Write for the Curious Child, Read to the Inquisitive Mind

By Rachel Yeoh

July 2024 FEATURE
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The Malaysian Squirrel series. The author, Roger Cowdrey, was inspired to write this series after encountering a squirrel when visiting Penang Spice Garden.
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OUR BELIEF SYSTEM is formed by what we are taught and our lived experiences, which then influence our decisions and perceptions. What stands in between with one foot on the “taught” and the other on the “lived” are the materials we read. Through books, we pick up societal norms—what is deemed acceptable—and we experience a faux lived experience through an author’s worldbuilding. Books have historically spread ideologies, whether good or bad, that chartered the course of world history.

As a child, I remember huddling in the reading corner of a grocery store while my parents did their weekly shopping. On two shelves, children’s storybooks were lined neatly, waiting for my eyes to devour. At a time when mobile phones had yet to be ubiquitous, I would find other children sitting cross-legged on the epoxy flooring, hunched over books opened on their lap—I would join them, present physically but mentally transported to another world. What I read made me believe in happy endings, that girls can do anything and that good deeds do get rewarded. Seeing that much of the foundation of our values is built on what we consume as young children, it is, therefore, crucial that narratives highlight the values our world needs.

Recently, the Swedish ambassador to Malaysia, Joachim Bergström and his team ran a conversation starter initiative titled “Jom Kita Bincang” at the Penang Public Library in George Town to discuss sustainability, health and social issues through children’s literature. The ambassador highlighted how children’s books brought change into Sweden’s rather “conformist society” to one that celebrates spirited individuality and creativity. The narratives present in the children’s literature encouraged the current generation to embrace creativity, diversity, innovation, strong civil rights and tolerance. Looking to inspire the same in Malaysia, several Swedish children’s books on topics such as planetary health, circular economy, authority and social issues such as bullying have been translated into English, Chinese and Malay.

Two Sisters, One Sarong is a story that conveys life’s complex situations to children in a simplified way.

The initiative was birthed when Bergström inquired about what Malaysians thought about Sweden. To his surprise, their perceptions were jarringly different from actuality. He was advised by local partners to “change the conversation” since it was not aligned with facts. He decided that one of his initiatives should involve children’s literature. Together with Nor Azhar Ishak (educator and storyteller), Abyan Junus-Nishizawa (author and storyteller), Josephine Yoong (children’s author and publisher at Precious Pages), and Lova Berggren and Therise Flodqvist (both children’s educators from Tranströmerbibliotek—a Stockholm library), they discussed subject matters, illustrations and storytelling methods that should be part of children’s literature to instil good values in young readers.

However, Malaysia is plagued by a related issue: declining literacy rates. According to Global Data, Malaysia’s literacy rate decreased by 2.74% from 98.42% in 2010 to 95.72% in 2021.[1] Seeing that there is an association between literacy and democracy, the continued downtrend may affect the system of government; if children who are not literate grow into adults who cannot read and thus, be informed, then democracy, which heavily relies on informed decisions by its citizens, will be compromised.

“If we don’t already create a habit and love and respect for reading, then how will we be able to govern our societies? It is a hopelessly idealistic question, but I think it is something we can bring with us to the conversations,” Bergström said.

Children are most impressionable when very young, especially from birth to five years old.[2] It is then that a child’s brain develops more rapidly than at any other time in their lives. It is crucial to have the right values instilled in them when they are most mouldable. Yoong explains that these principles are becoming more essential for setting the next generation on the right footing even as screens and social media vie for their attention. “Some of the content on these platforms, I believe, can be totally wrong but packaged nicely—that is why I wrote a book series where I simplify good values using animal characters so that children can understand them. At the end, all the characters in the book spell out the word ‘INTEGRITY’,” she explained.

Just last week, I was observing a friend reading a body safety storybook for pre-schoolers to her young nephew, where it explains “good” and “bad” touches. When she detailed a “bad touch” situation, he was quick to bellow “NO” with his eyebrows knitted. “Well, that transfer of information went well,” I chuckled to myself.

It then brings me to ponder what other topics children’s literature should cover. As a publisher, Yoong hopes to see more compelling narratives about the different races coming together to highlight the importance of unity. One such series published by her is the Malaysian Squirrel series, written by a Briton, Roger Cowdrey. The latest in the series entitled The Mission of the Malaysian Squirrel: To Stop the Taman Negara Feud was inspired by Penang governor, Ahmad Fuzi Abdul Razak, who suggested that Cowdrey write a book about the different races coming together with their uniquestrengths to solve a mission—a suggestion he gave when Cowdrey launched his third book, The Penang Sea Mission of the Malaysian Squirrel, in 2023.

However, if we are to instil the good values present in our culture in the young, or educate them about our heritage, locals should see it as their responsibility to tell such stories. From our folk tales to the home life practised by the different races and ethnicities in Malaysia, there are many stories left untold. “Perhaps a story about Malaysians’ favourite sport—badminton— is something that will unite all of us,” Yoong suggested.

With these resources, it is then the parents’ responsibility to get them into their children’s hands. Benice Malini, a counsellor at The Safe Harbour, commented: “Children would rather you read them the storybook than they read it for themselves, which is a better choice because it is an avenue for brain processes. A book is a medium that allows a child to ‘use’ their parents’ understanding of the world when it is read to them. It is also a type of social-emotional learning, where the baby or toddler regulates their emotions to yours.” Repetition and exposure to a variety of books, be they in different languages and reflecting local culture, can enrich a child’s early experiences.

Yoong cautions parents to not be too quick to replace the wonder of storybooks with academic books. “Get involved with their reading by reading with them and prodding them with questions; introducing drama and play based on the stories will create lifelong memories and foster creativity.” To equip the next generation well—we are edging towards the tail end of Generation Alpha now—more books must be penned and more stories narrated, more illustrations must be drawn and more children’s literature created to fill the shelves of bookstores. Malaysia is blessed with a rich tapestry of culture, heritage and values, but how would the children know if we do not make this part of their conversation?

Footnotes:

[1]https://www.globaldata.com/data-insights/macroeconomic/literacy-rate-in-malaysia/#:~:text=Literacy%20Rate%20in%20Malaysia%20(2010%2D2021%2C%20%25),-20.00%25%2040.00%25%2060.00&text=The%20literacy%20rate%20reached%2095.71,decreased%20by%20 0.40%25%20in%202021

[2] https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-science-of-ecd/

Rachel Yeoh

is a former journalist who traded her on-the-go job for a life behind the desk. For the sake of work-life balance, she participates in Penang's performing arts scene after hours.


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