'Jom Kita Bincang!' exhibition highlights how books can shape young minds


'Jom Kita Bincang!' features two exhibitions and a 'Swedish little library' at the Raja Tun Uda Library in Shah Alam, where visitors can learn about how sustainability, health, and social issues can be furthered through children’s literature. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

Reading is a vital life skill – there’s no way you can survive in modern society without being able to read.

Global trends, however, have shown that literacy levels are in decline. Take, for example, Malaysia’s performance in the 2022 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa): Malaysian students scored 388 in reading literacy, dropping 27 points from our 2018 score, with less than 50% of them reaching the minimum level.

But reading is more than just literacy – it’s also about learning the skills needed to build a better world and a brighter future.

After attending the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Congress in Putrajaya in September 2022, Swedish Ambassador to Malaysia Dr Joachim Bergstrom was struck by the influence and potential of children’s literature.

“Witnessing the excitement and engagement that children’s literature evokes, along with the meaningful discussions inspired by books, I was inspired to start exploring Sweden’s contributions to children’s literature,” says Bergstrom.

“What I discovered was a treasure trove of books that lift important and heavy topics in a light and uplifting manner, in a way that children can understand," he adds.

From his findings, Bergstrom and his team reached out to leading Swedish organisations involved in the children’s literature scene, such as the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA), the Swedish Arts Council and the Swedish Institute, about working together on a project.

A group of young children spending a recent quiet weekend at the ‘Swedish Little Library’ at Raja Tun Uda Library in Shah Alam. Photo: The Star/Azlina AbdullahA group of young children spending a recent quiet weekend at the ‘Swedish Little Library’ at Raja Tun Uda Library in Shah Alam. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

The result is Jom Kita Bincang! (Let’s Talk About It!), a children's book exhibition – currently showing at Raja Tun Uda Library in Shah Alam – that explores how children’s literature can further the dialogue on sustainability, health, rights and other social issues.

“Children’s literature can be a big inspiration for young minds and society at large. If we all grow up with stories valuing respect for each other and for nature, socially and environmentally sustainable policies and behaviours will naturally follow,” says Bergstrom.

“I think a lot of the current Swedish leadership on sustainability, such as environmental activist Greta Thunberg, can be traced back to how we all grew up with stories about respecting nature, the importance of equality and respect for one another regardless of background,” he adds.

The exhibition, which runs through April 10, is a collaboration between the Embassy of Sweden in Malaysia, the Raja Tun Uda Library, and the Malaysia Board on Books for Young People.

It is under the patronage of Selangor Raja Muda Tengku Amir Shah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, who was present at the recent opening ceremony. Also present was Cik Puan Sofie Louise Johansson, who is the Royal Ambassador of Reading.

A taste of Swedish children’s literature

At the cosy Raja Tun Uda Library, Jom Kita Bincang! features three exhibitions that are open to the public: the Swedish Little Library, and two by ALMA – one on “Never Violence”, a famous speech by beloved Swedish children’s book author Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), and another about ALMA and past laureates.

Here you’ll find copies of Swedish books that have been translated into English, Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin.

Three of them – Pokok Pain (Pine Tree) by Lisen Adbage, Kawah (The Hole Behind The Gym) by Emma Adbage and Semua Orang Berlalu Pergi (Everyone Walks Away) by Eva Lindstrom – were translated into Bahasa Malaysia for this project.

Lindgren (1907-2002) was a staunch supporter of children’s rights and a believer in the power of the imagination, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award was set up by the Swedish government to honour her legacy. Photo: Raja Tun Uda LibraryLindgren (1907-2002) was a staunch supporter of children’s rights and a believer in the power of the imagination, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award was set up by the Swedish government to honour her legacy. Photo: Raja Tun Uda Library

Considering that Sweden has a wealth of children’s books to choose from, it was quite the challenge to pick which books to translate. But the team knew that they wanted one book for each theme highlighted in the exhibition.

“We eventually settled on three books: Pine Tree to represent sustainability, focusing on nature conservation. The Hole Behind The Gym as our second pick, emphasising the relationship between adults and children and the value of mutual understanding. And our final book, Everyone Walks Away, centres around social norms, aiming to spark conversations about bullying and fostering respectful interactions,” says Bergstrom.

