Ev­ery­day magic

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - DAPHNE LEE

WHEN I was about five, I re­ceived my first boxed set of books from my god­mother, Eve­lyne. I still own three of the five books that were part of that set and still read them from time to time.

One of the books is An­other Lucky Dip by Ruth Ainsworth, a collection of sto­ries about the ev­ery­day lives of or­di­nary chil­dren. There are no mys­ter­ies, no am­a­teur sleuthing. Some of the char­ac­ters are young enough for a wan­der round the gar­den to be an aw­fully big ad­ven­ture. One of them, Charles, fea­tures in sev­eral of the sto­ries. Charles has a Use­ful Bag from which he pro­duces won­der­ful ob­jects, like note­books and en­velopes, jars and crayons, and sticky tape. He likes to be told sto­ries about when he was “small as a pin”.

Then there is the story of a young boy and his pre­cious ma­tryoshka (Rus­sian nest­ing) doll. Un­like other dolls of this type, she doesn’t have smaller dolls nested in her body, just a small, wooden red ball. I’ve loved ma­tryoshka dolls since I first read this story, but I have yet to find one that hides a wooden red ball – I have not given up look­ing.

My favourite story is about three chil­dren who spend a day mak- ing sur­prises for their mother. Like the other sto­ries, it’s a quiet tale, not ob­vi­ously thrilling, al­though I re­mem­ber be­ing ex­cited and in­spired by the in­ge­nu­ity of the chil­dren and the de­scrip­tions of the beau­ti­ful, sim­ple, im­per­fectly per­fect things they cre­ate for their mother.

The sto­ries in An­other Lucky Dip are about the mouth-wa­ter­ing de­light of get­ting thor­oughly lost in play that is driven and shaped solely by imag­i­na­tion. Not a lot hap­pens in them, but the lives de­scribed are, nev­er­the­less, full and rich, filled with the sur­prises and ad­ven­tures or­di­nary life coughs up in the course of an or­di­nary day; the char­ac­ters busy at the dif­fi­cult, ab­sorb­ing job of be­ing chil­dren.

Gwen Smith’s Pigeon Post And Other Sto­ries (Oyez!, 112 pages) is sim­i­lar in style (Smith writes sim­ply, with a calm, clear voice) and con­tent – a collection of six slice-of-life sto­ries about Malaysian chil­dren, and, in A Ride On A Monster, a young mon­key.

I feel this sort of book works par­tic­u­larly well with young read­ers who are just tran­si­tion­ing from be­ing read to, to ex­plor­ing words on their own. If they al­ready love books, they won’t find it strange that the chil­dren in the story aren’t glued to var­i­ous screens. If they are the sort who like the out­doors, they won’t ex­pect the char­ac­ters to spend their free time in malls or watch­ing telly.

Per­haps kids who aren’t al­lowed out to play may find the lives Smith writes about dar­ing and dan­ger­ous. Here are chil­dren who walk to school; whose houses wash away in storms; who go pic­nick­ing by rivers.

An­i­mals fea­ture in all the sto­ries: Lena res­cues and cares for a baby squir­rel in Storm Dam­age; Tina’s cat has the wrong type of kit­tens in Rain­bow Kit­tens; a chicken bound for the mar­ket en­joys a re­prieve in Chick­ens; and a boy is at­tacked by wasps in The Dan­ger­ous Smell Of Nangka. A Ride On A Monster de­scribes the fate of Woop, a mon­key who is sep­a­rated from her fam­ily as a re­sult of a tree-felling ex­er­cise; and, of course, the ti­tle story is about Cloud, a hom­ing pigeon who must carry an im­por­tant mes­sage from Susheila to her grand­fa­ther.

This last is my favourite of the six tales, de­spite the red her­ring in the first para­graph (a red her­ring that might be turned into an im­por­tant plot point if Smith ex­pands the short story). Lim Lay Koon has pro­vided il­lus­tra­tions for the book and there is a lovely one for Pigeon Post – a two-page spread show­ing the vil­lage where Susheila lives. A river flows be­tween the pages and a bridge spans the two leaves, with vil­lage life de­picted on ei­ther bank. The de­tails are de­light­ful, es­pe­cially the tiny bi­cy­cles and um­brel­las, and even hawk­ers sell­ing ice cream and keropok lekor.

Chick­ens is my other favourite, for Lim’s il­lus­tra­tions, and also the very Malaysian, very real story of es­caped chick­ens (I wit­nessed a sim­i­lar in­ci­dent as de­scribed by Smith on my drive up to Pe­nang re­cently). Sita’s fa­ther’s re­ac­tion is also so fa­mil­iar, and I like that Smith didn’t gloss over it.

None of Smith’s sto­ries have neat, happy end­ings. They are re­ally about stuff that could hap­pen at home, and the way prob­lems are re­solved are just im­per­fect enough to have a sat­is­fy­ing ring of truth.

I just wish there were more sto­ries, and I’m look­ing for­ward to Smith’s next collection.

Daphne Lee is a writer, edi­tor, book re­viewer and teacher. She runs a Face­book group called The Places You Will Go for lovers of all kinds of lit­er­a­ture. Write to her at star2@thes­tar.com.my.

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