KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – When it comes to children’s books, the default reaction is to look to international authors. In recent years, this perception has gradually been altered by the slew of emerging local talent.
Beverley Hon, a recent addition to OyezBooks‘ repertoire of authors, is a prime example of this trend. Having found her literary soulmate in Lim Lay Koon, the two have just launched their first collaborative effort in the form of three books.
Pitching the tale of a snail and seeing the resounding lack of enthusiasm from publishers led Hon down a different path. Drawing inspiration from her own life, we see the books come to life with animals most of us have never encountered – even in passing.
Hon grew up in a less than ordinary environment, “I had two slow lorises. We had to get permits for them. That’s the part I emphasise to everyone. It’s not like we stole them out of the jungle.”
Having kept these exotic creatures as pets, and regularly encountering binturongs (bear cats) in the confines of Zoo Negara, her upbringing would leave any child in sheer wonder.
Contrary to what you would think, she grew up in the heart of Petaling Jaya. With a family that was enthusiastic about hunting, she sees the irony in how her books aim to create awareness of these endangered species.
Hon feels that it gives her a unique perspective on just how important it is for children to be exposed to these Borneo animals, “My dad was very good friends with the chief vet at the zoo, so I got to spend a lot of time in the zoo industry growing up.”
It’s an aspect of her childhood she finds lacking in the experiences children have today.
The Challenge of Children’s Books
Writers often have the liberty of artistic license. This is not entirely the case with children’s books. As Hon’s books cater to toddlers who are learning to read, there is a lot of planning involved in getting it right.
From the amount of white space surrounding the words, to the placement of the text, and how the book is physically bound, it’s an exercise in severe scrutiny. Of course, the pictures themselves are crucial.
Hon explains, “[The Slow Loris] was the first one [Lim] drew. She drew a colour pencil sketch and I was like, ‘something’s not right’. Something just didn’t feel down to the details. When we finally met she was like, ‘I’ve changed it.’ And she took out these paintings from the bag, and they were beautiful.”
Hon finds that having her son critique her work is an invaluable part of her process, “Kids are your best critics because they’re very honest, and it has to sound pleasant to their ears.”
“Obviously, if him at an older age, he’s telling me it doesn’t sound pleasant, imagine how bad it’s actually going to sound to much younger kids.”
It’s not just the words and illustrations, either. You wouldn’t notice it off the bat, but these books are sewn together, as opposed to stapled, for safety purposes. After all, if there’s anything toddlers are known for, it’s sticking everything in their mouths.
The Process of Illustration
Lim, not formally trained in art, found herself immensely enjoying the challenges inherent in the process of such an undertaking. Everything from actually learning about these lesser known animals, to ensuring her illustrations perfectly complement the text.
“First it talks about the eyes maybe, then the ears, then the toes, then the tail. So it’s like a slow reveal kind of story. The main concept of that was why don’t we try not to show the full animal at the beginning, and only towards the end?”
“Make them curious about how the whole animal looks as they are being introduced to all the features that they have.”
Her creative spirit shines through in how she incorporates other local animals into the mix, “I enjoyed trying to put in little animals from Malaysia which are not the main feature of the book.”
“I refer to actual species of birds. There’s a blue flycatcher, there’s a scarlet minivert, and then there’s also the squirrel. So these have a chance to make a little appearance as well; as a sidekick you can say.”
Hon, who is classically trained in music, explored a hidden element to her books that rarely emerges. She’s created music to accompany The Slow Loris, and it’s helped her to better understand the genre better.
“Because I’ve written the notes, I can see the pattern. It’s like the books, there’s a pattern to it. What I realised is, with children’s songs it has to be pleasant sounding, and it has to be repetitive.”
“So, even if you do variance, it’s just variance of that tune, and it has to be very close, or kids can’t pick it up,” she adds.
There are more books on their way to the shelves and we certainly hope that they come with accompanying music. The Borneo Animals series can be found at Silverfish Books and the Oyez Bookstore. – The Binge
The books mentioned here were courtesy of OyezBooks for the purposes of this article.