No time for stories?

  • Living
  • Saturday, 30 Nov 2013

It’s a sad state of affairs indeed when bookstores have more assessment books than storybooks.

YEARS ago, when I was a merchandiser at a bookstore in Kuala Lumpur, the sales manager at a notable publisher tried in vain to persuade us to stock up on Roald Dahl’s books. Her reasons were anything but feeble because Roald Dahl is, indisputably, one of the greatest children’s story writers of all time. I mean, who doesn’t love The Twits or The BFG?

I found the sales manager legitimately convincing and I wanted to order in bulk so I could display Dahl’s books in a majestic and celebratory manner. My co-worker Kit, who was and still is in charge of the children’s book section, was more realistic. Despite being an avid reader herself and a passionate children’s book buyer, she limited her order. We can display the books and pay tribute, but in a more realistic manner, she said.

And I conceded, imagining, however, how much more wonderful the store would be when graced by Dahl’s presence writ large.

It was not until yesterday that I understood Kit’s rationale. Yes, Roald Dahl is well-loved – but only in countries where English is widely spoken do his books sell like hot cakes.

The problem, as I experienced recently, is that the majority of the children in Malaysia do not speak or read English fluently enough to read even The Twits, which is usually recommended for seven-year-olds.

My 10-year-old niece, who is an avid reader, said that almost all of her friends read Chinese books, and when I asked her to read The Twits she found it hard because there were way too many words unknown to her. Deep down, though, she knew the book was promisingly funny. To make her feel less intimidated by English books, I replaced Dahl with Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates. She found it easier to read and extremely funny.

That being said, I by no means think all our kids suck at English.

I am sure out there are many children capable of devouring the many books written in English, and they are the ones benefiting from all these wonderfully interesting children’s books by Dahl and the like. However, they aren’t enough to warrant a celebratory display of Dahl’s books in a major bookstore. So sad indeed.

You may think, well, there exists many good children’s books written in or translated into Chinese or Bahasa Malaysia – and I agree. But the problem is that there aren’t enough of them to help push our children’s reading to new heights. The excitement and visibility are not there, and a passion for reading is hard to ignite, let alone maintain.

Worse yet, some bookstores are selling more assessment books than storybooks. Assessment books are more profitable because parents are jumping onto the bandwagon of getting their kids ahead in the academic rat race. There simply is no time for stories, and storytellers can’t triumph over the Malaysian kids’ tuition teachers.

If my observations from my recent trip back to Kuala Lumpur are correct and my niece has painted me the right picture, then I hope something can be done for the sake of our children. Their situation is similar to mine when I was a little girl growing up and yearning to read all those wonderful tales I could see in books but could not because I didn’t know English. Like my niece, I used to have to circle many words so I could look them up in the dictionary and soon, my interest dwindled because of the hassle, and my confidence undermined.

Of course, it’s true that we need to preserve our own native language, and it’s true also that the English language is being taught at Malaysian schools. However, as most will concede, we end up being “half a barrel full” in all three languages.

A friend of mine who now resides in San Francisco puts it most aptly: “We are only seemingly trilingual. Because the Chinese people from China can hardly understand us. The English-speaking world mocks our accents, and the Malays, thanks to our kind friends, basically have to read our lips to understand us.”

How to teach my niece during her stay with me in Sydney? I was clueless at first. So I made a trip to the local library and picked up some books that are much easier.

As I explained the meanings of some the words she did not know, I was reminded of myself when I was her age. While correcting her pronunciation so her “one” and “want” don’t sound the same, I was as amused as I was intrigued.

These books aren’t to be read in such straight and spiky tones, I explained to her, the words are curvy and so should your sound be when pronouncing them. Only then can the story be felt and enjoyed.

My niece, having travelled and stayed with us for a month and who will be staying on for another three weeks, will have her English revamped so she can be introduced to the wonderful world of Roald Dahl.

Food for thought: Do we even introduce the classics to our future generations nowadays or are we way too busy getting them to do homework?

> Abby Wong hopes more kids will be able to enjoy English classics as it is a whole new world awaiting them.

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