The Sister Lim

03 April 2017

Get to know local children’s book illustrator Lim Lay Koon, whose distinctly Malaysian stories serve to educate young readers.

“I started out illustrating thanks to a contest.”

Once upon a time, Lim Lay Koon was a computer science graduate who made IT her entire career. However, one day in 2012, Lay Koon and her sister Lay Har (a trained chemist) decided to participate in a children’s book competition.

“We had no experience! We were just sitting at the kitchen and my sister Lay Har said, why not we give it a try. So we did,” laughs Lay Koon. And like something straight out of a fairy tale, the story of Atuk’s Amazing Sarong, written by Lay Har and illustrated by Lay Koon, won consolation prize. The story tells the tale of Atuk who couldn’t find his sarong, and his youngest grandson Adik who used it to do all sorts of amazing things – like become superman and build a tent.

At the same time, The Sisters Lim as they call themselves – deriving from The Brothers Grimm – again put on their writing and illustrating capes to participate in the Calistro Award. The resulting book, Master & Apprentice went on to win first prize. “That was really surprising!” says Lay Koon with a wide grin. “The last time I drew was in art class in form five. That’s how I picked up drawing again.”

The competitions (and her publisher Oyez! Books) began opening doors for creative opportunities for Lay Koon. Six years, three awards, and 13 books later, Lay Koon has become a full-time children’s book illustrator. “I keep strict office hours. I need that discipline in my life. I had to convince my mum that I’m still working!”

According to Lay Koon, it takes her a few weeks to complete the illustrations for a book. “When there’s a new book, I try to understand the story and its objective. Then I try to picture the characters in real life. Is this a fat person or a thin person? Is he funny or serious?”

A page from Menagerie – Fun with Animal Groups, written and illustrated by Lay Koon.

The self-taught illustrator also works with all types of mediums, as showcased by the books she’s illustrated: charcoal sketches for Master & Apprentice, oil pastels for Atuk’s Amazing Sarong, delicate watercolours for the Borneo Animals series by Beverly Hon, and a beautiful combination of gouache, digital, watercolour and colour pencil for Menagerie – Fun with Animal Groups which was written and illustrated by Lay Koon herself.

On getting children interested in reading, Lay Koon believes that Kuala Lumpur’s reading scene for children is improving. “Now that children are so engrossed in their digital devices, parents are actually trying to get their kids to read more. But I think you can’t put the book in the kid’s lap and expect them to start reading straightaway,” says Lay Koon thoughtfully. “Parents have to be more involved. Start by reading together, reading to them and involving them in the activity.”

Helping to cultivate reading among children is Children’s Book Week, an annual celebration of children’s books and reading. The Malaysian leg, now in its sixth year, is co-organised by Silverfish Books and Oyez! Books. Through various activities such as live storytelling, writing, and arts and crafts for children, Children’s Book Week not only highlights local children’s book authors and illustrators, but also allows parents and their kids to interact with them.

Lay Koon, who’s a regular feature at Children’s Book Week, recommends that parents give away books that their children have outgrown so other children can discover the joy of reading. “That’s how I discovered books as a child. My sister-in-law had a lot of books around, too.” Lay Koon’s list of recommended authors includes Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, Emila Yusof and Yusof Gajah.

Although Lay Koon grew up on a steady diet of English books, her stories and projects have a distinctly Malaysian focus to them. “I’m currently working on a story about Chickaboo, the runaway ostrich on the Federal Highway that went viral last year. I’m collaborating with my friend [and children’s book author] Heidi Shamsuddin on that. The book will be out in a couple of months.”

Malaysian wildlife conservation and awareness is also a concern for the illustrator. Apart from her book Pip’s Peculiar Problem – about a pangolin who was unable to curl into a ball – she’s also recently launched a new series called Borneo Animals by Beverly Hon. “It’s about lesser known Bornean animals such as the binturong [bear cat], loris and tapir. So many adults and children looked at me blankly when I tried to tell them about the pangolin,” says Lay Koon.

“I hope that through these books, more children can know about the beautiful animals we have in Malaysia.”  

Lim Lay Koon’s books are available at Silverfish Books and Books Kinokuniya.

By John Kang 

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