Linda Lingard with a selection of the colourful children’s picture books.
There’s one thing about Malaysia that not many Malaysians know.
It is that Malaysia has many immensely talented book illustrators who can easily rival international artists, but many of them remain known only in their circles.
Now, however, thanks to Oyez! Books, some of them have gained recognition in Malaysia, and even sold their work abroad to international publishers.
Oyez! Books is a Malaysian publisher of children’s books, founded by Linda Tan Lingard in 2006 to give vent to her passion for children’s books. It focuses on books for children, from infants up to those aged around 14 to 15.
It specialises in uniquely Malaysia picture books with beautiful illustrations of life in this country.
Its range of children’s picture books, now numbering almost 100, are impressively beautiful, as well as unique in showcasing the stories and fairy tales of Malaysia.
As importantly, many of the books are stories from Borneo Malaysia, telling about the unique way of life in this far-flung part of the country. The Bornean illustrators give a unique touch to the stories, with their own particular style of drawing.
Lingard said she had always loved books, and often buried herself in books while growing up. Later, armed with a degree in Economics and an MBA, she pursued this love through publishing and design while living abroad.
She continued to work in publishing after she and her late husband returned to Malaysia.
In 2006, she took the leap of faith to open her own children’s books store in the Bangsar Puteri condo, and to become a publisher on her own.
She did that as she realised that there was a huge vacuum in this space because the market was dominated by Western books with Western stories and pictures.
Malaysian stories were hardly being told, and rarely with a focus on illustrations.
“I realised that we have so much talent here, and that there is a niche for us to tell our own stories. We are so careless with our own heritage, and leave other people to record for us or just to let them go by,” she said. “We want to do a small part to bring these stories out.”
One of the most popular books was the ‘Legendary Princesses of Malaysia’ depicting stories of real historical and mythical Malaysian princesses, illustrated by artist Emila Yusof. As princesses such as Puteri Saadong are stories that are still unknown to many Malaysians, their stories and the beautiful drawings immediately sparked imagination.
Lingard recalled how a mother had told her about her two young daughters squabbling over which Malaysian princess was the best. She was chuffed as many Malaysian children tend to only know the Disney princesses, rather than stories from their own backyards.
“Our princesses are warriors who save their communities. They don’t sleep, and wait to be awakened by a prince,” said Lingard.
She noted that many Malaysian parents are happy to find these local books with local folktales and local illustrators, to expand their children’s horizons from an almost exclusive diet of Western books.
“People often tell us that they are very happy to have good Malaysian books, and they look out for them,” she said.
Having found some success with Oyez! Books, she later set up a talent agency with famed artist Yusof Gajah. The agency, Yusof Gajah Lingard Literary Agency, represents authors and illustrators, and have helped sell their work and translation rights abroad.
Oyez! Books has now expanded beyond its small shop in the Bangsar condo, and also sells its books at the popular independent Silverfish bookstore as well as in bigger shops like Kinokuniya and MPH. Its online sales at www.oyezbookstore.com is doing well, Lingard said.
But still, she said it’s hard going because Malaysian books are still not well known, and the market can be price-sensitive especially for Malay-language books. At the moment, most of their books are in English with some published in Malay.
The market, she said, is small because it’s heavily fragmented into different language groups, with picture books selling well mostly in urban areas as they are expensive at over RM20 each.
However, she said picture books are, by their nature, expensive because every page has to be printed in colour on high-quality paper.
“The market is still at an early stage, and it will take time to grow,” she said. “Picture books are a good introduction to reading for children, and it’s a good way for parents to help their children to learn to love stories and reading.”