While a passion for reading is gradually taking root in large cities, low-income families living in rural areas still lack access to books, especially children’s literature. (EPA Photo/Mike Alquinto)

A New Chapter for Children’s Literature Across Indonesia

APRIL 06, 2015

While a passion for reading is gradually taking root in large cities, low-income families living in rural areas still lack access to books, especially children’s literature. (EPA Photo/Mike Alquinto)

Though he wrote numerous plays, novels and poems, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen is best remembered for his fairy tales that have been read to and by children all over the world.

“The Princess and the Pea,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Wild Swans,” “The Little Match Girl” and “The Ugly Duckling” are only a few among his best-known stories; a trademark of his tales are the often heartbreaking ordeals and challenges his characters must go through before finding happiness — if they find it at all.

Since 1967, International Children’s Book Day is celebrated on April 2, Andersen’s birthday, in order to remember his legacy and at the same time inspire a passion for reading in children.

Compared to many other countries, Indonesians typically don’t grow up with a love for reading as it is often not encouraged at school or at home for various reasons; and those who do often resort to international classics rather than local works, as the former is viewed to be higher in quality.

Murti Bunanta, an award-winning children’s book writer with dozens of published folktales under her belt, felt the same way by the time she started putting her stories on paper.

“In 1997, I was asked by a publisher to lead a [division] for their new books on folktales,” says Murti, who was the first person to receive a doctorate degree from the University of Indonesia, choosing children’s literature as topic for her dissertation.

“I was given the freedom to decide on the format, and the writers and illustrators to work with,” she recalls. “As I specialize in children’s literature, I had such high standards for the publication that it was a struggle to find writers who fulfilled my expectation — even with a deadline [for the first book] fast approaching.”

Murti then decided to add her own stories — which turned out to be the right decision as the book became a success, winning an international award from Poland. Murti continued her retelling of Indonesian folktales, not only to share them with the country’s younger generation, but to preserve them.

So far, she has published 20 folktales from different parts of the archipelago, and many of her works have been translated into other languages as well, including English, Japanese, Korean and Mongolian.

Murti is also the founder and president of The Society for The Advancement of Children’s Literature (KPBA), a non-profit organization that aims to nurture the love of reading among children.

Generally, Murti says, books are not high on the list of priorities of Indonesian children — which is not surprising, as reading is not always encouraged by their teachers or parents.

“Many parents of low-income families can’t afford to buy books for their children, so they look to schools,” Murti explains. “These people have hardly any access to books — there are not enough libraries [in Indonesia].”

The trend, however, has shown signs of change, especially among the younger generation living in Indonesia’s big cities, where a reading culture has slowly taken root.

Mia Maria, an art curator based in Jakarta, says that she inherited her interest in books and reading from her mother and older sister. She is trying to instill the same passion in her own 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.

“My son likes tween novels like ‘The Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ series, but he also reads comics, Japanese manga, and more technical texts as long as they relate to his favorite games,” Mia says. “My daughter likes more girly stories, like ‘Maissie Mae’ and also classics: ‘Heidi’ and some tales by Hans Christian Andersen.”

“And, of course, I load them with art books for kids,” Mia adds with a laugh.

But Mia also feels there is a severe lack of children’s books on the Indonesian market, especially those written by local authors; she also feels that books used in schools have plenty of room for improvement.

 “I am reviewing a few curriculum books on arts and culture at the moment, and think that the standard of their content, editing and language is below par,” she says. “It worries me to give locally edited books to my children without reading them first myself, but of course that’s impossible to do with every single book [they receive].”

Despite this grim outlook, Mia says she does stumble across some good books once in a while.

“One of my favorites is titled ‘Indahnya Negeriku,’ [‘The Beauty of My Country’] which is very light but contains a lot of information about local culture, and is nicely illustrated, too,” she explains.

Mia adds that she raises her children in a bilingual atmosphere, but she still struggles to find books written comprehensively in both English and Indonesian.

Feby Sofia Hendian, customer service manager of a local logistics company, reads bedtime stories to her 3-year-old daughter — in English.

“I want to familiarize her with the English language,” Feby explains. “I mostly read fables to her, as she really likes animal stories.”

At the same time, Feby adds, she has maintained the nightly ritual for a much more practical reason.

“It helps her fall asleep, which makes [the evening] easier for me as well,” Feby says with a smile. “Sure, I want to encourage her to read, but sometimes, reading to her is the only thing that makes her want to go to bed.”

As Indonesia prepares to take on the role of Guest of Honor country at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest of its kind worldwide, Murti says she hopes that Indonesian children’s books will catch the interest of German publishers.

According to Claudia Kaiser, Frankfurt Book Fair’s vice president of business development, publishers for young adult and children’s books play an important role at the fair, thanks largely to the big success of the fantasy genre, as well as the immense popularity of comic books.

Around 1,200 exhibitors have registered to present products for children and young adults at the October fair, with approximately 550 events revolving around the genres.

“When it comes to translations of books into the German language, young adult and children’s books make up the second biggest segment, with 18.7 percent after general fiction,” Kaiser says.

Almost all Guest of Honor countries will also introduce books of this genre when they come to Germany, but Kaiser acknowledges that the main interest of German publishers is geared towards fiction for adults.

“At last year’s fair, we organized a so-called speed dating session between German and Indonesian children’s book publishers where they had the chance to introduce their works to one another,” Kaiser says. “However, at the moment we must say that the interest from German publishers in Indonesian children’s books is still limited so far. 

“But this is by no means uncommon. Korean publishers, for example, bought a lot of children’s book rights from Germany, but the other way around, there was almost nothing.”

German publishers have only recently shown interest in Korean children’s books and have also began scooping up their rights. These are expected to hit the German market shortly.

“That basically means that these things take time, because Korea was Guest of Honor country at the Frankfurt Book Fair [in 2005], and now it is 2015,” Kaiser explains. “It would be recommended for Indonesian children’s book publishers to use the fair as an opportunity to open doors for future collaborations.”

It is a notion that Murti fully agrees with, saying: “Even if we won’t be able to strike deals straight away, I hope that the Frankfurt Book Fair will be a good start to draw attention to Indonesian children’s books — and of course, Indonesian literature in general.”

“We need to establish a relationship between Indonesian and German publishers first; hopefully it will be one that lasts for many years to come.”

Murti at least can be considered a success story already: one of her books, “Putri Kemang,” (“Kemang Princess”) will be published in German as a picture book and turned into a Japanese paper theater, or kamishibai, in 2016.