2006. First Second, New York. 144 pages.
Recommended Reading Age: 9-14
Mat, a Malaysian boy growing up in an idyllic kampung (or village), begins the story of his youth with a description of his birth to two loving parents in the Kinta Valley. Curious and adventurous from the get-go, much of Mat's childhood is spent playing in the river with his schoolmates, the Meor boys, and exploring the area around the village's tin dredge. Growing up Muslim, Mat details various religious ceremonies and practices in a lighthearted tone with great comic effect, often describing the awkwardness of youth in situations in which composure is essential. From his first days of school, his exploring with the Meor boys, to his eventual quest to one day take over his father's rubber plantation, author Lat proves that adolescence is quite universal.
Boys and girls alike will laugh at the childhood exuberance of Mat, but will also marvel at his maturity. In a culture where respect for one's elders is essential, Mat's mishaps are all innocent in nature, despite some undesired results that cause his parents and village elders to question his intents. Through a scene towards the end of the book in which Mat's father impresses upon him the seriousness of the responsibilities he'll soon have as the inheritor of the rubber plantation, many young adult readers will see a connection to their own lives, in that their responsibilities have begun to teeter on the edge of adulthood.
Initially, it seems as if the cartooning in Kampung Boy is rather loose and simplistic. But looked at more closely, Lat's caricatures of the villagers are done so well as to convey a true sense of their personalities. Sure, the girth of his father and the vision troubles of the town circumciser are laughable, but purposefully so. This is the world as young Mat sees it, exaggerated to the extreme.
Considering this work is translated from Malay, the depictions of the characters as well as the Malaysian riverside community tell part of the tale, and do so quite effectively. Particularly impressive is Lat's ability this way to balance his storytelling between words and art. The two play off one another masterfully, and young readers will be able to use visual clues to decipher regional dialect or unfamiliar vocabulary.
The only objectionable content in Kampung Boy is the scene is which Mat and some of the village boys go through a circumcision ritual. Thought it is not at all graphic (and actually quite humorous), teachers might be uncomfortable explaining this process to those unfamiliar with this fairly common religious tradition. Teachable moments in this book abound, both thematically and culturally. American students unfamiliar with the experiences of young people in less-developed countries will find this story a treat, as well as a contrast to some of the more serious images they may recognize from popular media. Funny and eye-opening, Kampung Boy definitely has its place in the middle school classroom.