“Eh ‘yung Jollibee na ‘yan, kainin mo ngayon, bukas [nawala] na…A book [leaves a lasting] memory,” Rhandee Garlitos—a highly decorated author of children’s books, among many other laurels—quips as he justifies the significance of literature over fleeting bodily cravings.
(You eventually excrete the food you intake.)
Generations of Filipinos are all too familiar with Filipino folklore and fairy tales that are now immortalized not only in the pages of books but in the minds of many. Despite this familiarity with children’s storybooks, there still exists this stigma that they are but a waste of resources—resources that are best used for “more immediate” needs.
Yet, within these picturesque pages lie countless opportunities for self-growth and learning—priceless tools that are crucial for the development of any child. For kids, literature can hold whimsical magic like no other, and it is this magic that forms morals and shapes futures.
The power of stories
Children’s books have always captivated tots of many ages and eras, introducing otherworldly narratives and playful illustrations. But for Garlitos, these books do much more than just entertain.
“I enjoy trying to provoke the sensibilities of parents,” Garlitos gleefully shares. The end goal? To explore ideas considered taboo for kids—many of which adults are tight-lipped about. For example, Garlitos’ 2013 book Ang Bonggang Bonggang Batang Beki tells the story of an effeminate boy named Adel. He hoped that his narrative would spark important, often-overlooked conversations about gender and personhood—and it did, garnering praise and generating in-depth analyses.
Margaux Janelle Chua, art director and senior multimedia artist at DDB Group Philippines, has a similar faith in children’s literature’s capacity to shape worldviews. “Stories are powerful. They have been shaping the world ever since the beginning of time,” she muses.
This faith in stories explains why her art revolves around empathy and inclusivity, two values that she often strives to develop in her young audiences. “If children grow up with stories that teach them how to love and care for others and themselves, they will become emotionally intelligent adults who [will] make meaningful contributions to humanity,” Chua explains.
However, Garlitos caveats, “We never teach values, you have to show them these values. To assert [control] over the right of the child to think for [themselves]…defeats the purpose of learning.” Instead, by packaging “nuggets of wisdom” in the bright, imagination-piquing form children’s books often come in, he is confident that young audiences are free to reflect on the stories themselves and develop intellectual and moral maturity.
Magicians behind the curtain
The power that children’s books hold is crucial as it aims to shape young audiences’ worldviews in every narrative told. Chua, for example, has written My Rights as a Human amid the apathy—even support—of many adults toward extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. “It inspired me to make a book that would break down the concepts of human rights to kids so they get exposed to it while they’re still young,” she illustrates.
Garlitos echoes these sentiments, “I want the children in my stories to be innocent yet mindful of what goes on in their realities even within their own families.” Many of the characters Garlitos writes, from those in Chenelyn! Chenelyn! to May Higante sa Aming Bahay, display an enduring mindfulness many don’t usually credit children for. Garlitos himself puts the nature of his young characters as “being aware of the presence of adults, but at the same time, [allowing themselves to] act like one.”
To breathe life into their craft, both authors cite inspiration from a desire to do better. Garlitos’ Olive Ridley Comes Home, a story about marine environmentalism, is drawn from his experiences with sea turtles and his personal advocacy to protect them. Chua, meanwhile, takes a more deliberate approach. “Questions like, ‘What problems does society have that I want to help solve?’ help jumpstart my creative process,” she shares.
Not all sunshine and rainbows
Behind the colorful pages and the fantastical, innocent nature of these literary pieces lies the harrowing truth: children’s book authors bare it all to educate and enlighten generations of future leaders. Yet, at times, they are not given the proper recognition or, at the very least, decent compensation.
Contrary to popular belief, writing children’s books is no child’s play. “Like any piece of art, it’s actually a very arduous process,” Chua adds. It requires mastery of the craft, with each artistic decision being deliberate and well-thought-out. Every bit of dialogue and imagery should be loaded with meaning and depth, yet palatable enough for children.
What’s more, Garlitos points out the unfortunate realities that most Filipino children’s book authors face. “You should have another job aside from writing,” he advises. He reveals that royalties for children’s books may be insufficient to fully financially support writers, explaining that it could take up to a year for the royalties to reach the pockets of the authors. In some cases, these fees are too scarce for the author to even afford personal needs.
The issues that plague the industry are systemic. Despite the accessibility and opportunities that social media platforms bring, Garlitos explains that not all authors are proficient in marketing their books nor do they have consistent funding. This is only further aggravated by the fact that some households view books as a wasted investment, instead opting for seemingly “more practical expenses” like food or clothing. “Kawawa naman ‘yung mga writers ng Pilipinas, diba?” he urges. “Tulungan natin. Kung bumibili kayo ng Jollibee at umiinom kayo ng Starbucks, baka gusto niyo [rin] bumili ng libro,” Garlitos banters.
(That’s quite unfortunate, right? So let’s help them. If you can afford Jollibee or Starbucks, maybe you can afford to buy books as well.)
Hope on the horizon
However, the industry is nearing the end of the tunnel, close enough to bask in the sunlight that it rightfully deserves. “There are more and more parents who have developed a habit of reading [and are now developing] personal libraries…for their children,” Garlitos exclaims. Artists like Chua are even becoming more adept in utilizing technology and social media platforms to interact with once-inaccessible audiences.
Public discourse surrounding what should and should not be discussed in children’s books has even penetrated mainstream media. This attempt at censorship can be traced back to the public’s notion that children are too innocent to understand such loaded topics. Yet, Chua remarks, “They are smarter than I think many adults give them credit for.” Just last year, Genaro Gojo Cruz’s Ako ay may Titi sparked public debate on the importance of sex education for younger Filipinos. “Children shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to more serious topics,” she adds. This shift in perspective is crucial to the vitality of the industry—a much-needed change of pace for the authors.
Unlike the characters found within the pages of these storybooks, literature itself is neither protagonistic nor antagonistic; yet there is certainty on what they do bring to the table. As Garlitos aptly shares, “It’s an investment into the intellect of our future generation of Filipinos,” an investment that transcends time, civilizations, and any personal agenda.