Hafiz and the Raya Recipes CoverThis book is written in rhyme and I wonder why. It also has a baffling plot choice.

  • Title: Hafiz and the Raya Recipes
  • Author: Debra Ann Francisco
  • Illustrator: Madeline Wee
  • Reading level: From 4 years (my estimation)
  • Date published: September, 2018
  • Publisher: Straits Times Press
  • Country: Singapore
  • Country printed in: Singapore
  • Eco-friendly printing: None specified

This book is part of a series of five, written by the same author, that focuses on Singapore’s food heritage of different ethnic groups – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Peranakan and Eurasian. The series is targeted at the local reader. In a press interview, the author Debra Ann Francisco said the books were “sparked by the worry that the next generation of kids will grow up preferring burgers and fries to the dishes of their own culture.”

Of the five books, I chose Hafiz and the Raya Recipes for two reasons: as a Malay myself I am most familiar with the Malay food heritage, and this book stands out as it’s the only one written in rhyme.

1. DOESN’T SCAN ALL TOO WELL

A lot of editors will tell authors not to write rhyme unless they can really pull it off. Bad children’s rhythm and rhyme is off-putting. Franciso’s rhyme isn’t terribly exciting, it isn’t terribly fun and doesn’t introduce any unexpected elements, but it gets the job done.

I wonder why she chose to write this book in rhyme. She wrote the other four in prose. Sadly, not all of the rhyme in this book is smooth-sailing. I read the following again and again trying to fit in the rhyme:

“Nenek opened the battered old bag

and much to Hafiz’s happiness,

he found sheets of handwritten recipes

beneath old books and a pink lace dress.”

2. INTRODUCING CULTURAL SPECIFICITIES

It’s always a challenge writing cultural specificities in a language foreign to them. In this instance, Francisco gives definitions of most of the Malay words as footnotes (the footnoting also breaks up the straight-through reading of the rhyming text) and explains the food dishes with Malay names as part of the main page. However, she does not break down some other non-English words, such as “Hari Raya”.

“Hari Raya” is the local Malay equivalent of the Arabic “Eid”, referring to the festival at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan as well as at the end of the Haj; the former is Hari Raya Aidilfitri and the latter Hari Raya Aidiladha. Francisco takes for granted the reader is familiar with “Hari Raya” and the concept of fasting and Ramadan, not providing footnotes,  explanations or introductions for them.

I don’t quite understand the rationale for footnoting “Kakak”, “Abang”, “Nenek” and “Kueh” and completely leaving out “Hari Raya” and what fasting or what “breaking fast” means.

Francisco is publicised as not just an author but a former long-time school teacher so I’m assuming that we’re expected to trust her level of competence communicating with local young readers.

The book will not travel well; a non-local or non-Malay-speaker would not understand what Hari Raya, or simply “Raya” means. I’ve seen this with non-Arabic, non-Muslim friends in London and Dubai who are familiar with Eid but who have never heard of “Hari Raya”.

3. ODD CHOICE

In the story, Hafiz, his two older siblings and their grandmother are left to their own devices to celebrate Hari Raya as the mother and father had to attend to an accident to do with their business abroad.

Hari Raya for the local Singapore Malay is a big deal and for the parents, this is like missing Christmas. It baffles me why a book of fiction for young children would wilfully choose to exclude the parents on such an important normally joyous family-based and family-driven festival.

THAT is a story by itself, and for me at least, a much bigger one than the kids and the grandmother getting on with Hari Raya sans parents. The parents also only relay the message of their absence to Hafiz and not to his older siblings and grandmother, who I assume are responsible for taking care of him in their absence.

I can’t shake off these odd choices. Surely there’s a way to write an exciting story with the parents woven into the picture? Or is this social commentary? If it is, it’s not something I’m familiar with; I’ve never experienced this with my family or wider Malay family and friends in Singapore and Malaysia.

4. ILLUSTRATIONS

The illustrations by Madeline Wee were painted in watercolour.