Step By Wicked Step: The Malaysian Context





 by Ellsee

Elsee writes about her take on the current Form 5 novel for KBSM Literature Component; Step By Wicked Step and she analyzes whether the book is suitable in comparative to the previously-used The Pearl.

To me, there is this defining feature about literature, which is that it is like a treasure chest.  In good and proper literature, there are always these little hints and clues hidden within the lines that the reader is supposed to catch in order to grasp a deeper dimension of the story, and which in turn forms the core of literary analysis.  Call them secrets between author and reader, if you will; things that the protagonists themselves are completely unaware of.  Step By Wicked Step had precious few of these moments for me.  If anything, it seemed to have swung to the other extreme. My reading of it came across as too shallow, transparent and linear, despite all the flashbacks.

Indeed, what makes the story (I can hardly call it a novel) so firmly wedged within the Preteen category – apart from the age of the protagonists themselves – is the tendency of fiction meant for younger audiences to give things away before the reader has come to that part of the story.  My guess is that writers feel younger readers would be too shocked at or be unable to catch certain plot developments if they were not gently “eased” into it right from the start.

Take for example, at the beginning of Richard Clayton Harwick’s narrative, he writes “He was dressed black as a bat, and (I’ll say fearlessly, now he has done his best to beat fear out of me) he was no more welcome…”  This being a story about step-parents, it is all too obvious that this “he” would become Richard’s stepfather before too long.  At least, it was very, very obvious to me, despite the fact that it shocked me, because he just (literally) shot out of nowhere, and the next moment I am being told as plain as day that Richard will suffer under him as a victimised stepson.

Before I move on, I would like to point out some other things that annoyed me about the story, though I may really be splitting hairs here because most of these complaints are simply common characteristics of preteen fiction.  First of all, there is the deliberate glossing over of Reverend Coldstone’s wickedness.  Believe me, it is mild.  Compare it with Charlotte Brontë’s description of Jane Eyre’s suffering under the Reed family and you will see what I mean.

Charlotte Brontë’s description of Jane Eyre’s suffering under the Reed family 

By the way, there is one discrepancy in the story that I cannot seem to reconcile.  Why was “Master Richard” living in a “small tower room” even before his real father died and Coldstone had had any control over the household?  Even if his room had not been camouflaged during his lifetime, it still does not make sense.

Then there is the unrealistically transparent names.

Mr Digby the (digging) gardener, Reverend Coldstone and the worst of the lot: Mordanger School (more danger?!).  These are value judgment names that decide for the reader ahead of time what something is or whether something is good or bad.  Again, this practice is most prevalent in children and preteen fiction.  A character is either an angel or a devil, unless some metamorphosis from good to bad or bad to good is the whole point of the story.

As Roald Dahl once said about writing for children, “if you want to do bad, do over-the-top bad” or something to that effect.  I am not questioning the need or decision to make things so morally black and white for children.  Maybe they need it for their own moral development, but anyone else reading it would find it just plain tacky.

So Step By Wicked Step is a preteen story and as such has many of the genre’s typical flaws, including coming across as rather preachy at times.  Is there a problem then?  Yes.  The problem is that this story is being read by every single Form Five student in the country as model literature.  In some ways, it is an appropriate choice, but in others, they could not have picked a worst book.

While not being outrightly supernatural, there are some supernatural elements, in keeping with Malaysian teens’ current obsession with Harry Potter and Twilight, so I assume they are trying to keep our youngsters’ interests in mind.  Also, the six-stories-in-one format is a suitable compromise for the majority of students who are (sadly) not used to reading novel-length books.  The issue of step-parents might even be becoming more and more relevant as divorce rates are on the rise.

On the other hand, do you think that students will not realise that the story is meant for kids?

Surely everyone knows that seventeen is an age where teens are very touchy about being treated any younger than they really are.  People might say that Malaysian students had little in common with Kino and Juana in The Pearl, but neither can they relate to American elementary grade school kids on much deeper a level.  These are kids who spend the whole night huddled on one bed telling stories without feeling the least bit uncomfortable that there are boys or girls around, and do not bat an eyelid about pregnant Flora not being married to Ralph’s father.  Both issues are not depicted negatively in any way whatsoever because that is probably the author’s own standpoint.  No weddings are mentioned, you notice.  It is kind of odd that the story got past the board, really.

Anyhow, the story points out all the difficulties of having chopped-up families clearly enough, but it is depicted as a way of life and something that you just have to accept, because this is from a kid’s point of view.  They are hardly in the position to question the morality of their parents’ actions or to wonder too much about the ‘why’.  So the story is not really tackling the issue of divorce; it is just offering comfort and guidance on how to live with it as a powerless victim.  But if they’re not going to directly address the issue, why have our students read it at all?

Besides, the story is couched in so many cultural references I am sure almost all students would not get.

I can almost imagine a student reading the second page and asking “What is ‘cripes’?” and feeling rather let down when they cannot find it in the dictionary.  Would they know that ‘munchkin’ is not just some disgusting lover’s nickname but the name of a group of people in The Wizard of Oz and that it is meant to conjure up the image of chubby innocence (yes, revolting)?

What was the author really trying to imply about Annabel’s talk about auras?

I understand that it is really hard to find good, solid, mainstream literature simple enough for our Malaysian students to understand and find interesting.  In most cases, either you take an original children’s story, or you abridge an adult’s story, in which case it loses all its flavor.

But the fact remains that our youth are not interested in literature, and offering a children’s book is not going to change that, even if you want to call it literature.  The problem stems much deeper than that.  Nonexistent reading habits, growing immaturity and the whole social atmosphere of our generation are sucking a slow death out of literature, both classic and modern.

All in all, I have to admit that Step By Wicked Step is a better choice than The Pearl, but only because The Pearl flew over the students’ heads when it should not have done so.  There are problems, and while I do not have the solutions, I know that this story is not meant for our Form Five students both age-wise and culture-wise.  If I am wrong and the students really do love it, all I can say is that it would be a very sad thing indeed.


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