This is an inspiring success story. My son likes to read these books and my young tween friends are crazy about them too. Now if I can apply the same formula to English books…. But easier said than done. Ideas, anyone?
Casting a spell on children (The Star, 8 Nov 2009)
By Yip Yoke Teng
The success of the Harry Potter books has inspired school teacher and textbook writer Khor Ewe Pin to pen a series that has now become a bestseller in the local Chinese publishing industry.
THE local Chinese book industry is currently experiencing a Harry Potter phenomenon of sorts as young readers snap up new titles of a series as soon as they hit the shelf.
It seems the books have topped the charts compiled by the Chinese department of Popular Bookstores in 31 out of 36 weeks, outdoing those published by masterplayers China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Demand has been so hot for this local series that Popular Bookstores now takes up to 500 copies of its new releases, as opposed to its usual practice of ordering a maximum of 10 copies per title for each outlet.
The first batch ordered always exceeds 4,500 copies, and all will be sold within a month.
The fact that this is happening in a country where only 3% of regular readers prefer books, and where most readers prefer foreign materials, seems just surreal.
To date, the first book titled Seven Days has sold more than 30,000 copies since its release in 2006 – even at the relatively high price of RM20 per copy.
Khoo (right), Loh (left) and Tang are the main characters behind the success of Odonata’s best-selling series.
The success of the series has stunned everyone from writers and editors to publishers, all of whom thought books with 80,000 to 100,000 characters sprawled over 300 pages without illustrations would never get the attention of young readers.
So, what led to this craze and who is the wizard behind the phenomenon?
Well, it all began in a modest publishing house tucked away in Taman Len Sen, Cheras with former school teacher and textbook writer Khor Ewe Pin wielding the magic wand.
Khor, 54, who holds a zoology degree and a master’s degree in Education, was motivated to start writing books for children who, these days, would be categorised as tweenies.
“I was wondering what books there were for my children to read as they grew older,” says Khor who founded Odonata Publishing Sdn Bhd, which used to specialise in children’s magazines and learning references, 10 years ago.
Filling a literary void
The man, who speaks softly, slowly and is always with a smile, says he noticed that children would enter a literary void when they reached the age of nine. That’s when nursery rhymes and fairy tales no longer attract them, and they will gradually stop reading if they don’t have the right materials, he explains.
His youngest daughter was at that age, and it worried him, he adds.
“Children’s books from the West have a different set of values, while Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s are written in traditional Chinese. Those from China also use terms that our children have difficulty grasping.”
The thought bothered him for some years until he finally found the solution in the wake of the global Harry Potter phenomenon. “(J.K.) Rowling proved that children were actually voracious readers as long as the stories fascinated them,” says Khor.
“I studied her works and noticed that she used the conventional novel format, which was to have cliffhangers and climax.
“I thought, hey, I know how to do that, too,” recalls Khor, an award-winning writer known for his clean, down-to-earth writing style infused with a sense of humour.
He also observed another trick: the story must have elements that children are both familiar and unfamiliar with. The Harry Potter stories are set in a school where children go every day, but they learn wizardry, which ignites their fantasies.
So, Seven Days is about pupils, teachers and bus sekolah but the story brings the characters to a cave that is dark and alien.
The first to read the book was his youngest daughter and she is now his meanest critic. After first “approving” the story line, she then shared her father’s 30,000 characters-long work with her peers, whose passionate responses gave Khor more ideas to fine tune it.
It worked. The first book, and the subsequent releases, all became bestsellers. Other titles penned by Odonata’s chief editor, Tang Show Yin, also sold like hot cakes. A total of 14 titles are in the market now and are hotly talked about in schools and on online forums.
Parent Wang Mui Kim from Kuantan says her 12-year-old daughter, who was initially intimidated by the book’s dense text, is now always waiting for the publisher’s latest releases.
“She read only comics before this, but having read all the books from Odonata, she now looks out for other children’s books and shares them with her friends,” Wang says.
Chia Ah Chai, a retired headmaster of a primary school in Kuala Lumpur, says Odonata’s books have succeeded in inculcating the reading habit among his pupils.
“They were hooked and even used their pocket money to buy the books. I think that’s because they can relate to the stories,” he says.
Secondary school teacher Kee Yen Ling says she has noticed the same thing happening among her students.
“Even pupils who do not like reading are scrambling for the books. They do not mind paying extra to buy them at bookstores to be the first to know the stories. That really shocked me,” she says, adding that her order for 100 copies of every title was snapped up in the first week.
Talks, autograph sessions and write-ups in newspapers arranged by Khor’s business partner, Loh Chong Yong, also helped to promote the books.
Instead of propelling Khor to cloud nine, the wild demand for the books has filled him with a heavy sense of obligation.
“There are suddenly so many things to do now, right before my planned retirement,” he says, flashing his affable smile.
One of these challenges is to create a new series that would meet the needs of readers who would soon outgrow the current books.
He also hopes to train new writers and help those who are struggling in their career.
“So far, there are no Chinese writers in Malaysia who live on full-time writing,” Khor says.
“We’ve always hoped to improve the situation. We train new writers, pay them royalty and propel them towards international exposure.”
The good news is, Odonata’s works have captured the interest of Chinese publishing houses who are buying their copyright. This would open up more opportunities for local writers to tap into the RM1.3bil market.
A writing competition for children’s stories will be their opportunity to show off their skills. The competition organised by Odonata is offering RM30,000 as first prize, the highest so far in local Chinese literature.
Fantasies with a message appeal to young readers
SO what are the stories and characters that are sweeping so many children off their feet?
Unlike Harry Potter, the books narrate the encounters of different characters.
The most popular title, October, is about how a child named Xu Ruo Xuan copes with the death of his adopted mother who loved him selflessly. It is a tear-jerker that touches hearts, and it also tackles several Chinese taboo subjects.
Xu is the only character whose adventure straddles two titles in this sci-fi series. A gung-ho type, he wants to be a little hero but always fails in his bids. One day, he goes on a quest to find his aged parent who was frozen for 47 years. He wakes up to a drastically different world where there are no birds at all – culled to end bird flu – and the environment is being abused.
It takes skill to teach children about parental love and environmental conservation, and more to develop the habit of reading these topics. One must use only the words children can comprehend, and there must not be any hint of violence and romance, yet the 100,000character-story has to keep them riveted till the end. Many editors have said this is impossible but for Khor, unwavering dedication has made it happen.
Khor humbly attributes his success to his previous working experiences where he learned how to interact with children and educate them effectively.
“I hope children can learn about empathy as they relate with the characters in the books. Aside from that, I hope they learn about reasoning, which is lacking in many among us,” he says.
Seven titles have been released this year and another 10 or more will be coming up in 2010, including a book penned by him and his youngest daughter who is 14 years old.
“We are happy because the children are happy,” Khor says.
In the near future, he hopes to leave the marketing and expansion aspects of the business to Loh so that he can concentrate on writing.