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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Kampung Boy

written and illustrated by Lat

The author-illustrator of this title has long been a cause célèbre in Southeast Asia; Kampung Boy, his memoir of his youth in a small Malaysian village, was first published there in 1979, and while it's been imported to a multitude of countries since then, its appearance in this edition marks Lat's first American publication. It's been worth the wait: this is a lively and engrossing tale of an everyday life vastly different from those most American kids experience.

Lat grows up in a cool and airy house on stilts in a rural area of Western Malaysia’s Kinta Valley, the world's most productive tin-mining region. Here rubber smallholdings provide income for family members, grownups whiz around importantly on bicycles (brand names as lovingly treasured as the names of car models) while the only train is a blur that "never stopped at our kampung," and students pay the schoolteacher with whatever they have to offer (some give him fifty cents or a dollar, others give him a plate of rice or sugar, some provide him with firewood they’ve picked up on their way to class). The village follows Indonesian and Muslim tradition: Lat's birth (at which his grandmother was midwife, recompensed with a roast chicken, a plate of yellow rice, and a batik sarong) is followed by his ritual hair-shaving ceremony on the forty-fifth day (which involves what looks to be a very lulling rocking in a hammock), and he resignedly undergoes circumcision at the age of nine. The first-person narration, appearing in a font emulating hand lettering, has an easygoing, comradely tone, and it's filled with understated affection for family, neighbors, and village life. Lat's a master at making the story itself involving even as he weaves it into a visually dependent narrative, so it's interesting to hear about his mother stuffing him with porridge even as the art shows a spikyhaired baby spitting the food back out with a decisive "ptooi!" Context clarifies many unfamiliar elements—even if kids don't know exactly what a tin dredge is, they'll understand huge local machinery that seems monstrous to little kids—and the story has a warm assumption of insider status and an emphasis on universally understandable experiences (horsing around with friends, evading authority) that makes it a more intimately involving tale than those that carefully explain their daily realities to distant readers.

The black-and-white pen-and-ink illustrations are, if you'll pardon the pun, the real draw: though the format isn't graphic-novel-styled panels, the singlepage scenes vividly and comedically portray Lat's life. The kampung is a cheerful place of people hanging out in the tea stalls or checking out passersby from the open doorways of their stilt-legged houses, and the occasional caption helps identify key people or elements; a compact tree stump with a wild thatch of dark hair, young Lat is often exaggeratedly dwarfed by a confusing adult world or followed by motion lines as he darts through the countryside (sometimes happily butt naked).

The district apparently has changed considerably since Lat's youth; like Robert Peck's or Gary Paulsen's tales of youthful rural hijinks, this book describes a life that is all the more attractive for its disappearance. And as in so many idylls of country innocence, the protagonist himself must leave this world behind, in this case in a mixture of excitement and regret as he departs for boarding school with his grandmother's words ringing in his ears: "Be humble because we are humble people. Always remember God and don’t forget about us back here in the kampung."
The book’s audience not only won't forget, they'll wish for more (perhaps the second installment of his autobiography, Town Boy, will arrive on these shores soon). This companionable chronicle achieves that rare thing in an international title: making readers feel like they're hanging out with a friend halfway around the world.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

 

Big Picture Image

Cover image by Lat from Kampung Boy ©2006. Used by permission of First Second/Roaring Brook Press.


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This page was last updated on January 1, 2007.

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