Author on the Air: Maureen Yeo talks The Great Singapore Poo Sale
938Now: Species large and small take centre-stage in this charming picture book that advocates conservation. Hello, Maureen. What made you decide to write this book?
Maureen: People don’t realise that Singapore is on the same equatorial belt as the Amazon rainforest and we have a crazy amount of biodiversity. We have more species on our little island, then the entire continent North of America & we have many animals found nowhere else except here. A few years back, when I was a teacher at Raffles Institution, I had to mentor my students to do project work. A group of them wanted to do a project to save the tigers, I told them "that’s great, but there are no tigers in Singapore anymore. So why don’t you raise awareness to save local animals?" and they said there are no animals in Singapore. That was the moment where I really wanted to write this story.
938Now: So share with us the storyline.
Maureen: In The Great Singapore Poo Sale and other Beastly Business the animals of Singapore get together to save their homes and adventures ensue. I’m actually a school teacher as well, so I promised a student that I would make an animal related pun during this interview. About how we "otter" save the earth.
938Now: Do you have a tone or style in mind when writing it?
Maureen: I’ve always loved reading, and my favourite author is Roald Dahl. Definitely, he was a big inspiration. He said “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest man” and I really believe that. So I think from having a slice of life, you would also know how important his sense of humour is, to his emotional wellbeing. I try to have fun with writing and make the readers smile.
938Now: I noticed, even within the title In the Great Singapore Poo Sale and other Beastly Business – there's always something a little bit wicked and slightly grotesque in the writings of Roald Dahl as well, even though they were children books. That's what makes it so naughty, in a sense, for children. And they love to read such books. What other things inspire you when you write?
Maureen: All kinds of things, but for this book in particular of course it's with the animals. I mentioned earlier on that we have so many endangered animals that are found nowhere else but in Singapore. I felt that people should become more aware of these. For example, we have a really common sight in Singapore, a brownish squirrel with a white and black band on its side. That is called a Plantain squirrel, and the ones we found in Singapore are actually a unique sub-species.
We have three kinds of freshwater crabs, a lot of spiders found nowhere else. People are usually more drawn to big, charismatic animals and they care less about these small creatures, but they are important too. But Singapore does have megafauna, like the saltwater crocodile, which is the biggest reptile on the planet, and we have wild boar as well – they have been in the news a lot.
938Now: And the very famous pink dolphin. It’s a wonderful journey, an introduction of the native species of animals here in Singapore. The illustrations are also very enchanting, tell us more about your illustrator Gracie Chai. Did you collaborate together or did she do her own bit by herself?
(Gracie Chai, left, and Maureen Yeo)
Maureen: She’s actually a friend of mine from church. We collaborated together on this book, many of the animals mentioned in the book were completely new to her, so I would send her reference images. The poses are very much in her style and her design. It was a great collaboration.
938Now: So you would say things like the alpha macaque's nose doesn't look like that, or this character should be cuter?
Maureen: It was actually more to make her drawing look closer to the species' real anatomy.
938Now: Was there a character you particularly enjoy writing?”
Maureen: Actually the biggest challenge in writing the book was picking which animals to go in. I wanted to establish certain characters that the readers can go along with. At the same time I wanted to mention as many local animals as possible, but I could only fit in 35 animals this time – so a sequel is definitely in the works.
As to my favourite character, I think of all the animals in the book my favourite animal out of the 35, has to be the flying fox which is the biggest bat in the world. I mean, I could just watch them for hours. When u see them in the wildlife flying across late at dusk in Sri Lanka, the cadence of their flight is actually slower than a bird. They have huge wings span and they are so graceful. I happen to encounter some tame ones at a coffee plantation in Bali and they were like dogs. They are named flying foxes because they have faces like a fox. They love being scratched behind their ears, and they make that really shiok face when you were scratching them. They were really adorable, I haven't seen them in the wild in Singapore, but we do have them here.
938Now: The book has quite a clear ecological message so how do you hope young readers will feel after reading this book?
Maureen: I think it's not just for young readers, I think my book is for adults as much as it is for children. It's somewhat satirical about our consumer society and how we have to put a dollar value on everything.
If we want to put a dollar value on conservation, we can ask: All these trees in the central catchment that are converting carbon dioxide into breathable air – how much will it cost if we have machines to perform that same function, which most of us take for granted?
We could ask how much money can the otters in Singapore bring in for eco-tourism? They are quite famous now and social media influencers from around the world are starting to come to Singapore just to see them.
So there are a lot of good commercial reasons why we should conserve the environment. But ultimately, I’m a Christian and I believe that God gives us so many good gifts to nature and it's not a coincidence that we are a dominant species but we’ve been given a stewardship of these resources. So I hope what readers take away is that we need to care more about the environment. To quote Michael Jackson, we should heal the world for our children and our children’s children.