Maslina Yusoff shares with Poon Li-Wei how her well-loved character came from an unexpected muse.
The journey to getting a Malaysian picture book an international audience.
Enthusiastic, curious and inquisitive with big, curly hair – this is how Maslina Yusoff brought to life Mila, the endearing character that would go on to fulfil her lifelong yet unanticipated dream of becoming a children’s book author and illustrator. Bubbly and disarmingly charming as we meet for the first time, we soon settle into a little corner at a café she frequents for inspiration – before she regales me with the fascinating story of how Mila came to be.
A fast-paced life
Life before Mila was very different – a long and illustrious career in advertising meant a fun and sometimes glamorous environment that came with its own setbacks. “It was really tough! The office becomes your first home as you go back only to wash up before returning to work. Plus, the satisfaction only comes when the client accepts your work. If the client wants changes, we have no voice – the client is always right.” Deciding in the early 2000s that she would like to afford herself more flexibility, she proposed to her husband, who was also in the same line, that they open their very own agency. And for awhile, this arrangement seemed to tick all her boxes – until the exhausting routine of continuously chasing deadlines began weighing her down before grinding her to a complete halt come 2013. “That was when I knew I was lost. I wanted to do something that would really satisfy me.”
A whole new world
Thankfully, as fate would have it, a friend suggested one day that she work on a children’s picture book as he had seen her draw since her college days. And so, she decided: “Yes, that would be fun!” But with zero experience under her belt, a little digging around was required – starting with Facebook. “I looked up illustrators to get to know them better and that was how I came across Yusof Gajah, who is internationally popular. His drawings are very naïve (a form of art in which the artist does not conform to traditional depictions of real objects). I messaged him, expressing my interest in exploring this field – he asked me to go over to the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) in Singapore!” she enthuses. Without batting an eyelid, she registered and attended the event with a group of illustrators and writers – submerging herself in the interesting classes and programmes that fed her imagination. “I became so enthusiastic! That night itself, I couldn’t wait to write. So, I went to McDonald’s with a paper and pencil, and sketched,” she chatters on, exuberantly. But this was where she found herself faced with a pressing conundrum: “What’s my character?”
Mila’s big, curly hair
When she returned to Kuala Lumpur, this fervour for writing burned brighter than ever – leading to hours upon hours of seclusion in her room,
writing and trying to figure out the nitty gritty. Her husband and children were perplexed at how withdrawn she had become, and it wasn’t until later, when her daughter tried persuading her to come out for a spot of television, that it struck Maslina: “My daughter’s my inspiration! That’s my character.” Soon enough, Maslina was flooded with memories of her daughter’s curly hair – the bane of her existence – and it cracked her up. “She really hated her hair, especially since kids in school used to tease her. But, I found her tantrums so cute and funny – such as how she didn’t want to brush her hair, and the way it puffed up when she woke up. I realised that there was so much I could write about!” Maslina
I’VE ALWAYS BELIEVED IN SAYING YES, FIRST, THEN WHATEVER HAPPENS LATER ON, I’LL WORK ON IT.
recalls, affectionately. Although readers may be surprised to discover that Mila is, in fact, not her daughter’s name – Maslina had simply wanted one that was easy to pronounce.
Once those creative juices started flowing, she was unstoppable and went on to produce another two stories that had nothing to do with Mila’s hair. Armed with three potential books, she reached out to Kota Buku, an organisation that acts as an agent for writers and illustrators to get their name known. She recounts, “I met the manager of Kota Buku, who told me they were going to China at the end of the year for the Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair. They told me to complete all my stories, and they’d get an editor to run through my work. Once that was done, I went to the printer’s and prepared hardcover mock-ups.”
Off to see the world
With a cheerful gleam in her eyes, she tells me how she was swept away by the excitement of being at the exhibition, right before Mila’s huge face on the covers of her mock-ups attracted the attention of three publishers from different provinces. “One of them said they wanted to print 10,000 copies of each book for the whole of China, for five years!” she gushes. They certainly had their eyes on the correct prize, as she had the public clamouring to buy her mock-ups. She lets out a good-natured guffaw, before explaining, “A lot of people in China have told me that they find my Mila so fascinating, because curly hair is rare there!” In fact, so keen was that particular company in making sure Mila would see the light of day, they called Maslina the minute she touched down in Kuala Lumpur – affirming their interest in signing her on. After running through the terms with Kota Buku’s representatives, she soon signed her name on the dotted line and with that, Mila’s Big Curly Hair was born.
