An interview in partnership with The Children’s Book Review and Emily Lim-Leh, author of Marky Polo in Singapore
Author Award-winning author Emily Lim-Leh is the first outside North America to win three medals for her children’s books at the IPPY awards (the world’s largest book awards) and also the first in South East Asia to win the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award. Like Little Godwit, Emily took a somewhat lonesome journey to find her wings as an author. Now, Emily’s imagination happily takes flight in search of new tales to write.
In this interview, we dive into Marky Polo in Singapore, discussing everything from the characters to Singapore’s family-friendly offerings, being thoughtful, and more.
Tell us briefly about Marky Polo’s name. Why did you choose this historical reference for your main character?
Emily Lim-Leh: I was trying to think up a memorable name for the main character for my new children’s Asian travel book series and getting a bit stuck. My son Caleb, who was then 10 years old, walked into my study and wanted to get involved in what I was doing. When he heard it was a travel series, he said, “What about a name like that famous traveler…Marco Polo?”
Marco Polo was a writer and explorer who traveled through Asia. It was perfect.
I wanted my main character to be relatable for kids, so I decided that Marky Polo should be a regular character who doesn’t travel much and isn’t sure what he is good at. He comes from a line of famous travelers and explorers, with his great-grandfather Macho Polo leading the charge as the first and only pangolin to scale Mount Everest.
Merry is fun, but she’s also a bit exasperating! Is she based on a real person?
No. Marky’s cousins throughout this series are all intentionally extreme characters. Munchie Polo is a foodie who ate his way through Tokyo, and Martial Polo is a martial arts enthusiast who turned Marky’s holiday in Beijing into an endurance exercise. Merry is the playful young cousin who is only interested in merry-making at the expense of those around her. In playing up the vast difference between Marky and his cousins, Marky shines through as a kind, thoughtful and patient character.
The book displays a lot of love for and knowledge about Singapore. Did you have to do a lot of research, or did you already know the city really well?
This book was a labor of love and my ode to Singapore. I featured both places that I frequent as well as new places that I am less familiar with. I definitely got to know my city much better after writing this book. Nicholas Liem, who illustrated the book, took his two young kids to visit every place featured in this book, to get a vibe and sense of place before he drew. It was his labor of love too.
Marky and his friends are very patient with Merry. What are the skills or traits they model that you would like young readers to pay attention to?
Merli and his friends were very helpful to Marky’s challenge of having to entertain his young never-tired, and rather-exhausting cousin. They took turns playing tour guide to Merry. And when Merry and Marina vanished, everyone worked together to locate them. There was a spirit of teamwork and friendship amongst Marky, Merli, and friends.
Merry’s lack of consideration for Marky, Merli, and friends offers an opportunity for young readers to reflect on how we can be more thoughtful towards others and not just putting our own interests first.
Are there any locations in Singapore you would have liked to include in the story but did not have room for?
I managed to cover every location that I wanted in the main story. Whilst I wanted, first and foremost, to have a fun and engaging storyline, I also wanted the reader to see a mix of Singapore’s cultural character and family-friendly offerings. For the other places that could not fit into the storyline, I put these into the Polaroid pages at the end of the book.
Tell us a little about the animals the characters are based on. Why did you choose these particular animals?
My publisher and I discussed and decided that the pangolin would make a memorable main character. It is found in Singapore and other parts of Asia, isn’t that well known, and is an endangered species. This gives us an opportunity to introduce it to children and generate more awareness for the pangolin as well.
Merli and his friends are Singapore Tourism Board’s existing characters, and they are all based on animals found in Singapore, except for D65, which is based on the famous durian fruit. Marky Polo and Merli and his friends had a great complementary fit and could interact in the same story universe.
What advice do you have for teachers and educators who might want to use your books in the classroom?
For this Marky Polo series, I wanted to feature interesting places, cultural elements, and animals native to that featured city/country and augment all that with fun facts, curated videos, and websites. It provides an opportunity to discuss and learn more about that city and its wildlife and also do so in a fun interactive way through the book’s augmented reality feature.
Storywise, Marky Polo is a regular character who is trying to find his place in the world, which isn’t easy, given his famous family line and colorful family members. I think we all grapple with the need to fit in and make our mark, and Marky’s story can open a door to that conversation too.
Where will Marky be going next on his travels?
We have not come to a decision on that as yet. But perhaps Marky needs a resort retreat after all his city adventures…haha.
What were your favorite travel stories when you were young? Do you recommend other favorite books to readers enjoying the Marky Polo stories?
I grew up on Enid Blyton, and my favorite travel stories came from the Wishing Chair and Magic Faraway Tree series, which let me travel to all kinds of fantastical places from the comfort of home!
The Magic Treehouse series sparked my son’s interest in reading when he was 6 years old and has a travel element to it. I have recommended it to several friends. I enjoyed reading this series to him, and he enjoyed discovering all these different real places featured in the books.
Are you working on any other projects besides the Marky Polo series?
Yes, I am working on a new children’s picture book series that has an environmental angle. There won’t be any talking animals this time, but I do hope to give these voiceless creatures a voice through these books.
Written by Emily Lim-Leh
Illustrated by Nicholas Liem
Ages 3+ | 36 Pages
Publisher: WS Education | ISBN-13: 9789811258824
Publisher’s Synopsis: Marky Polo is a pangolin who comes from a famous line of travelers and explorers. His cousin Merry Polo is visiting Singapore for the first time. Merry wants a holiday packed with non-stop fun and merry-making. Can Merli and his friends help Marky to occupy his fun-loving (and sometimes inconsiderate) younger cousin?
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This interview—Marky Polo in Singapore—was conducted between Emily Lim-Leh and Dr. Jen Harrison. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Picture Books.