Essays / September 2010 (Issue 12)

Portrait of a Children's Book Author as a Young Reader

by Margaret Hui Lian Lim



What do children want? How do children approach literature? Do they need to "suspend disbelief"?

Children today grow up with books that are precisely categorized for their needs into picture books for early childhood, illustrated tales for those aged eight to twelve and young adult fiction for teens. I was not so privileged. I grew up in whichever outstation my father, a medical assistant, was posted to—trading posts at river confluences deep in the rainforest of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Sometimes these trading posts were big enough to possess a row or two of shop houses run by Chinese traders and to boast of a Chinese kindergarten where I learned some arithmetic and to write simple Chinese characters that stood for sun, horse and door, which was great fun.

I came out of the jungle when I was seven because my father thought it was high time I went to school. He was posted back to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak and I was immediately enrolled in a Catholic mission school for girls run by Irish nuns who taught us English. We learned the alphabet, helped along with a rap or two from a ruler. The nuns wrote them on the blackboard, we copied them into our exercise books. We graduated to writing simple sentences, and in my second year of primary school, a miracle happened. Suddenly I could read! While my classmates were still stumbling over simple texts, I was reading away like mad. The school had no library. There was a British Council Library in town but they had no picture books or illustrated books for young children, only adult literature and books for teens. So my father subscribed to children's magazines called June, Girls' Own and the like for my sister and me. We had to wait patiently for them as they were shipped out from Britain to the colonies. It was not until I was in the fourth form that the school acquired a library, and a slot in our weekly timetable was set aside as library hour. I look back in nostalgia at the hardcover books with their gleaming jackets and my first encounter with such children's classics like The Wind in The Willows, Anne of Green Gables, Daddy Long Legs, Little Women, Pollyanna and Edith Nesbit's enthralling magical tales—Five Children and It, The Phoenix and The Carpet. But my reading fare before these enchanting books came along my way consisted of books of a wholly different nature that could be deemed inappropriate for my age.

The first-class patients' ward at the Kuching General Hospital had a library whose key was in my father's keeping. When the first class ward was being renovated, the books were stored in a disused mortuary, a grim place with only one window set high up to discourage the curious. In addition, a man-high hedge surrounded it to preserve the sensitivities of passers-by.

I was 10 by then and my father had noticed that the schoolgirl magazines had lost their savour for me. He trusted me enough to let me have the key to this mortuary. I could borrow the books I liked, but please to return them. I went unaccompanied, so hungry was I for reading material that I had no fear of the ghosts that reputedly haunted this place. My heart did thud though as I unlocked the door. A murky ray filtered through the dirty panes of this one window and lighted grudgingly upon the books piled up against one wall and sliding to the floor in a muddle.

O, wonder! O, brave new world. Miranda could not have been more overcome with amazement and delight.

These were the first "real" books that I beheld—rip-roaring adventure novels from Rider Haggard—King Solomon's Mines, She; Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan jungle series; Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. And many, many more. I was delirious with joy.

I fell under their spell. I made innumerable trips to the disused mortuary and faithfully returned all the books that I borrowed. Except one, The Iliad by Homer, which I kept, and read and re-read. I did not think anyone would miss it. The pages were yellow and loose with age. I cried over Hector, despised Achilles sulking in his tent, and admired Ajax shaking his spear threateningly at his opponent but was civilized enough to inquire (rather lengthily) if his foe had supped at his own table at one time or other. A Homeric warrior's strict code of conduct strictly forbids him to eliminate a guest friend. The Iliad captured my imagination as no other book had.

I was still in primary school, and I was reading novels written for adults at such a tender age. I was never a child prodigy of any sort, but was and still am a prodigious reader. So where does all this lead us you may ask. I have in effect established a working hypothesis on what a child wants in a book, based on my own reading experience. First and foremost, he wants a spanking good story!

Romantic adventure novels, in the style of Indiana Jones (or rather vice versa), reached the height of popularity in the Victorian age, with discoveries of ancient tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, of lost civilizations in the Yucatan Peninsula and with the exploration of the African continent and the hopes of discovering more lost worlds. Critics derided them as "schoolboy adventures." They were disparaged as escapist literature, frivolous, low-brow, intellectually undemanding, childish in their literary make up. But they fired the imagination.

