Buto Ijo the now friendly giant chases Timun Mas in a modern version of the folktale. (Photo courtesy of Erlangga for Kids/Ferlina Gunawan)

Bowdlerizing Monsters and Giants to Save Indonesian Folktales


MAY 09, 2018

Jakarta. When you go into a bookstore in Indonesia looking for children's titles, chances are that you'll find shelves bursting with Disney and Barbie titles. Traditional Indonesian folktales, stories we grew up with when we were kids – Bawang Merah Bawang Putih, Malin Kundang, Joko Tarub – are just not big drawcards anymore.

Nonetheless, some local publishers have persevered with these traditional folktale stories. They've had to made adjustments to the way they package and market the stories – including by rewriting the many monsters of Indonesian folktales into friendlier creatures – and their effort is paying dividends.

"There's still some demand for folktale books, maybe because these stories have been a big part of our life. Parents want their kids to know the stories they grew up with," Bhuana Ilmu Populer (BIP) children’s book editor Damar Sasongko said.

BIP, a subsidiary of Kompas Gramedia, has published 53 folktale titles since 2010.

The best-selling is "100 Cerita Rakyat Nusantara" ("100 Indonesian Folktales") released in 2014. So far the title has sold almost 13,000 copies.

Folktale books made up only four percent of BIP's total sales last year, but Damar said they've been selling more folktale titles every year.

Erlangga for Kids (EFK), an imprint established in 2003 by half century-old publisher Erlangga, has also been publishing new folktale titles since 2007.

EFK currently has eight folktale anthologies, four picture books and two Indonesian princess titles in their back catalogue.

EFK editor Windrati Hapsari the anthologies don't sell that well in bookstores, but many elementary schools order them for their libraries.

The Indonesian princess books are doing well, but Windrati didn't mention specific figures.

She said EFK is planning to release four more folktale titles this year.

According to a customer survey by EFK, the majority of their customers who buy folktale titles are millennial moms aged between 27 and 35. Their children are usually between 2 and 5 years old.

Nofiandi Riawan, the managing editor of small press Cikal Aksara, said folktale titles made up 35 percent of their sales in the past five years.

Cikal Aksara specializes in publishing folktale collections, with titles such as "Cerita Rakyat Nusantara Terpopuler Sepanjang Masa" ("All-Time Most Popular Indonesian Folktales"), "Cerita Rakyat Nusantara" ("Indonesian Folktales") and "Dongeng Binatang Nusantara" ("Indonesian Fables").

However, Nofiandi also noted that sales of these titles in general have dropped.

"The publishing industry has been sluggish in the past couple of years. Folktale titles are no exception. People can now easily find them online. This is why we've been trying to make our books more interactive, with links to video readings by the authors or inserting special pages for drawing and coloring for the kids," Nofiandi said.

Embracing Technology

Andi Taru is the chief executive of educational game developer Educa Studio. He said his company's imprint Riri has been producing digital story books as mobile apps available on Google Play Store and Apple App Store.

Each story comes with a voiceover narration and an interactive game.

A panel from Educa Studio's 'Asal Usul Burung Cendrawasih' ('The Legend of the Bird of Paradise') story book app. (Photo courtesy of Educa Studio)

Riri has so far released 50 titles and traditional folktales are doing as well as their original stories.

At first, each title was published as a separate app, but Educa launched a one-stop app for Riri's stories in November last year.

Andi said Riri's story apps have been downloaded a total of 15 million times.

The three top folktale titles are "Timun Mas dan Buto Ijo" ("Golden Cucumber and the Green Giant"), "Bawang Merah Bawang Putih" ("Red Onion and Garlic") and "Legenda Keong Mas" ("The Legend of the Golden Snail").

Other publishing houses have also made conscientious efforts to introduce folktales beyond the pages of a book.

For example, BIP has collaborated with television station RTV for its "Fun Story" program, which features young storytellers reciting their favorite folktales to a studio audience.

Cute Illustrations 

Windrati said one of the hardest parts in producing folktale books for children is getting the illustrations just right.

To put it simply, the illustrations can determine if a book will fly off the shelf or sit there gathering dust.

Just like traditional folktales from other countries, Indonesian folktales also have giants, dragons and monsters that are sometimes too horrifying for children.

One of them is Buto Ijo, the child-eating green giant in the Timun Mas story. Buto Ijo is definitely no Big Friendly Giant.

"Illustrating Indonesian folk stories is not an easy task, there are so many monsters and giants. We have many excellent children’s book illustrators, but many of them won't or can't do folktales," Windrati said.

An illustration from 'Asal Usul Selat Bali' ('The Origin of the Bali Strait'). (Photo courtesy of Erlangga for Kids/Muhammad Khaidir)

To find illustrators who can draw less menacing versions of local beasts, EFK is holding the "Illustrate a Story" contest for their folktale titles.

Pamela Suryadjaja, one of EFK's illustrators, said she has some tricks up her sleeve for illustrating Indonesian folktales, which have allowed her to make the monsters, giants and dragons look "cuter."

She said she draws simpler, less realistic and less detailed figures. She softens wrinkles and muscles. She also adjusts her color palette to be more colorful. Dull and dark colors are no go.

"Cute works," Pamela said.

An illustration from 'Asal Mula Telaga Wekaburi' ('The Origin of Wekaburi Lake'), a folktale from Papua. (Photo courtesy of Erlangga for Kids/Pamela Suryadjaja)

If all else fails, some publishers resort to bowdlerizing the stories to make them less dark, the same way children's book authors in the west have been cutting out the blood and horror from the Grimm brothers' fairy tales.

For example, in EFK's version of Bawang Merah Bawang Putih, the story ends with Bawang Merah receiving an empty pumpkin instead of a pumpkin filled with snakes like in the original story.

In Timun Mas, Buto Ijo is no longer a child-eating giant. He only desires to be Timun Mas's friend because he's lonely. Timun Mas in the end lets him be her friend after telling him to smile more often.

This version of Buto Ijo can definitely stand next to Roald Dahl's Big Friendly Giant on your bookshelf.