Review of the Day: Kampung Boy
Everybody talks about how important it is to promote multiculturalism to our children. Kids are fed the usual everybody’s different/everybody’s the same stuff year after year, sometimes illustrated with color pictures in a social studies textbook. The obvious conclusion to draw from this would be to think that this would mean that the world of publishing books for kids would be rife with writers from all over the world. Yet one of the biggest shocks I received when I became a children’s librarian was to see the lamentable lack of books for the kiddies from any countries aside from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and sometimes Australia. I was baffled. We hardly get any books from India? But aren’t they an English speaking country anyway? And how about, oh I dunno, the ENTIRE CONTINENT OF AFRICA? Nothing? Nada? Oh, I was pissed, no question. Since that time, I’ve put a fair amount of energy into trying to read every little tiny children’s book from another continent, no matter how small. Lately, however, I’ve been falling down on the job. I don’t know if it’s ennui or the fact that I’ve been reading a lot of books solely from the U.S. lately, but when “Kampung Boy” flew out of left field and ker-whalloped me upside the head, I never saw it coming. Sweet child of mine, this isn’t just a graphic novel (with far more emphasis on the “novel” part than usual). It’s a graphic novel originally set and published in Malaysia. And the year it was originally published in Malaysia? 1979. Now the book, all thanks to First Second Books, has come here to the U.S. o’ A. and I couldn’t be happier. Let’s practice a little of what we preach, okay? You believe in multiculturalism? Then give this book to a kid right now.
Mat was born in Malaysia to a stern but pleasant mother and a deeply warm and caring father. Raised in a kampung (or village), the reader watches as he goes through the basic day-to-day events of growing up. The kampang is situated beside a rubber plantation and a tin mine and young Mat spends his days growing and learning. He attends school so as to learn Tajwid (reading Arabic with the proper enunciation). He makes friends with some of the local boys and spends his days swimming and checking his fish traps. At ten he’s ritually circumcised (and it turns out to be far more boring than painful). Of course, Mat would love to spend his days just fishing and hanging out with his friends. His father, on the other hand, would like him to do especially well in his studies so that he can be admitted to a boarding school in another city. Mat isn’t too thrilled at first, but then his father reveals to him that his inheritance is a great deal of land. Land that will be his if he passes his examination. Altogether, this is the story of one boy trying to figure out what he wants out of life. Does he stay with what he’s familiar and comfortable with? Or does he leave the kampang he loves in search of better things?
Lat. You ever heard of him? No? Well, I’m basically talking about “one of the most beloved cartoonists in Southeast Asia”, or so the bookflap says. So why the 27 year old gap between the book’s appearance in Malaysia and its sudden cropping up here? Dunno. Perhaps, and stay with me on this one, American publishers weren’t convinced of the crossover appeal. I know. Shocking. Credit First Second, of whom I am rapidly becoming a fan, with bringing books of this nature to the graphic novel (to say nothing of librarian) market. The writing itself is methodical, but never really ever dull. There’s a great deal of humor here alongside the storytelling. It also impressed me deeply that Lat took the time to show significant moments, like his ceremonial circumcision, alongside small family memories that smack of the truth. There’s a great moment when Mat’s dad attempts to impress his offspring with diving stunts of various styles. Or, more significantly, when his dad would take Mat to the tiny village railroad station to watch the enormous 5 o’clock mail train whiz by.
The design of this book was one I haven’t seen much of before. Rather than the standard panels, speech bubbles, and other graphic novel tropes, “Kampung Boy” seems far more inclined towards fitting descriptions and text in where the illustrations allow for white space. Dialogue, when it appears, is quoted as you would find it in a book rather than a graphic novel. The illustrations themselves are just pen and ink, but they have a kind of goofy sophistication. My husband glanced through the book and remarked that there were times that he was reminded of that old Mad Magazine comic artist Don Martin. Lat also isn’t afraid to engage in silent and entirely visual passages, as his characters dash from mischief to avoiding punishment what they've just done. The characters themselves are fabulous too. It’s all barrel-chested adults and squat roly-poly kids. Noses tend to look like a lowercase letter “w”, but with an extra loop for good measure. Individuals, by the way, are very easy to pick out. I was especially fond of the kooky cock-eyed circumciser who sits with a perpetual and never changing smile in his face.
I was somewhat amazed to see that in the Publisher’s Weekly review of “Kampung Boy” (quoted as saying, “with humor and affection, Lat makes the exotic kampung feel familiar.”), there is an assumption that this book is better suited for fans of Marjane Satrapi. I can only assume that the author of the review was aware of very few graphic novelists when they wrote such a comment and rather than compare Lat’s work to Art Spiegelman, they grasped at the only other artist they could think of. I’m a huge fan of Marjane Satrapi, don’t get me wrong, but what (aside from the graphic novel format and the fact that author/illustrator is not American) similarities exist between “Kampung Boy” and “Persepolis”? “Persepolis” is a deeply personal and political adult treatise on living in a repressive state. “Kampung Boy” is far better suited for a child audience, with far more attention paid to the main character’s personal growth than that of a nation as a whole. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again... give “Kampung Boy” to a kid, pronto.
As pointed out in a review of this book by Read About Comics, there is no formal storytelling structure to “Kampung Boy”. Also, the ending leaves you hanging. Our last image, not to give anything away, is of Mat in the back of a bus headed away from the only place he’s ever lived. I suspect that those who feel a connection to Lat’s tale will be clamoring for First Second to publish the follow up novel, “Town Boy”. There are few graphic novels that could do more than this book to bring entirely new worlds to the attention of their child readers. This is one of those very few. I’m a little worried that the design of the cover won’t immediately attract young readers. Still, if they just read a couple pages, some (if not all) of the graphic novel enthusiasts will find a kid here worth rooting for. Engaging, fun, and deserving of its praise.