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Saturday, 7 February 2015

South-East Asian Children's Picture Books and the Importance of Local Children's Literature


SOUTH-EAST ASIAN CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOKS
and the Importance of Local Children’s Literature



Whilst we were living in Singapore I was always searching for children’s picture books that told their stories within a Singaporean or South-East Asian context, with illustrations and phrases that my children could identify with. The more I searched, the more I realised the extent to which British and American authors dominate the literary landscape.  This is not entirely a problem for us, being a part-British family, but my sons were not born in Britain; they were born in Singapore and are part-Malaysian.  I remember one evening being struck by the absurdity of reading a book about the four seasons to my (then) two year old son who had never seen bare trees, snow, a sledge, an open fire, squirrels or foxes; he had only ever known a climate of humid heat and monsoon rain, a world of spectacular shopping malls, hawker centres, beaches, geckoes, mosquitoes, rice cookers and “aunties” handing out little red packets.  It's not that I'm opposed to reading books outside our own culture (we read stories from other cultures all the time), but that reading a story was always like peering through a window into another world; it never really reflected back and affirmed the world that my sons were born into and the culture they had inherited.  I made it my mission to specifically search for South-East Asian children’s picture books.  

Listed below are a collection of South-East Asian picture books (from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) that I discovered during our stay in Singapore:



My Mother’s Garden, by Emilia Yusof (author and illustrator)
This picture book is a window into the world of a young girl enjoying the sights, sounds and feel of her mother’s garden.  She dances with the insects and dreams of being a flower and then the rain pours down and she must stay inside until the sun comes up again.  Whilst the story itself is very simple, each page depicts flowers and plants that you would find in a typical South-East Asian garden.  At the end of the book there is a glossary of the plants featured in the story.  It was fun reading this to my son and pointing out the frangipani, the jungle geranium, the “Mother-in-law’s tongue” and the heliconia that grew in the grounds of our condo.  The book is written by an author living in Malaysia, who has also published a second book in the same series called My Mother’s Kitchen. (Purchased from: Woods in the Books, Tiong Bahru, Singapore)



Grandma Lim’s Persimmons, by Sunita Lad Bhamray (author) and Marjorie van Heerden (illustrator)
This is an outstandingly beautiful picture book about a grandma and the award-winning persimmons that she grows in her garden.  She is saving a ripe and juicy persimmon to give to her granddaughter, who would be visiting her later that day.  Whilst the grandma is out, a wind sweeps through her garden, causing all the persimmons to fall from the tree, but with the help of her garden friends (a centipede, a spider and a cat), the ripe and juicy persimmon is delivered safely into her granddaughter’s hands.  The story is written by an author living in Singapore, whose inspiration came from watching her elderly neighbour lovingly tend to her garden.  The warm and whimsical illustrations capture the love and dedication that the grandma feels towards her granddaughter and her garden. (Purchased from: Kinokuniya, Liang Court, Singapore)



Asian Spice Kids, Star Anise Superstar!, by Linn Shekinah (author) and Ong, Sheng Hua (illustrator)
The Asian Spice Kids books tell their stories through six characters that are based on six ingredients found in typical South-East Asian meals: Star Anise, Cinnamon, Chilli, Ginger, Shallot and Clove).  In the story of Star Anise Superstar, each spice character is depicted as having something special to add to the chef’s dishes to make them taste delicious.   The chef encourages the spice kids to form a band to help them work together, but one spice, Star Anise, begins to doubt her contribution.  Overcome by feelings of inadequacy she tries to outshine her fellow spices in a performance, which angers the other spices.  Star Anise runs away and falls into a pit where she overhears a plot by some bugs to destroy the Spice Kids.  Star Anise is given the opportunity to redeem herself by rescuing her friends and by working together to destroy the bugs.  The story is interwoven with a moral that true stardom is not about competitiveness, but collaboration.  I love the way the book uses food (something at the very heart of South-East Asian culture) and the mysterious blending of spices to illustrate a moral.  The book also critiques an attitude (the “kiasu” attitude) that has been identified as a social malaise of Singapore.  The book is colourfully illustrated and the text is written in two languages, English and Mandarin (sponsored by the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism).  The author Linn Shekinah is Singaporean and has written four other stories in the Asian Spice Kids series. (Purchased from: Woods in the Books, Tiong Bahru, Singapore)



