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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #47 (November 22, 2005), page 16.
Things that will make your eyes wobble
Singapore Children’s Favourite Stories
By Di Taylor
Illustrations by L.K. Tay-Audouard
Periplus Editions, 2003
Hardcover, 96 pages, $16.95
By Josephine Bridges
Of the 11 stories in this visually astonishing collection of myths and tales from Singapore, three stand out. In "How the Island of Singapore Came About," a mermaid named Sea Plum investigates the world above the waves and urges her less inquisitive sister Sea Pearl to "Come and see things that will make your eyes wobble." While the story ends unhappily for the sisters and their "whole mer-community," we have the adventurous Sea Plum to thank for the very existence of Singapore.
In "Prince Parameswara and the Naming of Singapura," the prince, described as "both a tyrant and a coward," changes the name of the island where he finds refuge from his enemy the Raja of Majapahit from Java, another character you wouldn’t want your kids to take as a role model. Previously called Temasek, the island is renamed Singapura after the prince’s lion throne. Unfortunately, the name is the only good thing the prince bestows on the island before slinking off never to be heard from again, after which "for almost 400 years the outside world forgot about Singapura, the Lion City."
As if unlucky Singapore hadn’t had enough trouble, "The Pirates of Riau" tells the story of the islands’ misfortune at the hands of marauding pirates, particularly the fearsome Kerbau Hitam, who "would slay a dozen men, dust off his hands, and then sit down to breakfast without a thought." While Kerbau Hitam and his gang come to a violent end, they are not "the last pirates to plague Singapore waters." On the plus side, "some of Singapore’s islands may still have pirate treasure buried on them somewhere. Dig deep enough and you may find it."
The other stories in the collection — tales of tigers, swordfish, people turned into plants, a very special pearl, a spooky forest, mixed-up laundry, two kind widows, and a high-maintenance princess — are also enchanting, but it’s the drawings that steal the show. It’s no surprise that illustrator L.K. Tay-Audouard lives in Singapore, because she brings the island alive with her whimsical and luminous renderings of everything from mud-skippers to mosquito hearts. Her labeled illustrations of some of the flora and fauna of her island are both enchanting and educational.
Di Taylor retells these well-loved tales with integrity. She doesn’t revel in violence and hardship, but she doesn’t try to gloss them over, either. One of too many despotic rulers of the beleaguered island, Raja Iskander is described as, "As bold as he was bossy. As cold as he was cruel. As mad as he was mean." The five- to 10-year-old readers for whom Di Taylor wrote Singapore Children’s Favourite Stories might not want to meet the folks in these folktales, but they’ll have a great time reading about them.