Keeping Local Literature Alive: Children’s Books Author Gwen Lee Shares Her Reading List

Singaporean author Gwen Lee shares about her experience growing up in Singapore, and how she wondered why there were no HDBs in storybooks. Now based in the USA and as a writer of childrens' books with a local twist, Gwen shares her favourite Singaporean e-books for kids as young as 3, to adults.

By Gwen Lee | 29 July 2020

Gwen performing at a book reading organized by the Singapore Global Network (formerly Overseas Singaporean Unit) in California, USA . (Photo courtesy of Stanley Leong.)

Like many in my generation, I grew up on a diet of English books written by Western authors like Enid Blyton and Judy Blume. Although I loved those books, I could not relate to them personally. Why weren’t there any books about HDB flats? I thought. Or tropical storms, satay by the beach, and humid afternoons fishing for guppies in the drains? Literature felt like something unsustainable in our tropical climate. Like strawberries and snowflakes.

Thankfully, things have improved dramatically. With support from the National Arts Council (NAC), more publishers began printing books by Singaporean authors and illustrators in the last decade. I was one of those lucky ones to get my first break through NAC’s Beyond Words contest. As a result of winning that contest, I got to publish my first children’s picture book Little Cloud Wants Snow! The early years of book promotion wasn’t easy. I found myself lugging cartons of books into taxis, headed for preschools and libraries for book readings, only to sell a few copies each time. Sometimes, I had to stop passers-by from grabbing copies of what they presumed were “free” books! Slowly, things started to pick up. Little Cloud Wants Snow! was selected as a recommended book for the Read! Singapore Festival, and was later translated to Korean and Mandarin. In the USA, a Texan school district introduced it to thousands of schoolchildren to educate them about weather science.

Research has shown that children read better when they have access to culturally relatable books. In 2014, seeing a dearth of picture books for very young readers, I hit on the idea to modernise nursery rhymes for Singaporeans kids. Consisting of two volumes (There Was a Peranakan Woman Who Lived in a Shoe and Jack and Jill at Bukit Timah Hill), the Singaporean Nursery Rhymes series featured a collection of humorous rhymes that Singaporeans of all ages could enjoy and relate to. For example, the rhyme Pat-a-Kueh (sung to the tune of Pat-a-Cake) was inspired by my love of nonya kueh, while Little Boy Imran referenced Ramadan and the festivities of our beloved pasar malam. There were others that captured my childhood memories of growing up in a kampong.

Reading a book from Singapore has always made me feel more connected to home. I am glad that there are now so many more good titles for me to choose from. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into the local publishing scene. Bookstores and publishers have been hit hard. The circuit breaker and other restrictions have also affected the ability of authors to market their books. Book launches have been delayed and school visits cancelled. And it could only get worse. If bookstores and publishers shut down, the remaining ones would be reluctant to invest in new titles and reprint old ones. As Olivia Ho of The Straits Times wrote, “We need books. And the people who bring us books need us. This is the time to rally around local and independent bookstores and publishers, who were already beleaguered before Covid-19 came along and have not the deep pockets of corporations such as Amazon to outlast a long shutdown.”

We need your help to support our fragile publishing ecosystem so that it stays alive in this difficult time. To ensure that Singaporean literature continues to thrive in the coming decades, please consider buying a few local titles this year. Remember, every book you purchase is a lifeline to our publishers and an encouragement for us authors to keep on writing!

If you are wondering where to start, check out some of my favourite books, categorized by age groups below. Most titles can be shipped overseas or downloaded as ebooks.

AGES 3-8

AGES 9-18


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About Gwen Lee

Gwen Lee is the author of several children’s books such as Elizabeth Meets the QueenThere Was a Peranakan Woman Who Lived in a Shoe and Little Cloud Wants Snow! Based in the USA, she teaches creative writing online to children as young as nine. Find out more at or at the Society of Young Inklings. Her latest bilingual picture book for Chinese learners, I say “Good morning!” You say “早上好!” is available now on Amazon.

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