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 children’s books with a local twist, Gwen shares her favourite Singaporean books for everyone from 3 to 100.
To find Gwen’s books and some of those recommended below, visit Singapore-based publisher Epigram Books. Epigram ships both locally and internationally.
29 July 2020 / By Gwen Lee
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.
Little Godwit hatches late and learns that his flock has left to escape the cold Arctic. Little Godwit wonders if he should join other flocks or keep flying. But can he find his way? Join Little Godwit as he embarks on an epic journey across the world in this uplifting story about discovering one’s strengths.
Luke is a little different from other boys his age. His best friend is his Grandma. They would do everything together but things changed after Grandma’s fall. Edmund Lim tells a poignant story of how one boy copes with losing his beloved Grandma to Alzheimer’s disease only to discover something more powerful.
Rosie’s family, well, actually her mother, has decided to move everyone from New York City to Singapore! She will have to leave all her friends, her school, her home, to travel thousands of miles away to a place where she knows no one. While Mom rediscovers her culinary roots, Dad tries to get by, and her little brother finds different ways to annoy her, Rosie sets off to make sense of her brand-new life in an unfamiliar country.
Filled with historical trivia and fun facts, this fiction series is about a children’s organization in Singapore called the Lion City Adventuring Club that is over 100 years old. Help LCAC members solve an epic story puzzle based on eight local legends, including Sang Nila Utama; Badang the Great; Radin Mas Ayu; the magical turtle of Kusu Island, and more.
The Little Singapore Book is a fresh take on the story of Singapore and its people, from the old kingdom of Temasek to the present day. Packed with beautiful illustrations, it introduces young readers to our history and culture through vibrant narrative and fascinating details.
While digging around their school’s backyard in search of an urban legend, Patsy Goh and her best friend Elena are whisked back in time to 1987. Trapped in their mums’ 13-year-old bodies, the duo race against the clock to hunt down the magical time crystal that got them in this mess, before the evil Midnight Warriors find it and cause a time crisis that could destroy all of existence. Mount Emily is the first in a series of four novels about friendship and time travel set in Singapore. The series has won the Singapore Book Awards and been shortlisted for the Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award and the Popular Readers’ Choice Awards.
COVID-19 seizes the world in 2020. From the likes of the plague, the Spanish Flu and SARS, invisible enemies have changed our lives, bringing death and widespread fear. Yet, knowledge and the scientific quest for answers ― along with a dogged sense of resilience―are our best weapons in the epic battle against pandemics. Former TV journalist Hwee Goh and historian/artist David Liew collaborate on a well-researched, fun book on key milestones of the pandemics that have shaped our world.
Is there a generation of Singaporeans that has not read this classic? As Singapore’s answer to Pride and Prejudice, The Teenage Textbook has spawned many a memorable characters from Lee Mui Ee the Ice Cream Girl; Tom D’Cruz the Dashing Athletic Hero; Sissy Song the Princess of PJC; and Loo Kok Sean—aspiring college Casanova.
Ping, the daughter of Chinatown’s Pipa Queen, loves Weng, the voice of the people, but family circumstances drive them apart. Ping is forced to leave suddenly for the USA, where she creates a different life for herself. Many years later, Ping returns to a country transformed by prosperity. Can Ping face her former lover and reveal the secret that has separated them for over 30 years? This beautiful exploration of identity, love and loss, set against our country’s historical changes is one of the best works by one of Singapore’s most distinguished writers.
These fifteen tales by Hong Kong-based Koh Morollo offer glimpses into how we live without the things we want, need, or think we ought to have. Through the eyes of characters from across the world, Without brings you into lives where contentment is just out of reach.
A mysterious terrorising force hounding a group of schoolgirls at a campfire; a couple trying to conceive in a post-apocalyptic world; a Christ-like figure raising the dead in the heartlands. Strange and suspenseful, these stories offer a whole other world of voices, plot, and imagery that opens up new terrain in what is possible and imaginable. With wit, sensitivity and dexterity, O’s characters slip from their ever-present reality into the surreal and unknown, and find their hungers, desires and pains coming fully awake, thrumming with exultant life.
In Yeo Wei Wei’s debut collection, secret obsessions and regrets are revealed through vivid and haunting motifs—a mynah singing a Beatles song, an ivory carving, a homesick ghost in a yellow umbrella. These Foolish Things & Other Stories explores identity, the nature of art, and being human in carefully composed, deeply felt prose.
Set in a Singaporean housing estate, Gone Case is a moving yet unsentimental coming-of-age story. Yong, a 12-year-old boy has to deal with the dreaded PSLE exams while his family undergoes an upheaval. His friendship with his childhood friend Liang also undergoes strain as the exams approach. The novel, now adapted into a graphic novel by award-winning artist Koh Hong Teng, won a commendation award in the Singapore Literature Prize in 1996 and is regarded as an essential work of Singapore Literature.
In 1971, a teenage girl briefly disappears from her house in the middle of the night, only to return a different person, causing fissures that threaten to fracture her Punjabi Sikh family. As Singapore’s political and social landscapes evolve, the family must cope with shifting attitudes toward caste, youth culture, sex and gender roles, identity and belonging. Inheritance examines each family member’s struggles to either preserve or buck tradition in the face of an ever-changing nation.
About Gwen Lee
Gwen Lee is the author of several children’s books such as Elizabeth Meets the Queen, There 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 www.gwen-lee.com 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.
You can also click here to watch and sing along to Pat-a-kueh (sung to the tune of Pat-a-cake) and Kueh Tutu (sung to the tune of Hot Cross Buns)! Grab the family and enjoy this storytelling session!