The wonder of children’s books

The illusory concept of time permits us to create a sense of a past and future self. It sets the stages of life, too: Being a child with urgent needs for comfort and warmth, an adolescent awashed in the pressure of finding an identity, an adult weighed by the demands of a society to contribute and consume, and an elderly holding on to optimism or cynicism, depends on whether they waltzed or bulldozed through the world. It is time that makes adults say: I have no time for childish things and for children to blindly declare: I cannot wait to grow up.

This extends to the art we consume, the food we eat, the quality of conversations we have. From milk, we find our palettes have grown to receive wine. From nursery rhymes, our sensibilities have developed to pick apart the lyrics, the voice, the melody of pop songs. This is most apparent in the books we read: from picture books, we can read full-bodies of text on white paper. So we laugh at ourselves sometimes when we happen to enjoy a children’s book, or are curious to the habits and sensibilities of children’s book authors. Maybe the hilarity stems from the notion that we can outgrow anything, and that hard questions usually come in hard packages. But children’s books seem to prove both these notions false.

The why’s and how’s

Det Neri, author of Ang Ikaklit sa Aming Hardin which won the 2006 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, decided to take the independent route. She conceived her story about lesbian parents in a national writing workshop. It started out as regular fiction, but after going through searing criticism, she realized her intentions.

She says with conviction, “Ginusto ko bumuo ng isang kwento na nagpapamalay sa kapasidad ng LGBT community, partikular sa mga lesbian, na bumuo ng pamilya.” With this realization, she realized which voice would be honest and untainted enough to tell the story. “Ang pinakamabuting magsasalita, pagpapatotoo ng testimonya para doon ay ang anak.”

The road to getting published, however, came with a lot of struggles, such as receiving several rejections from different publishing houses. “Nailabas ang libro baka sa panahon na iyon hindi pa handa maglabas ng radikal ang publishing houses na ‘yun.” Deciding to publish independently, Ms. Neri had to meet up with illustrator, Cj de Silva, including her layout artist and translator on personal initiative, “Para siyang collective effort na barkadahan. Pero hindi kami magkakilala, nagkakatagpu-tagpo lang kami sa proyekto.” She further adds, “Gusto nila maging bahagi ng isang proyekto hindi para kumita kundi para sa adbokasiya bitbit ng proyekto nung teksto.”

Cj de Silva, the illustrator for Ikaklit believes that in order to attract not only young readers, but all types of readers in general, an illustrator must “create a visual focal point.” This includes experimenting with colors, darkness and light, space and layout. In Ikaklit, she used the brown tint of tea to achieve that warm and earthy effect on the page.

Moreover, Glena Maye-Abad, illustrator of Alamat ng Ilog Pasig, believes that working with an author is getting the best of both worlds. She adds, “An author’s job is to imagine a story and write it down. An illustrator’s job is to interpret the story and make it visually understandable to the readers.” In other words, illustrators are assigned to fill the missing gaps in the sentences or what words cannot communicate directly.

Ms. Neri sums it up by saying, “Hindi siya usapin ng mga kahinaan ng tao pero pagpapalakas pa yun sa teksto, na mayroon pang ibang bahagi sa binubuong kahulugan.”

Collaborative effort

The children’s books commonly found in bookstores contain both words and images—the makings of the joint effort of the writer and illustrator. This is no accident. According to Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development, children from the time of their birth to 7 years old go through the Sensorimotor and Preoperational stages. The former being the time they learn about the world through sensory experiences and in manipulating objects, and the latter when they begin to conjure up worlds, appreciate the life of the things around them.

Ms. Det Neri strengthens this claim by saying, “Ito ay para sa mga bata na naghahanap ng komunidad na hindi mo makikita sa pisikal na community mo. Dapat may opsyon sila sa aklat, sa mga pahina na makapagtagpo ng kaibigan, magulang, na ka-relasyon na tatanggap sayo.”

Taking note of all these developmental stages, it is crucial for children to be exposed to literature that not only becomes the foundation for how they learn to see and make sense of the world, but how to perceive it. Will they say hello or will they shudder from it? It may as well serve as a reminder to adults to consider things in the eyes of children who are on the cusp of getting to know the world more intimately.

Not just for children

Literature is literature regardless of whom it’s written for. The stories in children’s books are stories that persons of any age will encounter as well. These are stories that resonate in any age, just illustrated and written for children, for them to be open to the world and its multiple facets at an early age.

The writing, illustration, and layout make it easier for us to classify these stories as children’s books, however the stories they tell appeal to all. Det Neri’s Ikaklit Sa Aming Hardin is a book that tackles a homosexual family, a topic that some may consider taboo for children. It is written in a way that children will understand, but the message of love and acceptance touches even the hearts of the older generation.

Ms. Neri’s approach to writing is that it must be a conversation, a conversation that takes on different shapes and forms for different readers. A story is what the reader needs it to be. An accepting family in Ikaklit, a palengke companion in Araw sa Palengke, or just someone to unconditionally love in Alamat ng Ilog Pasig.

It is this process of embodiment done by adults, stripping the world into simple words and images, in the language comprehensible to children, that we are often reminded of life’s simplest and enduring truths.


[Updated: 3/27/2017]

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on March 11, 2017 and has been updated for clarity.

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