KUALA LUMPUR: Do you know the name Nora Hamerton? She was a British children’s book illustrator who lived in Klang in the 1930s.
Did you know that Raja Zarith Sofiah Almarhum Sultan Idris Shah, the permaisuri of Johor, authored and illustrated several books for kids?
Step into the “Malaysia Children’s Picture Books 1930s to 2000s” exhibition at the Museum of Picture Book Art in GMBB, Kuala Lumpur, and discover the hidden world of picture books in Malaysia.
With nearly 100 books on display, the exhibition, which runs until the end of the month, promises to take visitors on a mesmerising journey through time through its remarkable collection of picture books.
Linda Tan Lingard, the museum’s founder and managing director, told FMT Lifestyle that this exhibition came about earlier than they’d planned.
“Since we started the museum in 2021, we have been collecting old books – some purchased from antiquarians, some donated,” she said.
“The plan was to showcase our vast collection in an exhibition after enough writing and research had been done. But we thought if we waited until we had everything in order, it might take a very long time.
“So we decided to have this exhibition to gauge public interest, and the response has been great so far.”
Lingard – who also runs Oyez!Books, a publishing company that specialises in children’s titles – said picture books may not have high priority in the literary world, but many children start their reading journey through them.
“So there is great significance to such works, and people are intrigued by the older works,” she noted.
So, what can visitors to the exhibition expect? From Jaafar Taib’s “Sang Kancil” series and Drs M Noeh Al Hudawi’s folk tales, to books illustrated by Emila Yusof and Nor Azhar Ishak – the well-curated collection will keep you entertained and enlightened.
Through their beautiful illustrations, these vintage picture books, some with tattered covers and yellowed pages, offer visitors a glimpse into Malaya and how people lived and dressed back then.
Among the highlights are the works of British artist Nora Hamerton, who married her estate manager husband at the St Barnabas Church in Klang and continued living there.
She illustrated “Paddylands” by Grace Garnier in 1936 and “Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes” by A W Hamiltion in 1939, which Lingard purchased for US$500 from an antiquarian.
Hamerton depicted realistic scenes of the Malayan countryside and its people before World War II, such as children running to school without shoes while clutching a small blackboard under their arms, or women going to the market.
“We are in the process of preparing a monograph on Nora,” Lingard revealed. “We’ve been doing a fair bit of research and have found some interesting details about her. For instance, her father was a vicar in Kent (in southeastern England) and she once held an art exhibition in Penang.”
Besides Hamerton’s beautiful illustrations, the “Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes” comes with a rich history of its own. Hamilton, a British policeman based in Malaya, undertook the incredible task of translating close to 100 English children’s rhymes into Malay.
What makes his translation truly exceptional is the contextualisation of familiar rhymes by giving them his own local spin. For example, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” became “Mariam Ada Kambing Kecil”, while “Hot Cross Buns” reads as “Roti Manis Hangat”.
In addition, the exhibition sheds light on the history and growth of picture books in the country by showcasing more recent publications.
As Lingard – who is the president of the Malaysian Children’s Book Association – explained, organisations such as the United Nations encouraged Malaysian authors and illustrators to partner with local libraries to produce more work, some of which were brought to overseas markets.
The late illustrator Yusof Gajah (“The Real Elephant”) and author-artist Shukri Edrus (“The Magic Bamboo”) were products of the ecosystem brought about by the likes of Unesco to develop the scene, she pointed out.
And she believes exhibitions such as this also have an important part to play.
“When young writers and illustrators look at these older books, they are inspired by the beauty of the illustrations and are more driven to create amazing works.
“We tell them that they are part of a wonderful tradition, and their legacy will live on in years to come. Picture books, after all, are a window to the times they were first published,” Lingard concluded.
‘Malaysia Children’s Picture Books 1930s to 2000s’ runs until Sept 30.
Museum of Picture Book Art
2, Jalan Robertson,
Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
Business hours: 10.30am-8pm daily