This Valentine’s Day, we thought it would be great to shine a spotlight on one of the most important themes in children’s books: the love of and for family. Tutu Dutta, the author of Phoenix Song, shares some of her favourites. Her list of diverse books shows us that love truly makes the world go round!
It’s February 14, Valentine’s Day! A day associated with Romantic Love mostly, but we should bear in mind that love begins with family. So instead of giving out heart-shaped chocolates (although chocolates are always welcome), why not celebrate with books about family love?
I decided to explore the family theme further by looking at diverse children’s books about the love of family. Most of the titles were crowdsourced from two Facebook groups – Malaysian Writers Community and the Kuala Lumpur Book Appreciation Club.
Upon re-visiting Phoenix Song (illustrated by Martina Peluso), I realise that love of family lies at its core. Arohan, an eight-year-old boy, is incredibly lucky to have caring parents and two older brothers; even when they forget about him to rush off on their next adventure. But Arohan could always fall back on his extended family – his cousin, Mei Mei, who is also his best friend, and his doting grandmother. Perhaps, he did not fully appreciate his blessings until he almost lost his two brothers in a haunted bamboo forest and had to rely on his own courage as well as his mother’s knowledge and his grandmother’s wisdom to save them.
We move on to, Just Enough, a magical book about the love of family and the notion that ‘just enough’ is all you need. Written and illustrated by Allie Hill, the story is about a young child called Amelia, whose grandmother makes her a beautiful quilt blanket. As she gets older and the blanket gets worn and threadbare, her grandmother cuts away the frayed edges and always has enough cloth to make something new…
However, it seems that Arohan’s and Amelia’s strong traditional family is not always the universal norm. In the picture book, You are not my mother, by Noraminah Omar and illustrated by Sherliza Tajul Arripin, a young girl called Safiah, tragically lost her mother. She struggled to accept her new stepmother, Auntie Su, whom she saw as an interloper attempting to take her mother’s place. The Malaysian author confronts this difficult subject head-on and is able to resolve it with sensitivity.
And sometimes, there are children who are without a family. The Adventures of Squirky the Alien, a picture book series by Singaporean author, Melanie Lee, and illustrator, David Liew, addresses the plight of adopted children. Being blue in colour, Squirky realises that he looks very different from the rest of his earthly family. He embarks on an inter-stellar quest in search of his family and discovers that family is where you are loved and protected. A similar theme occurs in A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza.
While the mother or grandmother often plays a central role in many children’s books, the middle-grade reader, The Girl Who Made It Snow in Singapore, by Masturah Alatas, gives the father an important voice. An eight-year-old girl called Ariana discovered that her voice could magically change the weather. I love this theme, which has something in common with Phoenix Song – of music and song having the power to influence nature. However, Ariana’s gift became public knowledge and she is told by the authorities not to change the weather. She could, however, continue singing (as long as it doesn’t cause the climate to change.) When she is poised to embark on an international singing career, as the world’s youngest and most unusual soprano, she fell victim to the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome.’ Ariana faced intense public scrutiny and criticism, and it is her father who defended her.
While every child should have a parent to champion her cause, what happens when the parent is incapacitated? In Mama’s Maze, a Young Adult novel by Malaysian author Agnes Ong, fifteen-year-old Lin is subject to bullying due to her mother’s illness. The mother, a children’s book writer, is crippled by depression. In a reversal of roles, Lin has to take care of her. While illustrating one of her mother’s stories, she magically enters a maze inhabited by sinister creatures. In order to help her mother, she finds the courage to navigate this maze with the help of a friend.
We leave the dark maze of mama’s mind and turn our thoughts instead to Saint Valentine’s Feast because the love of family often translates into family gatherings with plenty of good food. Jama Kim Ratinggan’s book, Dumpling Soup, illustrated by Lillian Hsu-Flanders is about seven-year-old Marisa, who is allowed to help her mother make some dumplings for the huge annual family gathering for the first time. Marisa’s extended family represents the diversity of Hawaii itself, with members who are Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian and Haole. The book is about keeping her Asian tradition alive.
In Plenty Saimin by Feng Feng Hutchins, a Malaysian residing in Hawaii, and illustrated by Adriano F. Abatayo, a young boy called Ah Kee invites all his friends to celebrate his birthday. His mother brews a pot of saimin, noodles in broth, but worries that there will not be enough for all the guests. However, each of Ah Kee’s friends – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino – brings an ingredient unique to their community to put in the pot and the result is delicious and plentiful saimin for everyone! This story reminds us that sometimes family also includes our close friends.
Ah Kee’s birthday feast, brings us back to Phoenix Song, where the story begins with Arohan’s birthday party and his grandmother’s gift of an old flute.
Thank you, Tutu! To buy your copy of Phoenix Song, please click here.