Door To The World Of Reading

Door to the World of Reading Must Be Unlocked for All Children (By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz)

Not too long ago, when no one was looking, something wonderful began to happen in the field of children's literature. Suddenly, the publishing of children's titles seemed to have taken on a new life, and books written and illustrated by Filipino authors and illustrators became available in greater numbers in the market. And yet, as recent as six years ago, one could count on one hand the individuals responsible for what made up the body of children's literature in the country. Textbooks, coloring books, and folktales were the only printed materials synonymous with children's literature. Happily, the landscape has drastically changed, and things are looking up.

The economy may have seen better and brighter times, but surprisingly, 2001 was not a bleak one for children's literature. More interesting children's titles were published, and while many businesses suffered financial reverses which forced them to close, children's books publishers were not as adversely affected. Like other businesses, they may have had to streamline operations and cut costs and even be conservative in their publishing projects, but the new titles were there for a new generation of readers whose parents nurtured their own reading habits on children's books from the West. These young parents have become enlightened enough to support homegrown titles for their children. What factors have allowed children's literature to flourish in 2001?

Adarna House, founded by poet Virgilio Almario, and now on its 22nd year, is the oldest publishing house of children's books. Its Aklat Adarna series has been responsible for the sustained interest in and promotion of children's books since the mid-"70s when it began as a vehicle of good nutrition through stories for children in partnership with the Nutrition Center of the Philippines. It is a tribute to Adarna that it has been consistent and unwavering in its goal of developing children's writers and providing quality literature written by Filipinos for Filipino children. Last year, it published 16 titles, mostly fiction, but it included an impressive, five-book Batang Historyador series on five important eras in Philippine history, a project in collaboration with the United Nations Children's Fund.

Some of the books carry texts in Filipino and in English, while others just have the original text. While sometimes distracting and encroaching on the art of the illustrator, the translation certainly accommodates a wider readership. Out of about a hundred unsolicited manuscripts which Adarna received last year, it accepted only six for publication. The number of manuscripts reveals the high level of interest from this generation of writers and also Adarna's strict editorial requirements. Its books have the largest print runs in the market, and its typical soft paperback format allows them to be sold at a low cost.

The genres represented in last year's (2001) titles reveal the thrusts Adarna, long considered a trendsetter, continues to explore. There were traditional folktales, award winning stories, contemporary fiction, another book on the Filipino folk character Pilandok, and three teen novellas, winners of the First Pilar Perez Medallion for Young Adult Literature. The literary contest is in itself a remarkable development for it honors a little-known but legendary children's librarian from Pasig, Pilar Perez, aside from addressing the need for titles for young adults. As has been pointed out in reviews on children's literature, local publishing has concentrated largely on titles for early readers. What reading fare can we now give yesterday's early readers who are now in the cusp of their adolescence?

Adarna has also taken the lead in promoting its books through regular storytelling in schools combined with book fairs and arranging author visits there. It has long realized that the marketing of books encompasses more than the sale of books but requires a support marketing system that also promotes the love of reading. It packages its books in brown paper bags with a whimsical drawing accompanied by the curious question, "Ano-ano nang Mundo ang Napuntahan Mo?" As a holiday gift suggestion, a Philippine Children's Literature Planner was produced. This is an important tool of information in itself because it is an easy-read survey of children's literature. Other marketing aids it has developed are bookmarks, featuring its popular titles, and a mug that echoes the design on the paper bags.

Tahanan Books, five-time winner of the National Book Award for Children's Literature, has been publishing since 1992, and continues with its line of titles which celebrate Philippine culture and history. It aim to prove that these books can stand proud with books from all over the world. Because of the meticulous care with which Tahanan attempts to produce its every book on quality paper, it only has limited releases each year, books which carry the most expensive prices in the local market. Last year, it launched seven titles, representing books for beginning readers and young adults. Noteworthy among these is a collection of original Christmas stories written by the country's most accomplished and most significant children's book writer today, Rene O. Villanueva. 12 Kuwentong Pamasko was illustrated by May M. Tobias.

Hiyas Children's Collection, OMF Literature's children's books imprint, has also been active in publishing original stories, thereby developing Filipino authors and illustrators. It is perhaps best known for its Mga Kuwento ni Tito Dok series by pediatrician-writer Luis P. Gatmaitan, a wonderful nonfiction series which invites young readers to discover through entertaining stories the wonders of the human body. The series is able to present typical drab textbook information in memorable stories and echoes the highly successful The Magic School Bus science series in the United States. And if there should be a Lola Basyang, why not a Tito Dok?

