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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #14 (April 4, 2006), page 16.
Water Spirit, tapir, and mousedeer
Malaysian Children’s Favourite Stories
By Kay Lyons
Illustrations by Martin Loh
Tuttle Publishing, 2004
Hardcover, 63 pages, $16.95
By Josephine Bridges
Kay Lyons sets the scene for her retelling of nine stories from Malaysia in her introduction to the collection. "These tales were told not only, I imagine, after the day’s work was done, but also at other quiet times — perhaps while waiting for fish to enter traps or nets, while resting near the rice fields during the fiercest heat of the day, or at night by a fire near the durian trees, waiting for the ripe fruit to fall."
"Badang, the Strongest Man below the Wind" is the story of a young man who is thin and weak, yet brave enough to capture the Water Spirit, with its "teeth like a shark and claws like a crab." In return for its freedom, the Water Spirit grants Badang’s wish to be strong. But Badang learns in a fight with a man from above the wind, where the monsoon winds blow, that strength is not his most important quality after all.
"Long ago, the animals of the forest had proclaimed the Malayan tapir as the most handsome forest animal because of his large size and glossy black coat. On the top of his head was a horn, like the horn of the rhinoceros." The tapir no longer looks like this, and "How the Tapir Got Its Colours" is a cautionary tale of the consequences of vanity.
"The Cunning Mousedeer" is three stories in one about "the favourite animal of Malaysian folktales." In the first two stories, the tiny animal tricks creatures much bigger than itself, but in the third story turnabout is fair play, and an animal even smaller than the mousedeer outsmarts the trickster.
Princesses appear in three tales in this collection, and there are also stories of a village fool, crocodiles who change into humans and back again, and the three sons of the Emperor of China who set off to separate a dragon from the enormous gemstone it plays catch with by the light of the full moon.
Author Kay Lyons has lived in Malaysia for over thirty years. Malaysian Children’s Favourite Stories is her first book for children, yet it is informed by a wealth of information about folktales and storytelling practices in this country rich with ethnic groups.
Martin Loh’s father is from Malaysia, though the illustrator makes his home in Singapore. A self-taught artist, he uses vibrant color in his bold depictions of snakes, elephants, bamboo rats, butterflies, fish, flowers, ferns, and mountains. The expressions on the faces of the characters who populate these stories give them all lives of their own, no matter how minor a role some play.
Malaysian Children’s Favourite Stories is aimed at children age five to 12, but there is something here for anyone who loves a good story.