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Facing the Odds with Felix Cheong and Cheryl Tan

By Beverly Grafton

I solemnly swear that I have never waited for any book, with this much anticipation, as I have for this illustrated beauty. Oddballs, Screwballs and Other Eccentrics is the kind of book I never expected anyone from our shores (Singapore) to ever create and produce. I mean, the last time I experienced such excitement in reading a book, I was all of 9 years old, thumbing through the very first edition of True Singapore Ghost Stories (wonder if they've stopped compiling or not...) in my bedroom, by myself, with all of my lights on.

What? I was 9 and the stories related locally. That's really scary. Anyhow, enough about me, let's move on...

With a migration to the US to be with my husband inching closer, I've been trying to find a book, specifically from my island homeland, that would be epic enough, in all ways I deem important, to inspire an act of passing the book on for posterity. Thanks to a most worthy friend and veteran writer, Felix Cheong, the search is over (oooh, I love this song too). Now, I've had the pleasure of working with Felix on another project (Same Words, Different Songs) March 2019 at the Esplanade, so I am very well acquainted with the quality of his work and the extent of his creativity.

It is this very creativity that saw the potential of marrying both poetry and illustration that prompted Felix to approach illustrator, Cheryl Tan, with the idea of a collaboration right after Cheryl posted her work on Facebook as "a private collection of little freakos" drawn in a "tiny tattered notebook". It was as if the characters all but spoke to him to explore and tell their stories, stories that had resonated deeply within this brilliant author, in his consideration as a fellow misfit.

If you can remember, I did mention a few posts ago about my penchant for all things strange. My obsession with Emily the Strange, back in the day, is comparable to any hardcore Hello Kitty fan out there as I redesigned my personal style to follow my then favorite character. That's why, just looking at the cover alone, made this book a resounding "YES" for me.

And then I started reading. Oh. My. Stars.

Forget the simple resounding "YES". I immediately had to text Felix back and tell him I need to buy both his poetry books because this is money absolutely worth spending. Actually, the correct visual would be me on my knees begging him to take my money, my audio equipment, my brand new digital piano, the clothes on my back..etc...BECAUSE, when you're given the chance to purchase a little piece of posterity, you do it, no questions asked. Reading Oddballs immediately cast visions in my mind of reading the poems to my kids at bedtime and in time to come, reading to their kids. You could almost liken the feeling that washed over me to the feeling of finding the right life partner, you just know. And I just knew that I had to have this book.

I mean, just look at the illustration examples I've included below. I don't want to impress my interpretation upon anyone else but if you can't see the obvious influences that echo Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, both movies very much loved by my daughter and I, then may my insight enlighten you. I'm loving these characters so much, I may even be tempted to make dolls of them to satisfy my growing need to be surrounded by them outside of the book.

Illustrations by Cheryl Tan, taken from Oddballs, Screwballs and other Eccentrics.

But the art is not the only amazing thing about this particular publication. This edgy and controversial illustrated collection of poetry is literally the first of its kind here in Singapore. Boasting 50 poems that address present-day issues like the BLM movement (#blacklivesmatter) as well as other taboo subjects like abuse (multiple forms) and even self-harm; all of which many adults are reluctant to discuss among themselves, let alone with their kids. However, in my humble opinion, armed with a tool such as Oddballs, each one of the poems inside could be a conversation starter to bridge that gap and thereby, eventually, perpetuate discussion and education about these topics.

"The Second Temptation II

Weeks after she had left her husband,

Eve came across again the serpent.

He still lisped but had had speech lessons.

“I see you have a bun in the oven.

Knowing Adam, he might be reluctant

To add one more mouth to your six children.

Why don’t you feed your unborn to the ravens?”

Eve sat still for several moments,

Then got up all of a sudden.

“Enough of your tales and stupid reasons!”

She knotted his forked tongue into a tight ribbon,

Threw him back into the Garden

And walked into her sunset a free person."

Take the excerpt above from the book as an example. The second I saw the illustration, it literally screamed everything that was my daughter. Not that she looks like that per se but rather that it echoes the mood she generally is in due to bullying in school, from both teachers and students, coping with puberty and just the overall teenage self-loathing that comes with realizing that they're no longer cute and that society can be really cruel without trying.

While the poem that accompanies this illustration may be worlds apart from the description of my troubled tween, it is precisely the broad use of this beautifully macabre book that I wanted to highlight. In accordance to what Cheryl strongly impressed in the interview (you'll find the link at the end of this post), both the images and the poems are open to interpretation. Using that advice, I would lightheartedly show this to my daughter and let her know this is the impression of her that I see and I'd ask if she would agree. I don't know which way the conversation would go but like all things difficult, the hardest part is the very beginning.

Talk about pushing the envelope, eh? Like I said, I can't wait to own a copy of this book.

On hindsight, it looks like this pandemic has given us a lot more to look forward to, like this exciting offering from Felix Cheong and Cheryl Tan. In fact, I'm noticing more talent making use of the free time forced upon them to create even more works of beauty, especially in the face of adversity.

With that, I hope I've managed to whet your appetite enough to the point that you're practically on the edge of your seat, waiting for the launch of the book. If that's the case, I promise that you won't have much longer to wait as Oddballs, Screwballs and Other Eccentrics launches (FINALLY!!!) on the 24th of September and you can invite yourself to the online Facebook event right here!

If you'd like to know more about the creators of Oddballs and their thoughts on the book, check out their kooky interview, produced and filmed by Felix's students, right here.


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