Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In “Dalawa ang Daddy ni Billy,” a new children’s book published by Tahanan Books for Young Readers, Billy is bullied by classmates for having two fathers.
“Sabi ni Jay, sabi daw po ng nanay niya bakla daw po kayong dalawa ni Papa kaya bakla din daw po ako,” the young Billy tells his fathers in the book. “Ano po ang bakla?”
It’s not a question that often appears in children’s books in the Philippines. But if one will visit the young readers’ shelves in libraries and bookstores, titles like “Dalawa ang Daddy ni Billy” (written by Michael P. De Guzman and illustrated by Daniel Palma Tayona) — which tackle controversial, sensitive, or difficult topics — are beginning to occupy significant space in the lexicon.
Adarna House, for example, also recently released a board book, titled “My Family,” written by Kata Garcia and illustrated by Borg Sinaban. The title sounds traditional enough, but flipping the book open reveals horizontally split pages, allowing readers to explore and decide for themselves the many different forms a family can take. In 2017, Adarna House also released “Ito Ang Diktadura” and “Mga Uring Panlipunan,” books that take on the perils of an authoritarian regime and diligently explain class differences.
Lampara Books, in 2016, called for submissions for an anthology then called “Taas Kamao: Mga Radikal na Kwentong Pambata,” and asked contributors for tales described as “pangahas na kwentong pambata.” Suggestions included age-appropriate stories about children in conflict, victims of abuse, children of farmers, workers, Lumad, and the urban poor, children part of non-traditional families, stories about peace, discrimination, environmental responsibility, and the like.
In the accompanying statement published in its website, Lampara critiqued children’s books and literature in the Philippines. “Matagal nang pinupuna ang panitikang pambata sa Pilipinas bilang ‘masyadong wholesome’ o kaya nama’y hiwalay sa tradisyong makabayan ng panitikang Filipino,” the statement says.
“Nananatiling hadlang sa kapangahasan ng mga aklat pambata ang paniniwalang ito’y ‘para lamang sa mga bata’ at sa mahigpit na pagbabantay ng mga institusyon gaya ng pamilya, paaralan, at simbahan,” the statement continues. “Ang proyektong ito ay tugon sa kakulangan ng pag-akda ng mga radikal, eksperimental, at rebolusyonaryong kuwento para sa mga bata.”
Two years later, the project came into fruition. This year, Lampara Books published the three-part “Antolohiya ng mga Radikal na Kwentong Pambata,” edited by Eugene Y. Evasco and Segundo D. Matias, Jr., with illustrators Dominic Ochotorena (“Hulagpos” and “Piglas”) and Ivan Reverente (“Baklas”).
How radical is “radical”?
In the history of Philippine publishing, the collections above are by no means the first or the only children’s books to tackle highly political or sensitive topics. But “children’s books publishers are becoming bolder,” says Ani Almario, vice president of Adarna House and president of the Reading Association of the Philippines, among others.
“We saw a lot of books being launched that tackled LGBT storylines or issues, and then there were anthologies launched by Lampara, ‘Mga Radikal na Kwentong Pambata,’” she says, speaking of the recent Manila International Book Fair. “So ‘yung tuon ng series na iyon ay to portray kids’ populations that are often marginalized in children's lit. There are efforts to widen the whole range of themes tackled by children's literature, and also to increase the range of representation, para hindi lang typical middle-class kid in an urban setting ang ma-portray.”
Over at Tahanan Books, “Dalawang Daddy ni Billy,” for example, contributes to a growing body of books tackling modern families in non-typical settings. Its thematically closest predecessor includes “Ang Bonggang Batang Beki” written by Rhandee Garlitos and illustrated by Tokwa Peñaflorida, published by Chikiting Books (Vibal) in 2013.
Yet the story for “Billy” has been around for at least 15 years, having been awarded an Honorable Mention at the PBBY-Salanga Prize in 2003. Earlier plans to publish the book failed to push through, until the author, De Guzman, found a publisher who meets his sensibilities: Tahanan Books.
While the book centers around bullying and having parents that belong to the LGBTQ community, De Guzman did not write it as a “tool” for any particular advocacy. “At that time, I had many friends who are gay, and they had parental roles … Meron din talagang nag-adopt,” he says. “Ang feeling ko noon, there should come a time when ito, ‘di na ito issue.”
