Former maritime lawyer and restaurant owner, Heidi Shamsuddin is a children’s book author at heart. She won the regional prize for the Eye Level Children’s Literature Competition in 2012 with her very first short story ‘Johan the Bee Hunter’, and she hasn’t looked back since. Her latest series of books tell the story of three Malaysian children who go through a magic door and meet Malaysia’s historical figures and heroes, helping them get out of sticky situations. The books are a fun way to introduce the kids to personalities who figure greatly in our nation’s history.
How did you get into writing and why did you choose to write children’s books? When I left the restaurant business in 2012, I was free to decide what to do next and it’s always been my dream to write a book. One of the first stories I wrote was ‘Johan the Bee Hunter’, so when I won the award, I was thrilled! This gave me the confidence to continue writing. At first, I didn’t start off writing for kids but somehow, all my stories were related with young people and all the experiences I had when I was a kid, and that’s how it all started.
Would you say your environment and upbringing have coloured your writing? I spent most of my childhood in Seattle. Then I came home and spent my teenage years here, surrounded by stories told by my parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles. Right after I finished my Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), I studied and went on to work in the UK for 15 years before returning home again. During all those years, I was influenced by my environment, which taught me to appreciate our country’s colourful and eclectic history. That’s when I was inspired to write a book series based on Malaysian history.
Moving around a lot must have exposed you to a great number of books. What are some of your childhood favourites? My choice of books was influenced by where I was at the time. My family couldn’t really afford many books back then so got most of mine from the library. On my ninth birthday, my father got me a book by Roald Dahl called ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More.’ Unlike his other stories, this book was aimed at slightly older children because the stories were a bit darker, scarier but funny. We also had an old, battered copy of ‘Harriet the Spy’ by Louise Fitzhugh; the story of a girl called Harriet who desperately wants to become a famous author and decides to practice her observation skills by spying on all her friends and family. I think this may be the book that made me want to become an author. I also love CS Lewis’s ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ which was my first fantasy book. I like the idea of a door that can transport you to another world!
‘Personally I think the local children's literature scene is rich, thriving and improving every year'
You must have been inspired by that when you were thinking about ‘The Door under the Stairs’ series. Tell us about it. It’s about three Malaysian kids who find a magic door under the stairs at their school. The door takes them back in time where they meet our country’s heroes. In the first book, they meet Malaysia’s first Prime Minister and help him solve a mystery when the national anthem goes missing. They eventually meet other heroes like movie star P Ramlee and footballer Mokhtar Dahari, and they even go back in time to when Singapore was a British colonial port. There are eight books planned for the series and four are already out, which are ‘The Mystery of the Missing National Anthem’, ‘The Case of the Talented Trio’, ‘The Case of the Football Champion’ and ‘The Case of the House at No. 74’.
That sounds exciting. Are the books supposed to stand on their own, or are you building a body of work with connections between each book? Technically each book can stand on its own, but there is another layer of mystery running through the series focusing on who is controlling the door and why are they changing history, so it makes more sense to read it in chronological order.
What has been the proudest accomplishment in your career? My proudest moment is when a boy wrote a review of ‘The Mystery of the Missing National Anthem’ on a piece of paper. His dad sent it to me and this is what he wrote: ‘What I love about “The Missing National Anthem” – one word to describe this book: AMAZING.’
It’s nice when young people appreciate your work. What are your hopes for the scene for kids like him? I hope for more quality books from Malaysian authors, featuring Malaysian themes. Apart from that, I wish that more local publishers would consider publishing children’s books because personally I think the local children’s literature scene is rich, thriving and improving every year.
Do you have any future projects lined up? As for my future projects, it’s going to be a busy year – I have a young adult novel set in Mount Kinabalu, a picture book out this year titled ‘Chickaboo the Ostrich’, a few picture book projects, a short story compilation, scripts for a potential TV series, and two potential anime projects.