“Through this initiative, we seek to promote reading, nurture intellectual curiosity among children, reinforce the significance of children’s literature in education and culture, and enhance cultural exchange between Sweden and Malaysia,” he adds.

Translating from Swedish to Bahasa Malaysia is no easy task, so the embassy enlisted the expertise of Linda Tan Lingard, founder of local children’s book publisher Oyez!Books, who pulled in writer-editor Datuk Hajah Zaiton Ajamain to translate.

“I find that it’s helpful to have a team to translate – a collaborative translation. So Datuk Hajah Zaiton did the bulk of the translation, while myself and Luqman from the Swedish embassy worked closely with her. This project was done in three months, which is very fast,” says Lingard.

The ‘Jom Kita Bincang!’, happening now until April 10 at the Raja Tun Uda Library in Shah Alam, includes the Swedish Little Library, a cozy Scandinavian environment to read your books, alongside two exhibitions connected to Swedish children’s book author Astrid Lindgren. Photo: The Star/Azlina AbdullahThe ‘Jom Kita Bincang!’, happening now until April 10 at the Raja Tun Uda Library in Shah Alam, includes the Swedish Little Library, a cozy Scandinavian environment to read your books, alongside two exhibitions connected to Swedish children’s book author Astrid Lindgren. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

One of the biggest challenges in translating children’s books is making sure that the language appeals to children.

“It is exhausting, but fulfilling when you get the right words and sentences,” she adds.

Lingard also says that the books chosen for the exhibition are different from what she is used to.

“They certainly encourage more in-depth thinking and encourage discussion. There are no straightforward solutions and happy endings are not necessarily given at the end of the story. We love such challenging books – not only for young readers, but also for our local writers and illustrators,” she says.

Building a sustainable future

While Swedish children’s literature is rich in examples of books that discuss sustainability, health and social issues, that’s not to say we don’t have any among Malaysian publications.

In a lecture by researchers Dr Sharifah Aishah Osman of Universiti Malaya and Eda Suhana Sharudin of Universiti Selangor (Unisel) presented at the Jom Kita Bincang! launch, they looked at how selected Malaysian children’s books touch on the same issues, but through a localised context.

‘Witnessing the excitement and engagement that children’s literature evokes, along with the meaningful discussions inspired by books, I was inspired to start exploring Sweden’s contributions to children’s literature,’ says Bergstrom (right), Swedish Ambassador to Malaysia, who is seated beside Emma Broms, Trade Commissioner of Sweden to Malaysia. Photo: Bernama‘Witnessing the excitement and engagement that children’s literature evokes, along with the meaningful discussions inspired by books, I was inspired to start exploring Sweden’s contributions to children’s literature,’ says Bergstrom (right), Swedish Ambassador to Malaysia, who is seated beside Emma Broms, Trade Commissioner of Sweden to Malaysia. Photo: Bernama

For example, What If? (Makchic, 2021), a picture book by Kimberly Lee and Liyana Taff, uses simple language and eye-catching illustrations to help teach young children about consent, personal safety and body boundaries.

They also analysed Why Can’t We Take More? (Matahari Books, 2023) by Dendangan Hep, Lye Tuck Po and PeyCankay. Inspired by the knowledge and stories of the indigenous Batek people, the picture book covers themes such as land guardianship, respect for nature and the consequences of overdevelopment and environmental degradation.

Another work highlighted was Honey Ahmad’s short story Macam Jakun, featured in The Principal Girl Redux: Feminist Tales From Asia (Gerakbudaya, 2023), which details the experiences of a young Orang Asli woman from the Jakun indigenous tribe, and the discrimination and insults she faced both at school and at work. The story talks about how the term “Jakun” has derogatory connotations and is used to call someone “an unsophisticated person”.

“Children’s books provide ample opportunities to address challenging issues, provided this is done using proper educational scaffolding techniques and with care and sensitivity by the adults engaging in such discussions with children on these topics, whether in the classroom or at home,” says Sharifah.

