1. Recommended Holiday Reads – Books Featuring Malaysia, by Malaysians

Recommended Holiday Reads – Books Featuring Malaysia, by Malaysians

Published on 01 Jul 2024
General Article

Written by Li-Hsian Choo

I have noticed that my 11-year-old twins always enjoy a book more when they can see a lot of themselves in the story and relate to the protagonist. This observation has made me reflect on the importance of representation in children’s literature. Our children need to see themselves in books that represent Asians culturally – how we look, speak and the way we live. While this is quite critical for children, we don’t always pay specific attention to it when we select material for them to read.

I recall what Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf once 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, 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, for the upcoming long school holidays, I have made a short list of books by Malaysians featuring aspects of Malaysia (and Asia) that my children and I have enjoyed together, or are looking forward to reading as a family. Hopefully, it will also motivate your children to pick up a local read over this long summer break!

1. Mist-Bound: How to Glue Back Grandpa by Daryl Kho (For ages 8 and above, a “Family Novel”)

Starting Family Conversations about Dementia with "Mist-Bound: How to Glue  Back Grandpa" - Makchic

Source: Daryl Kho

The book, written by new author Daryl Kho, is one of the rare works of fiction to be published in this region for Middle-Year readers featuring the topic of dementia. Dementia is a growing issue for many families today, but it is often difficult to talk to young children about it in an insightful and thoughtful way. Through its premise, the book aims to be a starting point for family conversations about the topic and to raise greater awareness of dementia (and dementia care) amongst the younger generation. Published by Penguin Random House SEA and inspired by Daryl’s personal experience with his father’s dementia, Mist-Bound can be a good topical read in conjunction with World Alzheimer’s Month, which is coming up in September.

This child-friendly allegory of dementia tells of a little girl named Alexis who races against time to find some very unusual ingredients for the Memory Glue needed to restore her grandpa's shattered memories. Her search takes her to the enchanted land of Mist, where the fabled creatures from her grandpa’s folktales are alive in the flesh.

Mist-Bound is also a welcome addition for parents seeking books with localised content. Featuring beautifully illustrated folktales, fables and mythical creatures, this book is a celebration of Asian stories and storytelling. Many local children tend to be more familiar with Western myths and mythical creatures than with those from their own background. Daryl hopes that his book will spark curiosity amongst Asian children to learn more about the myths and legends from their own backyard, and strive to keep these local stories alive by reading and sharing them with others.

Mist-Bound swept all the major children’s book awards in 2022. It won the 2022 Hedwig Anuar Book Awards (Middle-Grade Category) and the Singapore Book Awards 2022 (Best Young Persons Title)The book has been translated into Chinese and Indonesian and will soon be translated into Korean and Vietnamese. 

2. The Door Under The Stairs Series by Heidi Shamsuddin (For ages 8 to 12)

Book Day 6 - Happy Go KL

Source: Heidi Shamsuddin

We have not finished the six books we purchased from Heidi Shamsuddin’s The Door under the Stairs series but we love what we have read so far. The series is a fun way for young readers to approach Malaysian history. The series features three Malaysian children who find a magic door under the stairs at their school (a Sekolah Kebangsaan (Government school), 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 they are changing history. So, it makes sense to read the books in chronological order.

Heidi has recently launched a new book: Zara and the Twelve Realms of Kayangan, which you might also like to check out. 

3. The Girl and The Ghost by Hanna Alkaf (For ages 9 to 14)

GirlGhost HC c

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 pelesitShe 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 both 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 of weaving in both Islamic elements and pre-Islamic views of ghosts and death. It also explores deeper themes of family, trauma and friendship. 

4. Katie Goes to KL by Su-May Tan (For ages 14 and above)

Buy Katie Goes to KL Online at desertcartKUWAIT

 Source: Desertcart

Katie Goes To KL is a debut young adult novel by Su-May Tan, who was born and raised in Malaysia but now lives in Melbourne, Australia. The author attended a regular Kebangsaan (Government) school, so is familiar with life in Malaysia as a teen and young adult (at least in the 2000s).

The well-crafted story is told from the perspective of sixteen-year-old Katie Chen, who shares various aspects of her teenage world where bands and cute boys offer distractions from the internal struggles faced with family and friends. The scenes will resonate with young people as Su-May draws from her own youthful experiences in Kuala Lumpur. She was at that time immersed in the city’s underground music scene and used to go and watch bands at gigs and then frequented mamak stalls later. 

Serious themes like racism, cultural differences, and religion in a re-imagined Malaysia are explored in the book in a convincing way. This book was inspired by Su-May’s own children, who migrated to Melbourne as toddlers. In Australia, the protagonist, Katie, feels a little displaced being Asian in a largely Caucasian country, but when she goes back to Malaysia, she feels even more displaced. Katie Goes To KL explores the life of an immigrant’s child and reflects about where they belong. The author hopes that Malaysians will find her “foreigner’s” viewpoint on Malaysia thought-provoking. As for non-Malaysians, she hopes that they, too, will gain a better understanding of Malaysia and its complexities from her book.

5. The Kampung Boy and Town Boy by Lat (English versions, for all ages)








Source: Kinokuniya Malaysia 

The Kampung Boy and Town Boy by Lat are two iconic comic books we love to gift to first-time visitors and families to Malaysia, as they capture the essence and nuances of growing up in Malaysia (specifically rural Perak) in the 1950s. These books are autobiographical in character telling of the artist’s own adventures in the jungles and tin mines, as well as providing accounts of his circumcision, family and school life. It is narrated in English, with a smattering of Malay words and expressions. 

The Kampung Boy book made Lat an international figure and a highly regarded cartoonist in Malaysia. When released in the United States, it won several awards, such as Outstanding International Book for 2007 and the Children’s Book Council and Booklist Editor’s Choice for 2006. The sequel Town Boy, which follows the protagonist in his teenage years in the city, was published in 1981. It is highly recommended, but please note that The Kampung Boy is different from Kampung Boy: Yesterday and Today, which has different content.

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

I do hope this list will inspire you to inject a little local literature into your children’s (and your) reading diet during this coming school holidays!

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