They transported readers to a realm of fantasy that lifted them out of their humdrum existence. These adventure novels were moreover written in a manner, "low-brows," that children could understand—simple, fast-paced. The themes were built around the primeval emotions of avarice, jealousy, betrayal. There was no Freudian wrestling with inner demons, no soul-searing search for the self, no Drang for heroic exploits of Wagnerian magnitude, with the accompanying Angst and the Sturm and Stress of the protagonist who is also the pharmakos, a mere plaything of the gods. Forgotten worlds, lost cities and their treasures of incomparable worth with a healthy dollop of the danger of the chase were and still are the stuff of daydreams—childish dreams. Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn which were actually written for adults are now relegated to the confines of children's classics.

This genre does not require the reader's "suspension of disbelief", a state of mind required for the reading of fiction, according to Samuel T. Coleridge, otherwise two worlds will collide—the real and the fictitious, giving rise to neither Truth nor Beauty, only Confusion. The reader of such light-hearted escapist literature demands and expects nothing more than to be entertained by a swashbuckling story which has nothing to do with reality. He allows himself be seduced into a world of fantasy where the reality is like Caliban's dream of treasures so beautiful and tangible that when he wakes up he cries to dream again. He wants illusion. He does not want his reading fare to reflect reality. Treasure Island appeals to the boy in the man, Peter Pan to the child in all of us.

Children approach a work of fiction in the same manner. They are fully aware that stories are "make-believe," "only pretend." Their parents admonish them all the time: "You made that up! Don't lie to me!" A children's book author, sharing a commonality with the adventure story writer is, in effect, a spinner of tall tales, a purveyor of dreams.

Children read primarily for the story, are less affected by the deeper meaning behind it. I was not aware of the fact that the destiny of my Homeric heroes had been pre-ordained by Fate. I read the Grimm Brothers' Hansel and Gretel without suffering any trauma. The moral behind Perrault's Little Red Riding Hood and Blue Beard also escaped me. Snow White and Cinderella captured my imagination for being such wonderful tales, pandering to the dreams of girls big and small all over the world to marry a rich and handsome prince and living happily ever after.

It was never my dream to become a writer. I wanted nothing more than to be a librarian or a museum curator or an archaeologist. I ended up instead as a teacher in a secondary school on the edge of Sarawak's rainforest teaching Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy to the indigenous children taking their O-levels.

I only became one after my daughter graduated from art school. She had illustrated a story for a lady of means who wanted to see her own name in print. My daughter's illustrations were gorgeous. The story less so. I felt I could do better. After casting about desperately for content, I finally fell in with my daughter's advice to write about the land of my birth.

But first, I had to do some market research. I was not going to tread a well-trodden path. So I checked out the local bookstores in Malaysia and, finding only beautiful blonde blue-eyed princesses and handsome princes populating the pages of children's picture books, with the illustrations in the time-honoured "Disney" style, I decided I had found my niche.

That was in 2004, and I felt that Malaysians had come a long way and would be mature enough to want a heroine of their own, one they could be proud of—a tough, independent, unabashed young girl with firm convictions, not an insipid blue-eyed blonde; and I would write about the animals of the region—mouse deer, orangutans and hornbills, not teddy bears, bunnies and kangaroos.

So I created Payah, an eight-year-old Kayan girl from Sarawak's indigenous "people of the river heads," as Malaysia's answer to Alice, Heidi and Pollyanna. My stint as a teacher deep in the rainforest had broadened my perspective of the native peoples of Sarawak. Their communal way of life, the values of an extended family, coupled with the dim memory of my own childhood growing up in a tightly knit family with a loving grandmother and a slew of relatives who provided security and warmth, constitute the theme of my rainforest adventure series. I thought Payah would be welcomed with open arms.

But while the western world is re-discovering its "roots," Malaysia tends to turn its back on its true cultural identity for fear of being considered "backward." The rainforest community in my series apparently does not project the image of a progressive hi-tech society. My characters are too ulu, or countrified. This is unfortunate. There is a wealth of local material out there left untapped.

There is also a tendency to accord more respect to western writers than to local writers. That is the combined fault of the big publishing houses and their distributing agents who dictate what is saleable or not, and that of the countries of the region that are still suffering from complexes after decades of colonial rule. But with Singapore leading the way with the first Asian Festival of Children's Content in May 2010, highlighting local and regional writing, change is on the way. It is to be hoped that creators of local content will find more acceptance for their works in future.

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