If children's book publishing were not deemed a sunrise industry, why would a publisher of highly marketable adult romance paperbacks decide to establish Lampara Books and embark on 10 new books on its maiden year? Cacho Publishing, another publisher known for its pioneering efforts in the industry, may not be as active as it was about a decade ago when it experimented with the then "revolutionary" idea of parallel text editions in Filipino and English, but it has since broken ground by concentrating on the juvenile novel meant for the upper grade school or early high school students. O.C.W. by Carla Pacis is the author's third novel published by Cacho and is Cacho's fourth book in that category.

The formal beginnings of children's literature have been attributed to Jose Rizal whose now well-loved tale, "The Monkey and the Tortoise,"was first published in July 1889 in a London publication, Trubner's Oriental Record. It is acknowledged to be the very first Filipino tale for children. Least known of his many talents is his having dabbled in children's literature as well. He translated five fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen into Tagalog and mailed them to his nephews and nieces together with his own illustrations. These have been reprinted in Rizaliana for Children: Illustrations and Folk Tales introduced and annotated by the late Alfrredo Navarro Salanga and published by the Children's Communication Center in 1984.

It is the faithful commemoration of the anniversary of the publication of Rizal's folktale for close to two decades now by the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY) which has provided a growing level of public awareness of children's literature. Every third Tuesday in July has been designated National Children's Book Day (NCBD), a day which has withstood both natural disasters and upheavals in the cultural, political, and economic scenes.

The PBBY, the Philippine National Section of the Switzerland-based International Board on Books for Young People, has been the lead organization for the NCBD celebration, planning activities leading up to the day itself. There was a weeklong Third Children's Book Festival at the Shangri-la Plaza Mall which featured storytelling by authors and professional storytellers, a bookfair where the local children's book publishers exhibited and sold their books, and foreign embassies displayed contemporary books from their countries. An exhibit of the association of children's book illustrators, Ilustrador ng Kabataan (InK), was another feature in the mall.

A non-stock, non-profit organization of members committed to the promotion of books and reading for the youth, PBBY is represented on its board by individuals from different sectors which may be directly or indirectly involved in the children's book industry. The 10 sectoral representatives working together come from book reviewers, booksellers, researchers, educators, illustrators, librarians, mass media practitioners, publishers, storytellers, and writers. Completing the board are members of four institutions: the Children's Communication Center, Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), Museo Pambata, and National Library.

A traditional feature of the NCBD is the awarding and book launch of the PBBY-Salanga Writers Prize, the PBBY Illustrators" Prize, and the recognition of the artist for the year's anniversary reading promotion poster distributed free of charge to public schools and libraries all over the country. The Achievement Award for outstanding contribution to the promotion of the cause of reading and books for the young was given to the trailblazing group of children's book illustrators, Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan, now all of 10 years.

InK's consistent efforts to make today's children's books come alive deserved recognition as it elevated children's book illustration to a developed legitimate art. In celebration of this milestone of a decade, InK outdid itself by mounting three simultaneous exhibitions: the annual exhibit at the CCP formally opened during NCBD; the exhibit at the Children's Book Festival on the theme "Ten" and yet another exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, featuring book illustrations and the published book in which the art appears. Selected pieces were also featured at the Children's Book Fair in Singapore in November accompanied by a lecture by InK member May Tobias.

If INK credits its existence to a PBBY Workshop for Illustrators a decade ago, so does the association of children's writers, Kuting (Kwentista Para sa mga Tsikiting), acknowledge that it was PBBY founding member Virgilio Almario's suggestion that inspired them to band together. Alitaptap, the children's storytellers" group, although still unstructured, has been responsible for storytelling competitions and performances in schools. A PBBY-NCCA project, Salaysayan on Tour, took children's books and storytelling to four provinces during the National Arts Month. This was a natural offshoot of the first national storytelling competition, Salaysayan 2000, which included seven selected provinces all over the country, an endeavor also spearheaded by the PBBY and the NCCA.

Last year, the PBBY took a courageous step by renewing its long dormant membership with the International Board on Books for Young People. While its year-round activities to support its reading crusade could rival those of other national sections, it was concerned about its ability to pay the required membership dues. Its new status in IBBY has allowed it to participate for the very first time in nominating Rene O. Villanueva to the 2002 Hans Christian Andersen Award, also dubbed as the Nobel Prize for Children's Literature, for his body of works numbering 58 published books-and still counting.

