This is a collection of ten illustrated stories about Malaysian princesses – both mythical princesses who live in the clouds, on mountain peaks or under the sea, and real historical figures.
Covers count! Yes, they really do make a difference, both to potential buyers browsing in a bookshop and those, like myself, who are searching for titles online. A great cover grabs your attention and hints at what lies inside; it persuades you to pick up the book or zoom in to examine it in more detail … and then decide whether you want to buy. The cover of Legendary Princesses of Malaysia is exquisite. A beautiful female figure on horseback clad in brilliant yellow silk, with dark flowing locks and large brown eyes, set against an intricately-patterned blue background. I zoomed in, I bought, and I’m very glad I did.
For starters, the illustrations are stunning throughout this picture book. Each princess – and there are eleven in the book – is given a double spread (one features two sisters), with text on one side and a full-page illustration on the other. Emila Yusof creates a unique showcase for each princess with beautiful fabrics in myriad colours and designs, and a variety of ornate textile-inspired backdrops. My daughters already have their favourites! I also noticed that each illustration features a nod to the story being told. Princess Saadong from the book’s cover is an accomplished equestrian, hence why she is depicted on horseback. Princess Santubong, a skilled weaver, holds a length of cloth, while her sister, who could produce the finest white rice, is shown with a threshing bucket and stick.
The book’s concept intrigued me – I knew nothing about the legendary princesses of Malaysia and was eager to find out more. And Raman’s beautifully researched and written prose does not disappoint. Some of the stories are mythical, featuring princesses who live in the clouds, on mountain peaks or under the sea, while others are inspired by real historical figures from various centuries. We learn about Princess Ulek Mayang a princess of the sea who saved a young fisherman from her sisters, and the 16th-century warrior princess, Cik Siti Wan Kembang, an expert sword-fighter and skilled equestrian who became queen at the age of 25.
Raman’s style reminded me of the fairy tales I read (or was read) as a child: formal, elegant but largely accessible prose. The opening to the first story sets the tone for the rest of the book:
“During the reign of Sultan Mansur Shah of Melaka, there lived, in a magical palace at the peak of Mount Ledang.”
Complex words, such as “emissary” and “rebuffed”, do crop up here and there, although handy footnotes are provided for some of the trickier terms. I think the language is a good match for the subject matter; it transported me back to another place and time, of princesses and sultans, palaces and duels.
I particularly like the way Raman links some of the historical stories and legends to the current day – to places and events that Malaysian readers, especially, are likely to recognise and understand. We learn that the Ulek Mayang dances are to remember the day a princess of the sea helped the people of Terengganu; we also discover the tragedy of the two princesses that lies behind the unique shape of Mount Santubong, and the islands of Kera, Satang and Talang-talang. The stories are peppered with references to other locations, kings, queens, warriors and sultans.
The content of this picture book – both text and illustrations – is inextricably linked to Malaysian culture, to the princesses who are part of the country’s heritage. It brings the princesses of Malaysia to life in short instalments that can be enjoyed in one sitting by readers of all ages. I think Legendary Princesses of Malaysia will be particularly treasured by those who understand the full context of each story, but it provides a fascinating window into Malaysian myths and history for all readers.
Legendary Princesses of Malaysia by Raman, illustrated by Emila Yusof (Oyez!Books, 2013)
Raman is the founder of Silverfish Books, a bookstore, publisher and education centre in Kuala Lumpur with a focus on Malaysian writing in English. He is also a grandfather who enjoys making up stories for his two granddaughters.
Emila Yusof is an award-winning illustrator, children’s book author and wannabe poet. She loves art and travel and writes about both on her blog. She lives in Kuala Lumpur with her husband, son and a cat.