Maslina Yu­soff shares with Poon Li-Wei how her well-loved char­ac­ter came from an un­ex­pected muse.

Herworld (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS -

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


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.


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.

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