From Tots to Teens, StarMag
ON Dec 30, an article on Bloomberg.com discussed how blacks and hispanics are rarely the main characters in books that win the prestigious Newbery Medal for excellence in children's literature (the last time a book with a black protagonist won the Newbery was in 2000. The book was Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis).
In the article, Sherman Alexie said, “We are going to have a black president - literature should catch up.” Alexie is a Native American whose book, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, won the National Book Award for young people's literature in 2007.
His comment, I believe, is directed more towards writers than to award committees. Hopefully, a growing minority population (according to the U.S. Census Bureau, "one out of three Americans is now a member of a minority group") will mean a growing number of minority writers and illustrators who will produce work that, as Pat Scales, president of the Association for Library Service to Children (the division of the American Library Asoociation that takes charge of the Newbery award) puts it, "mirror society".
Meanwhile, the ALA has the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpre awards, respectively for black and Latino writers and illustrators. When it was created in 1996, the Pura Belpre was awarded once in two years because there wasn't enough books by Latino authors and illustrators, but starting this year, the award will be given annually. So, it looks like there is an increase in work by minority authors and artists.
I'm highlighting this issue because it made me think of the dearth of children's literature that reflects Malaysian society. Our children and teenagers are immersed in American and, to a lesser degree, British pop culture. This includes the books they read. Currently popular titles (Twilight, Harry Potter, Eragon, Wicked Lovely) may not even be set in this world, and their characters may not even be human, but the cultural traditions used as references in the creation of these worlds and characters are obviously American and European.
A member of the children's literature e-group recently asked for titles of "historical fiction set in Asia". Responses poured in, suggesting titles of books set in Mongolia, China, Korea and Japan. Then came her question: "Where are the books set in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, India, Tibet, Indonesia, Mongolia, Russian Asia, etc.? Are there so few of them out there?"
Speaking as the only Malaysian on the list, I said there wasn't (as far as I knew) quality Malaysian children's literature, written by Malaysians or otherwise. I also said that
Malaysian writers are just now finding their way in the world of literature and, unfortunately, none of those serious about their craft are interested in writing for children. I think that's a fair comment - it seems to me that children's books are somewhat looked down upon by Malaysia's "literati". Those who don't aspire to be writers, are too busy working their way through the Booker shortlists. Those who want to write, wish to be the next Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguro, not Diana Wynne Jones, Geraldine McCaughrean or Sonya Hartnett. If they aspire to be J. K. Rowling, they are probably thinking of her bank balance not her talent.
Perhaps I will receive a slew of angry emails in response to this column. I hope so! At least it might show me that there are Malaysians who wish to write (and write well) for children. I'm know I am not alone in my belief that one has to read widely to write well, but I also believe that an author's reading journey must start in infancy, and that it is even better if the books he reads includes those that reflect the world he lives in.
Post-colonial authors struggle with finding their voice. We can't write well enough in our mother tongue, but writing about the Asian experience in English presents its own set of problems. What I find most challenging is how to make the dialogue believable. My favourite authors are dead, white women whose books tend to be set in upper middle class English homes. So, when I write my own fiction, I have to work really hard to ensure that my characters don't sound like they lived before world war two and attended English boarding schools!
I was excited and rather surprised by the many titles of children's books set in Asia that were put forth by the e-group members. Apart from Sadri Returns to Bali by Elizabeth Waldmeier; Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and Just So Stories; Totto Chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi; and Botchan by Natsume Sōseki (both set in Japan), I have not read any children's literature set in Asia. Most of the titles suggested were written by authors from the west, which could mean that European and American authors are more interested in telling Asian stories than Asian authors are; or that there are children's books by Asian authors that are not translated into English, yet.
I think it would be interesting to see how the characters and settings in these books are portrayed; and how the dialogue is written. It would probably help many of us in our efforts to write fiction set in Malaysia, and create believable Malaysian characters.
I think reading Asian children's lit is the first step in realising a future in which Malaysian children's books are not limited to badly illustrated compilatons of folk tales written by foreign authors.
Here is a list of children's books set in Asia. Happy hunting and Happy Reading!
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
Big Tiger and Christian by Fritz Muhlenweg
I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson
Across the Nightingale Floor and its sequels by Lian Hearn
The Five Ancestors: Tiger and its sequels by Jeff Stone
The Rainbow People by Lawrence Yep, illustrated by David Wiesner
The House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert De Jong
Tamburlaine's Elephants by Geraldine McCaughrean
The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin
The Year of the Rat by Grace Lin
Where Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
The Stone Goddess by Minfong Ho
Sing to the Dawn by Minfong Ho
The Plum-Rain Scroll by Ruth Manley
Little Sister by Kara Dalkey
The Blood Stone by Jamila Gavin
Waiting for Tansen by Subhadra Sen Gupta
The Wheel of Surya and its sequels by Jamila Gavin
The Narayanpur Incident by Shashi Deshpande
Botchan by Natsume Soseki
Totto-Chan: The Little Girl in the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
Silk Umbrellas by Carolyn Marsden