From Tots to Teens, 8th May 2011
By DAPHNE LEE
I WAS interviewed last week about what I thought about the poor quality of local children’s books, written in English. The reporter’s daughter had been recommended a book by her teacher and this book contained grammatical errors. Why had the teacher not noticed the inaccuracies? In my opinion it’s probably because he would not recognise a grammatical mistake even if it turned up at his home and performed a song-and-dance routine for him.
The thing is, we can keep repeating these facts forever, but how do we ensure that we get what we need?
It’s certainly not simply by arbitrarily increasing the number of books we publish in a year. Quality not quantity is what we should aim for and this goal to “churn out 26,000 titles a year” is ludicrous and the Star’s choice of verb (“churn”) is apt.
In the article that appeared on April 26, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin commented on Malaysia’s current rate of roughly 16,000 published titles a year, saying, “The figure is low but we plan to do more as a way to get more people, particularly the young, to read.”
Apparently, children will be moved to read simply because there are more books in the market. To be fair, the minister also talked about ensuring the “quality in the work that is published.” However, he didn’t say how we are going to do this.
Not, I trust, by encouraging writers to self-publish their work. On April 23, the Star reported that “local writers can apply for an allocation under a RM2mil fund to publish their own books.” National Library director-general Datuk Raslin Abu Bakar announced that “qualified writers would be given RM25,000 each and the national library would buy and distribute the books to libraries nationwide.” However, “the books published must be suitable for the rural community.”
Now where do I start? First of all, I’m not saying that this is actually how the government is going to ensure the high quality of local books, but what if I give them the benefit of doubt and assume that they do fervently wish that Malaysians will publish books of the very highest possible standard? Well, in this case, why would they think that an allocation of RM25,000 will guarantee that a book is ready for publication?
At a pinch, RM25,000 might pay for a good editor on top of other costs like printing and distribution, but can anyone ensure that an author will use a portion of the money for editing fees? Most certainly not.
We already have so many cringe-making self-financed, self-published titles out there and now there are going to be national funds allocated to encourage these sorry excuses for books? I hope that, at very least, there are some strict guidelines that compel authors to get their books edited before they are published and distributed to “libraries nationwide” (and inflicted on the poor general public).
And what about the bit that stipulates that authors applying for the funds must publish books “suitable for the rural community’? What on earth does that mean? As rural Malaysians are generally less likely to be fluent in English, does it mean your book must be in Bahasa Melayu to qualify for the grant? Or does it just mean that the subject matter of the book must appeal to the tastes of rural Malaysians? If so, will an official list of the likes and dislikes of rural Malaysians be issued?
But seriously, surely the RM2 million could be used more wisely. Why not nurture and encourage local writers by offering them regular creative writing classes and workshops, as well as talks, seminars and master classes conducted by experienced local and foreign authors and illustrators?
We’re concerned about quality, remember? Grants for self-publishing assume that Malaysian writers don’t need any guidance and in fact all writers do.
It’s especially important, I feel, to guide and encourage those with a real interest and passion in writing (and illustrating) books. I recently heard of a plan to train teachers how to write children’s books and I couldn’t help but think that although it might be well-meant, it certainly is misguided.
If you’re a teacher who wants to be a writer and who strives every day to hone your skills as one, then fine, attending such a course would benefit you, but we can’t assume that all teachers have talent or even an interest in writing children’s books. Why spend x amount of RM teaching a thousand teachers (the majority of whom will merely be going through the motions) to write children’s books when you could spend the money on those who truly have a desire to be writers of children’s literature?
Do we really want to produce better books? Or is it just more lip service?