The membership has also entitled the PBBY to submit three locally published books to join the roster of the 2002 IBBY Honor List, a collection of the best children's books from all over the world. The titles chosen to represent the three categories are: Cinco de Noviembre by Rene B. Javellana, SJ, for writing; The Brothers Wu and the Good-Luck Eel illustrated by Arnel Mirasol, for illustration; and Mayroon Akong Alagang Puno translated by Danilo M. Reyes, for translation. It is hoped that this international exposure and traveling exhibition will give our homegrown talents the recognition they deserve.

While it is still difficult for children's authors and illustrators to live solely on their art-a phenomena not unknown to those in adult literature-the growing opportunities in children's literature cannot be glossed over. The field enjoys support from the annual Carlos Palanca Memorial Literary Awards which has a category for children's fiction in English and in Filipino, the awards given by the Manila Critics Circle for children's literature, with last year's category fielding an unprecedented eight titles, and Junior Inquirer, the children's weekend supplement of the broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer, which features stories by and for children, and a review column for children's books.

Book launches and signings have become regular events in the literary calendar throughout the year, even as two annual occasions have motivated publishers to launch - the NCBD celebration in July and the Philippine Book Fair in September. The Seventh RCBC Kuwentong Kalikasan Story Writing Contest again drew a large number of student entries nationwide and continues to be regarded as a valuable outlet for aspiring writers.

While the industry thrives, but only in a manner of speaking, book sales leave much to be desired. The country with the high literacy rate that it likes to flaunt has no reading habit to speak of. In the absence of public libraries and the unsatisfactory condition of most school libraries, if they exist at all, where books are showcased and safely stored away to protect them from wear and tear wrought by young readers, how and where will the children discover the joy of reading?

Data from the Department of Education show that students in elementary public schools showed a 45 percent average in a standardized reading test. Their teachers did not fare any better in an equivalent reading test. However, these same teachers manifested remarkable progress after two weeks of intensive training.

The results of the Filipino Youth Study 2001, commissioned by the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus, the Ateneo de Manila Grade School, and the Global Filipino Foundation, reveal that young people aged seven to 21 number about 25.5 million Filipinos, comprising one third of our national population. If only 10 percent bought only one book a year, costing anywhere from P50 to P75 each, children's books sales could generate P125 to P190 million each year, an amount that should improve the quality of publishing and allow publishing to thrive happily ever after. But the reality is that only 19 percent of the 1.5 million children of the upper classes read regularly, while only 4-7 percent of the 24 million children of the lower classes do so.

Such statistics running in the millions are staggering but lamentable when held up in contrast to the publishers" own data. An average print run of any children's title in fiction or nonfiction that is not a textbook runs from a few hundreds to 2,000. The biggest print run for even a publisher like Adarna has been a "record" 10,000 copies. And the promising year that 2001 was yielded only a total of 47 books from eight publishers, a leap from the previous years, they all say. With the earning capacity of the typical Filipino family, it is understandable if books are not a priority in the tight family budget and continue to be viewed as an item of luxury. However, for families that can somehow afford and prefer to buy computer and video games over books, it dramatizes the lamentably low status of books and reading materials in their hierarchy of needs and wants.

But one must not and should not despair, for teachers and schools have begun to recognize the ill effects of the lack of literacy in the young, even if they have been slow in discovering what current children's publishing offers. Contemporary children's literature and its array of titles, from the humorous to the poignant, and its artful and courageous manner of treating sensitive issues as child abuse, dyslexia, old age and senility, death, war in Mindanao, single parents, remain a well-kept secret. Little by little, although at a discouraging pace, reading is being given renewed emphasis. Local authors, illustrators, and storytellers are invited as guests, and reading promotion activities have been attempted with happy results.

Many doors continue to open for children's literature, and in the tradition of magic stories, every door opens up to new surprises, new beginnings, new worlds. Much remains to be done. The door to the world of reading needs to be unlocked for all children. Let us not allow our children to continue to be so deprived. As a memorable reading promotion slogan poetically suggests, "Give them books, give them wings."They deserve nothing less.

*From Sanghaya 2002, a publication of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts

**Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz served as chair of the Philippine Board for Books for Young People. She writes for Philippine Daily Inquirer and Sunday Inquirer Magazine.