A lot more to Granny Teoh than just children’s books

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She is called Granny by the kids who listen to her storytelling. They adore her stories and happily raise their hands to answer all her questions. But Teoh Choon Ean, who also goes by the name Khaw Choon Ean, is more than just a Granny telling stories.

She was a secondary school teacher who went on to work in the Ministry of Education’s Curriculum Development Centre (CDC). These days, she is known more for her children’s picture book series.

Here, she tells us about herself:

Since when have you been an author and how did you get into it?

I started retelling my primary school teachers’ stories in written form around age seven. I loved writing stories and essays and excelled in school for that.

My first published work was a short story in 1976 in a University of Silliman, Negros, publication called Coral and Sands for which I won a summer creative writing fellowship at the university.

My first non-fiction publication was in 2005. It was a compilation of a column I had for five months in the New Straits Times‘ education supplement the year before. I have won many short story awards in Her World and The Star’s contests which were also published.

My first novels were Young Adult novels published as prize awards under Utusan Publications. I became a children’s author and illustrator in 2014 when I turned 60.

I have always loved to read and being an avid reader made me evolve stories in my head. It was just a natural progression to put stories into writing.

My foray into non-fiction started with a need to share new information I had gleaned from developing young people to think responsibly, while writing children’s books was a result of becoming a grandmother and wanting to share with my grandchildren their Asian and Malaysian heritage.

How many books do you have?

I have one non-fiction book titled Thinking Smart in English (Pelanduk) and translated into Korean (Dongyang) and Taiwan Mandarin (Goldratt Alliance) as well as in ebook format (E Sentral)

Another non-fiction in 2014 was the MPH Masterclass Guide to Rhythmic Gymnastics.

Two of my young adult novels, Nine Lives and Magic Eyes (published by Utusan), won the Hadiah Sastera and Hadiah Anugerah Buku RTM-PNM Awards.

The Grandmother Series has featured six Asian folktales (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines).

The Wonderful Series features Malaysian things and four titles are out so far.

What are some elements that you try to include in all your books?

Being in the field of education for 26 years, there is always a lesson learnt in all my writing. I also try to incorporate thinking skills, reflection and discovery. However, I also try my best to do it subtly so that it doesn’t become what the story is about.

You also illustrate your books?

It started as a matter of cost and prudence as I had received a contract to write and illustrate 18 children’s books. I thought I doodled a lot and had dabbled at doing some comics and cartoons.

It turned out to be a very challenging decision, demanding a lot more than I had expected but accomplishing the illustrations became an empowering exercise, especially when I started at age 60!

What is your involvement in gymnastics?

I was an artistic gymnast representing school and Penang from ages 15 to 18 and went on to become a Malaysian coach, technical official, and an international judge for both artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. I was credited for being instrumental in starting the sport of rhythmic gymnastics in Malaysia and South-East Asia.

I called it a day from elite gymnastics in 1999 after having attended several SEA Games, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and international championships, including the World Championships as a coach, judge and official.

Have you always liked books and writing?

I never saw a book until I started primary school and I never looked back. But my life was not devoid of stories. Before six, my world of stories came from an oral storyteller who went around singing stories in rhymed couplets while playing the mandolin.

I was an avid reader as a child borrowing library books and buying them when I could. I took a degree in literature, which exposed me to more writing and books.

I wrote well and hard as a child and used to win writing contests from my teens. I have won more than 10 short story awards for Pesta Pulau Pinang, The Star and Her World, the Hadiah Sastera Exxon Mobil-Utusan in 2005 and 2007, Hadiah Anugerah Buku RTM-PNM in 2013, and Merit Awards for Samsung Asean Authors’Awards in Singapore 2016, and the National Library’s Program Bacaan Komuniti Desa in 2016.

What are some perks of being an author?

  • Sharing my knowledge, creative ideas, plots, stories.
  • Seeing my work in print and on bookshelves in bookshops and book fairs.
  • Seeing readers enjoy my stories.
  • Winning writing and book contests and receiving awards.
  • Being recognised as an author.
  • Meeting children and the public after a book is published and interacting with them.

What is your policy or belief when it comes to children and reading/writing?

Do not force a lesson. It should be discovered through a reflection of what is read and this makes it meaningful and more likely to be internalised.

Never underestimate a child’s mind or his ability to suspend disbelief when needed. Never talk down to children.

Do you think technology is threatening children’s reading habits?

Although it is never quite the same to curl up with a tablet PC and dog-ear the ebook electronically, we should always move with the times and try to assimilate or incorporate old and new as seamlessly as possible. Change takes time.

What is your best advice to parents to inculcate the reading habit?

Children learn habits peripherally. The adults should also be readers and leaving books or having books around the house encourages reading. I always carry a book in my bag when I go out. Inevitably, my sons did the same without being told.

My challenge was not to see a book in my child’s hand but how to manage the thick, well-read tome of The Three Kingdoms that he carried everywhere with him.

How many kids do you have?

I have three biological sons aged 36, 33 and 25. But in gymnastics, I have at least 500 surrogate daughters and at least 10 who still affectionately call me Mama.

Are you a grandparent?

Yes! I have two library-going granddaughters aged 5+ and 3+.

Has being a parent / grandparent helped you in your job?

My youngest son once told me, after reading my manuscript, “Mum, sometimes in your writing you sound like a 50-year-old talking like a 15-year-old, and sometimes you sound like a 15-year-old talking like a 50-year-old.”

I think this says it all.

What sort of books do you like to read?

I read lots of fiction for my degree and also as a child and teenager. Now, I like historical memoirs and recollections, especially Asian or Malaysian ones. I mainly read a lot of niche non-fiction books on yoga, arts and crafts, jewellery-making, writers on writing, and yes, I love encyclopaedias.

You’re very creative and have produced some lovely bookmarks. What else do you do in your free time?

  • Yoga
  • Jewellery making for gifts
  • Crafts
  • Cooking with gadgets
  • Storytelling
  • Training people on problem-solving and decision-making

If you could invent something child-related, what would it be and why?

A training module to empower children to cope with difficult situations and survive. Why? Because we cannot be with our children 24 hours in a day and they have to be equipped with the tools to deal with the times when they are on their own and need to act independently.