There’s a magic to life that children see, but adults are quick to forget. Perhaps this is why we like to revisit children’s stories so often and see things through a child’s eye. When it Rains by Rassi Narika, translated by Ikhda Ayuning, Maharsi Degoul and Emma Dai’an Wright, starts as a grumble about all the things we cannot do when it rains. But the book soon branches into what joy awaits if we look for positivity – even in the rain.
The narrator, Kira, and her friends, explore in the rain: they see the colours of umbrellas, the animals that enjoy the wet, and the joy and safety and privilege they have of coming home to a hot shower or bath and warm towels to dry them. This is a lovely experience picture book for a very young reader, and encouragingly has a wonderful map of the adventure at the end for readers to peruse. It doesn’t look too dissimilar from the map I might draw of my surroundings here, and yet this picture book heralds from Indonesia.
Many times, I’ve looked at the UK book market and marveled that the books we see here aren’t the same as in any other country – even those that share the language. American friends are constantly baffled that so many titles are different – but the sharing of cultures and stories is becoming more widespread. Below, author Rassi Narika, gives us a glimpse into Indonesian Children’s Literature, and how the future of children’s books there looks bright:
Indonesian children’s literature is a bit tricky. It’s there, but at the same time it feels weirdly invisible. When I was studying in the UK, I saw how important children’s books were. In bookstores, children’s books were displayed prominently and there would be storytelling sessions for kids a couple of days a week, and universities even ran courses in children’s literature – I never thought that this could be a thing. I enjoyed seeing this all so much and wished we had the same environment in Indonesia.
A couple of years ago, I started working on a children’s book called Terbang (Fly). I was going to self-publish it through an independent publishing initiative called Seumpama, which I co-founded with a friend. I wrote and illustrated my first book while nervously wondering if anyone – other than family and friends – would ever be interested in buying it. We didn’t really know what we were getting into. Our initial idea came from thinking about how my friend couldn’t find any Indonesian children’s books that she wanted to read to her young daughter. So, we did some research to try and understand why this was.
We found that, despite having the biggest share of the book market, with 22.64% of the total sales at the biggest chain bookstore in Indonesia (from 2013 data published by IKAPI, The Indonesian Publisher Association), Indonesian children’s literature was barely recognised by the literary scene. At book events, there were few talks focusing on children’s, and for whatever reason, I could only name a handful of notable Indonesian children books or authors. I felt it wasn’t getting the attention it deserved from the industry and its readers.
Perhaps it’s a mindset: adults thinking that children’s literature is just for children, so they stop paying attention as they grow older and until they have their own offspring. Or perhaps it’s something more fundamental that is preventing the scene from thriving. Four years after my first book, I find myself utterly compelled by this challenging journey; the combination of frustration and excitement at finding a new playground and experimenting with its complexities.
The ‘research’ I did at the start of my writing and publishing journey was brief and hardly captured the big picture. But one thing I realised was that the market share of children’s book sales was not representative of growth in Indonesian children’s books, especially in terms of quality. In big chain bookstores, translated children’s books and Japanese comics were highly popular; you’d see them everywhere and you’d see more varieties of their titles and stories too. I used to read these too when I was a child. Now I wonder if this was because I preferred them to Indonesian books or if it was because of the limited range of local books.
I remember feeling like something was missing when I skimmed through the books from local publishers. I thought that most of their stories were predictable; they always ended with a moral, and promoted stereotypical values in their narrative.
There is nothing wrong with talking about morals and values, of course. It is necessary to introduce them to children. But children have the right to be part of more diverse and rich conversations too, and they were not getting that from the books available to them. Despite diversity being embedded in our nation’s official identity, with ‘Unity in Diversity’ as Indonesia’s national motto, Indonesian children books weren’t really providing that. They didn’t feel inclusive to a variety of children’s perspectives, backgrounds, ideas, and interests. It also bothered me that most of the stories focused more on what the adults had to say, rather than celebrating children and allowing them to be part of the narrative.
Nevertheless, there has been an exciting change in Indonesian children’s literature these past couple of years. Waves of independent literary organisations have been springing up and pushing for Indonesian children’s literature to be a more versatile and collaborative playing field.
One of the prominent names is Litara Foundation. Litara is an independent publisher that has been a real breath of fresh air to the scene, introducing good books and giving local contexts a more contemporary approach. They have published some of my favourite titles, with themes that were quite unheard-of in most Indonesian children books. Srinti is my favourite book from Litara. It is about the post-disaster trauma of a girl who lives in Yogyakarta, Central Java, where earthquakes had devastated the area. The journey to find Srinti, a doll that was lost under the debris of the earthquake, is a journey about experiencing loss as told from a child’s perspective. It is a hard topic to deal with, yet it’s a conversation in which children should be included.
Other publications from Litara Foundation explore issues of cultural diversity, like in Cap Go Meh, which is the name of a celebration at the end of the 15th day of Chinese New Year. The title also refers to a local cuisine that is central to the Eid-al Fitr celebration. It’s very refreshing to find books where children become the centre of their own experiences.
I think celebrating childhood should be a significant part of children books, and the Na Willa series, by Reda Gaudiamo, is a perfect example for that. This is my other personal favourite and is hands down one of the best works of Indonesian children’s literature today. It brilliantly captures the voice of Willa, a little girl who lives in Surabaya, East Java, in the ’60s. The amazing thing about this book is that regardless of where you live and whichever era your childhood was, Willa’s story feels extremely close to heart.
The book was inspired by Reda’s own childhood experience and her feelings as a young girl when facing issues of multiculturalism, racism, bullying, family, and friendship, as well as simply encountering things in everyday life that excited her – like the little chicks or her favourite food. The book captures the innocence of children and at the same time gives voice to their wisdom in seeing the world. I love that Reda is giving a platform to children that allows them to be part of the cast of an imperfect world. (The Adventures of Na Willa has been translated into English by The Emma Press, who also helped to translate my book, When It Rains. They did an amazing job translating it).
What’s also exciting is that this momentum has extended to other aspects in children’s literature. It’s now easier to find community-based children’s libraries, and children’s storytelling events are taking place in coffee shops. I’ve seen a higher quality in the Indonesian children’s book selections in mainstream bookstores, and independent bookshops are giving more space to children’s literature. I have met academics who are sharing their findings with the public, like Herdiana Hakim who’s currently doing her PhD in Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow and spreads the word about Indonesian children’s literature through her blog Si Kancil. Also there are communities like Ayo Dongeng Indonesia (Let’s Do Storytelling, Indonesia), which runs the annual Indonesian International Storytelling Festival.
The scene is still growing and there’s a lot of work to be done. I’m looking forward to there being more books and authors and illustrators who depict children’s perspective and capture stories in which children’s voices are heard. We need to form a better infrastructure, educate institutions, and get more attention. We need to claim physical spaces to allow Indonesian children’s literature to thrive and be part of society. The challenges remain but the possibilities are endless, and those who share the passion are finding their way to meet up and continuously build the scene.
It is definitely an exciting time to be in.
With thanks to Rassi Narika for her fascinating article. You can buy When It Rains from The Emma Press here.