The approach, De Guzman says, was to tell the story to reflect society. “I present [it] as something na nangyayari sa society ngayon. Hindi sensational, and closer to the truth.”
“We don't see the material as radical,” adds Meg Roxas, marketing communications officer for Ilaw ng Tahanan Publishing. “We want to look at it as a typical story of a family. If you read the story, it’s very direct, simple, and clear: it's about a kid who was bullied because he had a different family setup … it's an important story about empathy.”
Illustrator Tayona agrees with Roxas. “I actually never saw it as a radical story. I actually saw it as a loving story of an ordinary, day-to-day Filipino family na nagkataon lang na dalawang matabang tatay,” he laughs.
In developing “Billy,” there seems to be less emphasis on being “radical” or non-traditional, and more on providing an accurate description of the world a child moves in — an important consideration when designing books appropriate for children.
“Everybody, I'm sure, has a gay aunt, uncle,” says Tahanan managing editor Frances Ong. “So why don’t we have books that represent this part of our society? This is an aspect of life and it’s not something to ashamed of. It's normal.”
As a professor, Almario is happy about the growing representation of underrepresented sectors in children’s books. While talking about recent Adarna releases such as “Inside Daniel’s Head” (a novel “without a plot” by Joji Reynes-Santos) and “Mga Mata ni Migoy” (written by Jesl Xena Rae Cruz and illustrated by Beth Parrocha) — both about autism — she emphasizes the necessity of increased representation in children’s literature.
“Kailangang nilang makita ang sarili nila sa panitikan,” she says. “At kailangan din ng mga regular na bata na makitang pino-portray sa panitikan ‘yung mga kasama nilang bata na may special needs. Para ma-increase ang pag-intindi.”
Independent models for publishing children’s books, such as the one in CANVAS (Center for Art, New Ventures, and Sustainable Development), also encourage a wider array of writers to submit stories more apt for the times, via storytelling competitions held five times a year. CANVAS has released activity books tackling environmental protection, human rights issues, and freedom of expression, among others.
But there are still a lot of gaps to be filled when one talks about how children’s books reflect reality. Evasco, who edited “Antolohiya ng mga Radikal na Kwentong Pambata,” says in an online blog interview: “Kailangan ng tapang at kapangahasan sa pagsulat ng kuwento na tumatalakay sa mga sensitibong usapin at inilalahok ang bata sa pakikibaka tungo sa makatarungan, ligtas, at payapang lipunan.”
“Ang antolohiya ay simula pa lamang ng aming proyekto na makapanghikayat sa mga manunulat para sa bata na ilahok ang mga usaping panlipunan sa kanilang mga sulatin,” he continues.
The endeavor requires a delicate balancing act: the need to develop age-appropriate material for children, coupled with a strong conviction for what children’s literature should depict about society.
When developing children’s books, publishers are mindful of several factors that vary depending on age, such as number of words, likeness with actual figures, among others. “There's such a thing as developmentally appropriate books,” says Tahanan’s Roxas. “Kasi as early as possible i-introduce mo na ‘yung bata sa libro. Kahit ‘yung pagbukas lang ng pages, kahit ‘di pa siya maka-relate sa binabasa niya — basta alam niya ‘yung gamit ng libro. Sisimulan mo muna sila sa basics.”
Publishers are also mindful of “controversial” topics at the outset. “We're mindful about how different types of people will react to our publications,” says Adarna’s Almario. “That comes in the very first stage, when we choose a story to be published … But I always believe na nananaig sa amin na kailangan na namin ‘yung librong ito, kailangan na ‘yung theme na ito.”
Adarna previously released a collection, developed with the EDSA People Power Commission, on martial law in the Philippines. It includes “EDSA,” a colorful counting book set against the backdrop of the 1986 People Power Revolution; “Isang Harding Papel,” about a child whose mother is in prison during martial law; and “12:01,” about curfew, targeted for young teenagers. There’s also “Si Jhun-Jhun, Noong Bago Ideklara ang Batas Militar,” which is part of Adarna’s Batang Historyador series.
“‘Yung discussion there is — gusto ba natin ma-identify with them? Kasi parang sobrang dilaw. Parang hindi mo ‘yun ma-a-avoid,” she says. “Kaso we also thought, hindi eh. Regardless ano man ‘yung political color, we thought we needed to shine a spotlight on that particular point in Philippine history, and kids have to know about it.”