels that remaindered book stores “may have a devastating effect on our publishing industry”. “Although it gives readers books at rock bottom prices, it makes local books seem expensive,” she points out.
“Pay that much for a Malaysian book?!”
A popular local book publisher charges between RM20 and RM25 for its novels, but the production cost of illustrated children’s books, especially picture books, is much higher. Still, I know those who wouldn’t pay even RM30 for a Malaysian picture book. And Dutta is right, why would they when RM17 might get them something by Oliver Jeffers, or even Maurice Sendak, at a remaindered store.
Unfortunately, many Malaysians rate local books below those published in the West. Sadly, this way of thinking is often justified.
Choo Li-Hsian, mother of young twins, says that while she likes the “local flavour” of Malaysian children’s books, “especially the vibrant and rich pictures” in books illustrated by the likes of Emila Yusof and Yusof Gajah, “compared to books in the international market, I find (Malaysian books) too straightforward and literal”.
She cites, as an example, local alphabet books that feature words and objects that are “not even local, or linked in a logical way – the choice seems random and the concept not well thought out”.
Choo also feels that Malaysian books aren’t “as well edited as the international alternatives”.
This means that although she would like her children to be “exposed to elements of local culture”, Choo often ends up getting books that have been published internationally, as they tend to provide her with “more ways to deliver a topic or story to a child”.
What does all this mean? For me, just that everyone has to keep on doing what they’re doing, but better and more. For those of us who believe passionately in the writing and reading of local literature, there really is no other option but to always hope and strive for improvement, even if we get to a place where Malaysian children’s books are winning the most prestigious prizes and being read the world over.
Daphne Lee is exploring A Probability of Being at jhameia.blogspot.my, a blog by Malaysian-born ‘fictioneer, poet, editrix, and critic’ Jaymee Goh.