Selangor Raja Muda Tengku Amir Shah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah looks at the ‘Never Violence’ exhibition, which touches on Swedish children’s book author Astrid Lindgren’s advocacy for children’s rights. Photo: The Star/Hanis MaketabSelangor Raja Muda Tengku Amir Shah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah looks at the ‘Never Violence’ exhibition, which touches on Swedish children’s book author Astrid Lindgren’s advocacy for children’s rights. Photo: The Star/Hanis Maketab

“Fictional worlds and characters, by virtue of engaging inherently with the imagination and building empathy in readers, regardless of age, affords children with opportunities to realise that they are not alone in experiencing such difficulties, and more importantly, provides insights into what they can do to deal with these challenges and/or to advocate for themselves and others in similar situations.”

Sharifah does raise the point, however, that children should not just be encouraged to read about such issues in a passive manner.

“Engaging with children directly through active discussions, an approach that underlies the Jom Kita Bincang! initiative, is one of the ways to ensure that the messages in these books are fully understood, absorbed and appreciated.

“Provide age-appropriate materials that appeal to children across a wide range of topics, and have storytelling sessions with follow-up questions that encourage them to think critically about the message imparted in the book.

"Additionally, allow them the space and time to reflect on these messages by participating in fun yet meaningful activities related to the issues raised in the book. And of course, listen respectfully and carefully to them when they share their opinions about the book,” she advises.

The right to great stories

In 2002, following the passing of Lindgren, creator of the iconic Pippi Longstocking and many other enduring children’s tales, the Swedish government created ALMA in order to honour her legacy.

The global literary award is given annually to an individual or organisation for their outstanding contribution to children’s and young adult literature. With a prize of SEK 5mil (approximately RM2.3mil), it is the largest award dedicated to children’s and young adult literature.

'Pokok Pain' (Pine Tree) by Lisen Adbage, one of the selected children's books translated from Swedish to Bahasa Malaysia. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani'Pokok Pain' (Pine Tree) by Lisen Adbage, one of the selected children's books translated from Swedish to Bahasa Malaysia. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani

Asa Bergman, ALMA’s head of office, says that the importance of children’s right to great stories cannot be emphasised enough.

“Children’s access to literature is a precondition for democracy and openness. Literature opens the door to new worlds and has the ability to increase understanding and exchange between cultures and people. Astrid Lindgren was living proof of that.

“Her work will continue to build bridges between people, across generations and cultures, for many years to come. The prize amount is a signal to the world that Sweden takes children’s reading very seriously. Reading books in translation, especially, fosters understanding among people and cultures,” she adds.

Apart from participating in book fairs and festivals around the world, ALMA promotes their laureates as much as possible through different activities, such as lectures, workshops and seminars for librarians, teachers and kids.

But when children these days are constantly surrounded by distractions such as social media, how can we encourage them to read more?

A view of the Jom Kita Bincang! exhibition and its accompanying children's reading area at the Raja Tun Uda Library in Shah Alam. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah A view of the Jom Kita Bincang! exhibition and its accompanying children's reading area at the Raja Tun Uda Library in Shah Alam. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

“Reading for pleasure should be fun, a joy without obligations, so let the children choose and read what they want. Be positive about their choices and interested in their reading,” says Ingrid Kallstrom, children’s librarian and IBBY executive committee member, who conducted a series of workshops in Malaysia last month.

“Read aloud together. Continue this practice even when the children can read on their own. Reading aloud together is special and an activity full of connections,” she adds.

As role models, parents who read a lot will naturally foster a love of reading in their children as well.

“Children would rather do as you do as a parent, than what you actually tell them to do,” says Kallstrom.

Parents can also take their children on regular excursions to a nearby library, turning it into an exciting adventure and build a habit of reading.

“To be able to explore the magic and possibilities of stories, you need to have access to literature – that’s one of the reasons why libraries are so important. A library is like a trove where books and stories are the treasures you find,” she adds.

So parents – perhaps it’s time to pay a visit to the library, pick up a book and discover new worlds with your kids.

The Jom Kita Bincang! children's book exhibition is showing at the Raja Tun Uda Library in Shah Alam, Selangor until April 10. Free admission. The exhibition is expected to travel to Penang in May and Kuching, Sarawak in June.

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