I had the honour of designing characters and creating illustrations for MYReaders, a nonprofit initiative that aims to empower children through communities by providing structured and sustainable reading programmes. They were putting together a complete set of literacy readers and materials to complement their programmes; this meant over 45 books that would feature Malaysian characters in an authentic Malaysian setting.
Having diverse representation in literature and media is something dear to my heart as an illustrator and former teacher, so this project was particularly special. I'd also previously worked with many of the team members during our days under the same teaching programme, Teach for Malaysia.
We first put together a line-up of the main characters in the books:
Sara and Friends
The cast of characters are teens who live in Bandar Perpaduan, a town modelled after various Malaysian places including the UNESCO World Heritage Site, George Town.
For each character, the writers provided details and a little backstory. We wanted them to look like regular Malaysian children you'd find hanging out in the housing estates or stopping by the sundry store for sweets. It was also important that their skintones were varied and not unrealistically fair. The designs were tweaked after feedback from students, parents, and teachers. They were referred to by illustrators working on this project, including selected secondary school students.
Pat the Tapir
Pat is present in both the Decodables and Comprehension books as a soft toy tapir who changes into a more active animal form at will; he's Sara's imaginary friend. Pat ages up as Sara and the other characters do.
After that, I provided illustrations for 15 of the Comprehension books, approximately 120 images in total.
These selected illustrations are taken from the following books:
Book 5 (The Night Walk): during a school camp in the jungle, the teens go on a night walk. Armed with a flashlight, they have to overcome their fears to go through a portion of the walk alone.
Book 8 (An Unfamiliar Neighbourhood): the friends wander into a different part of town as evening falls. It's full of run-down houses, the sidewalks are littered with garbage, and, as she peeks into one of the residences, Sara discovers that whoever lives there sleeps on an old mattress on the ground.
Book 12 (Gotong-Royong at Bandar Perpaduan): gotong-royong is a Malaysian concept, denoting a communal coming-together and effort. In this book, the children rally the townspeople to help clean up the area in which Zee lives. Everyone pitches in to varying degrees, from donating items to running a food sale to clearing the drains, fixing rattan furniture, and repainting the houses.
If you're interested in purchasing a set of the books or donating them to schools in need, get in touch with MYReaders.