Once upon a time, folk tales like Bawang Putih Bawang Merah, Pak Pandir and Si Tanggang were the stuff of everyday life for children who would gather around storytellers or read them for themselves at the local library.
They would whistle the tune of songs like Rasa Sayang, Chan Mali Chan and Ikan Kekek, or drift off to sleep with these one-time favourites sung to them as lullabies.
There was a time when bookstores were flooded with children’s books, each volume opening the door to another world filled with fantasy and wonder.
Now, though, such tales are scarcely to be found. Television slots once reserved for storytelling sessions have been taken over by advertisements for online shopping, and the old songs are either forgotten or changed nearly beyond recognition to fit the hip new trends favoured by the modern youth.
Bookstores no longer promote children’s books, and parents are less inclined to buy them anyway or to tell their children the same stories they were told so many years ago.
While it may be tempting to blame digitalisation for the drop in interest, many children’s books are in fact available in e-format, making them even easier to access.
Nursyuhaidah A Razak, a writer and activist at local literature movement Gerak Malaysia, said national laureates could play a major role in reigniting interest in children’s books.
“The role of literature is to educate and enlighten the people,” she said.
“In the context of children’s literature, larger themes like anti-corruption and even political awareness can be woven into stories.”
But whether writers are ready to bridge the gap by doing so is another question, she added.
Across the world, stories for children form an established branch of literature, with books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland and the Harry Potter series familiar household names.
With translations of these and other childhood staples now readily available in many countries, access to such books is no longer constrained to a purely English readership.
And in a world where borders make little difference to technology and digitalisation, perhaps translation holds the key to keeping children’s literature alive and well.
Kiridaren Jayakumar, founder of publishing house The Biblio Press, said his decision to set up a subsidiary devoted to children’s books was based on his own love of the genre as a child.
At that time, he said, the development of literature for children including translations from abroad was in full swing.
“Books like this gave me a love for the Malay language and of reading,” he told MalaysiaNow.
“Harry Potter aside, there were the books published by Oxford Fajar, and they also did books about the stories and tales of long ago.
“Why should literature be something just for adults?”
Biblio Kids is currently at the final stage of publishing some of the tales and legends of heroes from the Islamic tradition.
Biblio Press itself recently translated The Little Prince, a short novel by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, into the Malay language.
While business was initially slow for the company, things are now picking up.
Kiridaren said several new titles are also expected to hit the market this year as a result of collaboration with local writers.
“I personally feel that these books that have lasted throughout the years and the decades are very important for children to read,” he said.
But he also fears that Malaysia’s literature scene for children is lagging far behind that of neighbouring countries like Indonesia.
“If there are no books for them to read, we cannot blame them for turning to gadgets all the time,” he added.