makchic Reads: Books about Malaysia, by Malaysians

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My 9-year-old twins and I have been reading Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog as our bedtime read for the last few weeks. This charming, sweet, and funny middle grade novel follows a young Chinese-American girl’s adventures during the Chinese Year of the Dog. My children are really enjoying the book mostly because they, being half-Chinese and new Mandarin language learners, can see a lot of themselves in the story and relate to the protagonist Pacy’s struggles and experiences.

Source: Grace Lin

Observing this makes me reflect on the importance of representation in children’s literature, something that is quite critical for children, but we don’t always pay specific heed to when we select things for them to read.

It made me recall what Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf said in an interview, There’s this theory by Rudine Bishop about fiction written for children and young adults: “Children’s literature has to be both windows and mirrors.” That means the majority needs windows into new cultures and new experiences and new people, but it also means that the minority needs mirrors. They need to see themselves reflected in the literature they read.”

Hanna adds, “I think we get a lot of “windows” in Malaysia, but not enough “mirrors”. It’s important for young readers to see themselves or their neighbours and friends on a global stage. And that means not running down locally published books – there are a lot of local authors doing amazing things.”

So, in conjunction with International Literacy Day and Malaysia Day in this month of September, I have made a little list of books about Malaysia by Malaysians that my children and I have enjoyed together. 

1. Nature Stories with Impact by Anak Rimba Books (Picture Books – for kids aged 3 to 8)

Source: Anak Rimba Books/ Abyan Junus-Nishizawa and Farah Landemaine

Today, kids in Malaysia are lucky to have access to books like the ones lovingly created by Anak Rimba Books, a company helmed by best friends Abyan and Farah who share a deep interest in promoting creative content that focuses on endangered animals in Malaysia and Asia. The company’s stated mission to “nurture the next generation of children who will take care of our Planet Earth” could not be more timely, considering the real threats to the local and larger environment that we are facing today.

The five books in their popular series provide a simple, but fun, way to introduce Malaysian animals to children and to engage with them on the topic of conservation. Older children will find the back pages interesting as they typically highlight key figures and organisations active in animal conservation related to the creature featured in the particular book. I have always learned something new myself when reading the books with my children – for example, how bats are instrumental in the pollination of durian trees!

2. Puteri Gunung Ledang by Emila Yusof (Picture Book – for kids aged 5 to 10)

Source: Oyez Books/ Emilia Yusof

We love Malaysian and Asian folktales and myths, and are always on the lookout for good books featuring these. Emila Yusof’s Puteri Gunung Ledang, written in Bahasa Malaysia, is beautifully illustrated (like many of her other books) and told from a unique perspective. It is different from other retellings of the myth where the Princess is usually rather passive. Here, we are given an insight into the Princess’ feelings.

This book features lovely Malaysian batik motifs and a pleasant colour palette. Your kids and you can also have fun translating and learning the Malay words used in the text. This book and a very old copy of The Princess of Mount Ophir (written by Hearn Chek Chia and Illustrated by Shan Mei Kwa) are our two favourite versions of the story. You can order this particular book here.

3. Under the Sea by Nor Azhar Ishak (Picture Book – for kids aged 5 to 10)

Source: Nor Azhar Ishak

If your kids love the Malaysian sun, surf and sea like mine do, you should get a copy of Under the Sea by Nor Azhar Ishak, or Uncle NAI as he is fondly known. It is a staple on our bookshelf that we always pull out to read before any holiday trips to the Malaysian islands. The original pictures in the book were made using traditional batik painting techniques (you can see the actual paintings when you visit Uncle NAI at his studio) and feature the fascinating marine life found in Malaysian waters – such as coral, sea anemones, sea turtles, sharks, fishes (like Parrotfish, Clownfish, Regal Tangs, Barracudas) and more unusual creatures like the Mimic Octopus.

My favourite painting is the one of the giant Whale Shark with divers swimming next to it for scale. There is also a section on the creepy deep sea fish you can find closer to the bottom of the sea. We can’t wait to read his new book, Tuty the Turtle.

Do try to also go to one of Uncle NAI’s amazing storytelling and art making sessions that he conducts around the Klang Valley in places like the ILHAM Gallery. You will be able to experience first-hand why he is an award-winning storyteller who has been invited to speak at many festivals and events around the world!

4. The Door Under The Stairs Series by Heidi Shamsuddin (Middle Grade Novels – for kids aged 8 to 12)

Source: Oyez Books

We have not finished the six books we purchased from Heidi Shamsuddin’s “The Door under the Stairs” series, but we are loving what we have read so far. It is a fun way for young readers to approach Malaysian history. The series features three Malaysian kids who find a magic door under the stairs at their school (a Sekolah Kebangsaan of course!). The door takes them back in time where they encounter our country’s heroes.

In the first book, The Mystery of the Missing National Anthem, they meet Malaysia’s first Prime Minister and help him solve a mystery where the national anthem goes missing. They also meet other heroes like Malaysian director cum movie star P. Ramlee and legendary footballer Mokhtar Dahari, and even go back in time to when Singapore was a British colonial port. Eight books have been planned for the series, with six already published. Technically each book can stand on its own, but Heidi has shared that there is also another layer of mystery running through the series, focusing on who is controlling the door and why are they changing history. So, it makes more sense to read the books in chronological order.

5. The Girl and The Ghost by Hanna (Middle Grade Novel- for kids aged 9 to 14)

Source: Hanna Alkaf/ Anastasia Suvorova

If your older child has a fascination with the supernatural, then he or she may like The Girl and The Ghost, a ghostly middle grade debut by Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf

“I am a dark spirit, the ghost announced grandly. I am your inheritance, your grandmother’s legacy. I am yours to command.” 

Suraya is delighted when her witch grandmother gifts her a pelesit. She names her new ghostly companion Pink, and the two quickly become inseparable. Pink serves as Suraya’s friend and protector, but she doesn’t realise that pelesits have a dark side. His retribution against those he believes have slighted Suraya is impulsive and malicious. Disturbed, Suraya extracts a promise from Pink not to hurt others unless she is in real danger. Pink does step in when Suraya is bullied by other girls, but it is when Suraya finally makes her first human friend, Jing Wei, that Pink’s protectiveness takes a dangerously jealous turn. Through the book, young readers will also learn more about Malaysian culture and food. The novel does a nice job weaving in both Islamic elements and pre-Islamic views of ghosts and death. It also explores deeper themes of family, trauma, and friendship. 

Aside from the above recommendations, I have also spoken with Honey and Diana of Two Book Nerds Talking on my other recommendations for local children’s books. Please have a listen if it piques your interest!

I do hope this list will inspire you to inject a little local literature into your reading diet this International Literacy Day!

By Li-Hsian Choo

Li-Hsian left a career in corporate communications to become a full-time mum to twins. She is learning new things daily as she tries to balance the romance of motherhood with the messy realities of her latest role. She is also currently the co-facilitator of the Art Discovery Tours for Kids and coordinator of children’s programmes at the ILHAM Gallery in KL.

From our team of purposeful, multi-faceted mummies. For editorial or general enquiries, email to us at hello@makchic.com.