Ayu and the Perfect Moon, by David Cox (author and illustrator)
The story is set in a Balinese village where girls from the age of 5 are trained to perform the “legong”, a traditional Indonesian dance that used to be performed in the palaces of the rajas.  The story opens with an old lady recounting her younger days when she would dance the legong and was invited at the prince’s request, to perform the dance during the full moon in front of her whole village.  There are some wonderful sketches in the book of Ayu (the young girl) being dressed in elaborate outfits and being accompanied by the playing of music from traditional Indonesian instruments like the gamelan.  Although the author, David Cox, is not Indonesian, the story is based on a girl he met in Bali.  He and his wife have also written a musical drama called The Raja who Married an Angel.  (Purchased from: Motherworks, Great World City, Singapore)



There Was a Peranakan Woman who Lived in a Shoe, by Gwen Lee (author) and Cheryl Kook (illustrator)
This book is a hilarious collection of traditional nursery rhymes whose words have been altered to reflect a Singaporean context.  For instance, in Hickory Dickory Dock, the mouse that runs up the clock is replaced by a gecko that lives in the block.  This Little Piggy is not about a pig venturing into market or staying at home, but about a pig that goes to certain towns in Singapore, eats “chye tau kway” (a local dish) and drinks “Teh Tarik” (a local beverage) before he “makan, makan, makan” (“makan” (Malay) meaning “to eat”) all the way home.  Through the illustrations and the text the book cleverly reflects Singapore’s different ethnic identities (Chinese, Malay and Indian) and the festivities that are generally associated with them.  Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, for instance, becomes a rhyme about the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi driving out the darkness.  The image on the front cover depicts a beaded slipper (a “kasut manek”) which is part of a traditional Peranakan woman’s attire.  As my mother-in-law is Peranakan, this is part of our family/cultural heritage and probably the reason I was drawn to the book.  (Purchased from: Kinokuniya, Liang Court, Singapore)



Sam, Sebbie and Di-Di-Di, The Lion Dance, by David Seow (author) and Soefara Jafney (illustrator)
The Lion Dance is part of a series of picture books that depict the adventures of a Singaporean family visiting one of the country’s landmarks or celebrating one of its national events.  The story of The Lion Dance begins at the family breakfast table as the children Sam, Sebbie and Di-Di-Di excitedly talk about going to see the Lion Dance (a dance that is performed during Chinese New Year).  The children together with their parents head out to see the performance, at first watching the band and then discovering the lion costume behind a curtain, which they promptly dive into and unexpectedly become the stars of the show. 

The rhyming verses and the details of the music that accompanies the lion dance make for a noisy, but enjoyable bedtime read.  The book’s appeal is in the detailed illustrations: The traditional Nyonya teapot and wedding basket (“bakul sia”) on the kitchen shelf, the peach blossom branch decoration (that is used to decorate Singaporean homes at this time of year), the Chinese drum held by one of the children, the variety of lanterns in the market place and the traditional Chinese costumes worn by the parents, the red curtains with the “lucky” embroidered phoenix and fish symbols and the drummers with synchronised raised arms are a realistic depiction of Singapore during Chinese New Year.  My favourite illustration has to be the lion costume itself which looks as fluffy and soft as it does in real life.   (Purchased from: Woods in the Books, Tiong Bahru, Singapore)



Sam, Sebbie and Di-Di-Di At The S.E.A Aquarium, by David Seow (author) and Soefara Jafney (illustrator)
At the SEA Aquarium is another local story by Singaporean author, David Seow.  This time the story is set in one of Singapore’s tourist landmarks, The SEA Aquarium at Sentosa where the youngest, son Di-Di-Di goes missing.  As the other two siblings search for him, the story showcases all the sea-life found in the aquarium – seahorses, crabs and manta rays.  They discover Di-Di-Di wearing a mask and oxygen tank and swimming with the manta ray, who has become estranged from his other aquarium friends.  Sam and Sebbie jump in and help the manta ray show his friends that he can be a fun fish to play with too.  The discovery of Di-Di-Di in the aquarium is not as far-fetched as it sounds, as it is quite normal to see a diver or two swimming with the fish in the huge tanks at the aquarium in Sentosa.  (Purchased from: Woods in the Books, Tiong Bahru, Singapore)
David Seow has written other books in this series which include:  Sam, Sebbie and Di-Di-Di At the Night Safari, Sebbie’s First Day of School and A Day with the Duchess.


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