Road Reads

Sunday, March 25, 2007

BOOK: "Kampung Boy," by Lat (First Second, $16.95)

TARGET AUDIENCE: Inquiring children, or reminiscing adults.

Imagine someone who possesses both Bill Watterson's appreciation of childhood energy ("Calvin and Hobbes") and Norman Rockwell's sentimentality. Now put it all in rural Malaysia. Lat's graphic novel of 1950s boyhood in a kampung (village) manages to leave the reader feeling both mystified by the strange and nostalgic for the familiar.

Lat (nee Mohammad Nor Khalid), a Malaysian newspaper cartoonist, provides a romanticized portrait of village boyhood. Mat, the fictional boy of the title, is Everyboy in a sarong. His life has many parallels to idealized small-town American life of that same era: He fishes, swims, hangs out with boys his parents disapprove of and goofs off in school.

But add the cultural differences: the houses on stilts, the family rubber plantation, the teacher rigidly schooling his charges in Arabic and the Koran. And add Mat's circumcision -- an event both ominous and delightful. (He and the other initiates are treated like stars.) Nevertheless, "Kampung Boy" demonstrates -- entertainingly -- how much we all have in common.

-- Jerry V. Haines

© 2007 The Washington Post Company