Climbing up the ranks
Now that her lovable and plucky heroine was quickly garnering attention, Maslina had plenty of work cut out for her. Firstly, the publisher asked if they could have more books – leading her to churn out three more that were printed in 2015. Secondly, Karangkraf soon came knocking on her door, keen on publishing her series in Malaysia. In fact, so delightful and relatable is Mila’s story that another Malaysian Chinese publisher, Chee Sze Poh, with reach in Singapore, also rang her up about translating and printing the series in Chinese. “Then, in 2016, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka wanted me to come up with something that didn’t revolve around the premise of being ‘big’. The reason why the term had become Mila’s signature was because to a little girl her age, everything is big,” she explains, poignantly. So, Maslina took up their suggestion of using peribahasa (proverbs) as the core of her next three books, which were initially published in Malay and later, translated into English.
THE REASON WHY ‘BIG’ HAD BECOME MILA’S SIGNATURE WAS BECAUSE TO A LITTLE GIRL HER AGE, EVERYTHING IS BIG
However, the real pinch-myself moment came when she was approached by Sukhwa Hong, the president and animation director of H Culture, a South Korean studio. “I met him at the Kuala Lumpur Trade and Copyright Centre (KLTCC) the previous year. He seemed interested, and I thought it would be an opportunity to have my books published in Korea,” she raves, still gobsmacked at the enthusiastic response Mila has garnered. When she communicated that she wasn’t an animator, he assured her that as long as she could come up with a pilot, he would do his best to sell it. “He told me he was going to KLTCC 2017 and asked if we could meet to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU). I said ‘okay’! I’ve always believed in saying yes, first, then whatever happens later on, I’ll work on it.” Although, she does lament aloud the one caveat that comes with this opportunity: funding. “He’s suggested I reach out to people like the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) and Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation – but it’s not easy. They’ll usually require storyboards and, perhaps, a video – I just don’t have the time to do it right now,” she enthuses, which swings us swiftly into the next topic.
The real-life Mila
I learn, much to my surprise, that the girl Mila is based on is actually a young lady now. A strange sense of nostalgia washes over me – it’s almost as if I had watched her grow up in front of my very eyes, thanks to her mother’s books. “Whenever I introduce her as my ‘Mila’, everyone is shocked because they’ve always thought of her as a little girl,” she laughs, before relaying to me how flustered her daughter was when she first found out what her mother was up to. “She complained about having never liked her hair and that I didn’t have to tell the entire world about it! But I reassured her that it was fine and it would be very cute. Now that Mila’s famous, my daughter’s finally accepted her hair and is proud of it!” If you’re hoping to see for yourself, as many others have, the eponymous hair that launched her to stardom, Maslina will tell you it’s all tucked away now under a headscarf. Even more pressing though, is the question that is on everyone’s lips: “Will you ever write books about Mila all grown up?” The answer is a solid no. “If that happens, she won’t be as interesting as she is now – I’d have to approach it from a totally different perspective (and genre). Mila will always be six to seven years old. She will never grow up.”
Going with the flow
With so much to juggle in her life, Maslina is appreciative of her family, who understands that she needs time and space to pursue her passions – even if that means no housework. Nonetheless, with such a busy schedule, she wishes she had more time to write and draw, which is why she gravitates towards going up mountains or hills. “I find being at the top of the world more inspiring than being at the beach. When I see water, I’ll get distracted,” she shares. Of course, I can’t help but ask of her hopes and future aspirations for the series. Her reply is one that is youthful yet wise: “I don’t hope – I just let it be. Because if it doesn’t happen, I’ll be shattered. That’s how I started in 2013. I believe that if we want something, it will happen. So, I just went with the flow.” And just like that, Maslina Yusoff is living proof that no matter your age, you should never quit your daydream.