Thinking about the World in Books

By Candy Gourlay

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Latymer's excellent world  map of books. Click on the image to enlarge.

There is SHINE sharing the Philippines with Andy
Mulligan's TRASH.   
Last week I visited The Latymer School in Edmonton as one of my World Book Day school visits (yeah, I know, it's not just really a DAY anymore, is it?).

The second thing that caught my eye -- the first thing being the superb art on the walls -- was this map of the world in books.

Librarian Miranda McAllister had to coax me away from the map because book addict that I am, I was immediately trying to think of books to match countries.

As Miranda led me up to the impressive studio where I was going to speak, I found myself softly chanting titles that could be added to the map  -- The White Darkness (Geraldine McCaughrean) could be for Antarctica, The Language Inside (Holly Thompson) would cover Cambodia and Japan, surely, and what about Mister Pip (Lloyd Jones) set in Bougainville? Oh, and what was the title of that book set in Chile?

The Newbery winning author Richard Peck writes that child readers don't read for happy endings but for new beginnings ... young readers are only just beginning themselves and they wouldn't mind a map!

A map certainly captures how books grow a reader's world.

When I visit schools, I tell the children about the day I realised that I didn't have to be stuck in my hot and boring home in Manila. Between the pages of a book, I could travel anywhere!

But books are not just windows to a world outside your experience. Books should also be mirrors -- reflecting who you are and where you came from. In this way, you can learn about the person you are going to become.

While the books I grew up with showed me the world, they didn't acknowledge that people like me existed. All the characters I ever loved were pink skinned and lived in America or Britain. It gave me a lasting feeling of insecurity about my right to put Filipinos into my own stories.

Thankfully, there is a burgeoning of publishing in the Philippines of today -- but I think that insecurity continues -- not just for Filipinos but for other countries where local publishing is outgunned by Western imports.

On 3 June, I will be delivering a keynote at Singapore's exciting Asian Festival for Children's Content.

Are you coming?

My keynote is titled Why Asia Needs More Writers for Children and Young People -- and here's the blurb:
If books are mirrors and windows to the world, are the children of Asia well-served? ... (Candy) shares how Asia needs more writers for young people because seeing themselves in books will empower them, while providing the rest of the world with a window to our diverse cultures.
When I visit schools in Manila, the children are more familiar with Harry Potter than Bernardo Carpio, a giant of Philippine legend who figures in my first book, Tall Story. I love Harry Potter and many other Western books myself. But there is a big gap where my own native stories should be.

Apparently this sort of disconnect is not uncommon in other countries. It's odd though, like forgetting something before you've even begun to remember. Especially given that so many of these cultures do have rich and varied literatures that go back centuries.

I've been working in the British Library a lot recently, and everyday I walk past displays of beautiful red lacquered manuscript chests from 19th century Thailand and ancient books dating back to the 17th century in gorgeous Malay script. The Library is currently conserving hundreds of  ancient manuscripts from my part of the world  -- Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the southern regions of Thailand and the Philippines.

I stand and stare at these beautiful things and wonder why I have never been told stories from these great cultures.

The Story of the Pig King, composed in Palembang in 1775 by Usup bin Abdul Kadir, a merchant
from Semarang. I am informed that the Hikayat Raja Babi is about to be published in Malaysia.

Some of the books, like the Hikayat Raja Babi, The Story of the Pig King (shock horror, a pig king in Muslim Malaya?) attract much comment but little study.

"Despite the flurry of interest always aroused by its title, Hikayat Raja Babi has never been studied or published," the British Library blog says. "If anyone would like to be the first to do so, just click here and start reading!" Go on, Malay readers, click!

Do check out the Asian and African Studies blog of the British Library, it's a treasure trove.

Seeing Latymer School's World in Books brought home to me the VASTNESS of our storytelling world.

It's a world constantly in motion, the stories are always changing.

It's a world that goes back, back, way back: stories are there from our forefathers and beyond, if only we thought to look for them.

It's a world that is wide and deep and rich. It can be any world we want it to be.

If we read it. And if we tell it.

Thanks to Sandip Debnath for making this beautiful photo available on Creative Commons. The
quote is from  inspirational Newbery Prize winning author Richard Peck. Read my blog
post Richard Peck on the Beating Heart of What We do as Children's Writers 

With many thanks to the Year Sevens, Year Eights and Miranda and the other welcoming staff at Latymer, with a special mention to Nicole who provided me with soothing Yogi Tea. Yum!