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Asian Festival of Children’s Content
23–26 May 2024

by Neni Sta. Romana Cruz


Perhaps the prevailing mood and temperament of children’s literature in the Philippines today is best reflected in the titles that have been cited in the National Book Awards (NCBA).  The NCBA is a biennial initiative of the PBBY and the National Book Development Board (NBDB) that first began in 2010.

This has been an apt partnership as the PBBY is a private, nonstock, nonprofit organisation committed to the development of children's literature in the Philippines. The PBBY, a forty-year old organisation, is the lead agency in the celebration of National Children's Book Day (NCBD). On the other hand, the NBDB is the government agency mandated to promote the country’s book industry.

The NCBA was envisioned to recognise exceptional children’s books for their content and illustrations towards a Best Reads List, an honours list that does not rank the books, a departure from the usual competitions.  Unlike other contests, the NCBA selects an honours list avoiding the competitiveness that characterises the traditional rankings of first, second, and third places. The Best Reads can reach a maximum of ten honourees.

This was also in answer to requests by parents and educators for guidance in reading selection and purchases. The NCBA is the country’s premiere award for locally published children’s and young adult books. A board of experts of authors, illustrators, critics, book designers, and book production specialists is convened to evaluate titles published in a two-year period.

First the bad news before the good.  It is now on its 8th year and it has been rare that the selection has reached ten titles each time in any one year. It only points the way towards continuing growth in the writing and the illustration of children’s books. 

But that should not dampen the spirit because the rich diversity of the selected titles has been happy and promising—and remarkable—discoveries.

Here are some picks from the NCBA over the years and relevant background information on their publication. The Best Reads List embody the growth and development of different storyline themes from the fanciful to the realistic to the historical, and equally noteworthy is the choice of genres for the books.  The continuing growth in sophistication of the actual look and format of the publications manifests an industry that continues to experiment and to explore new techniques, new possibilities.

The first Best Reads list included Araw sa Palengke/A Day at the Market, written by May Tobias-Papa and illustrated by Isabel Roxas for Adarna House.  It remains a classic today because it is an outstanding example of how text and visual images blend together.  It is a delightful and charming book that is thoroughly engaging.

Adarna House deserves special mention because it is the oldest publishing house of children’s books in the country, established in 1980.  It was established to respond to the need of Filipino children to read quality books that feature Filipino values, culture, history and experiences. The company is named after the Adarna bird, the mythical creature whose song could cure any affliction. It publishes books and educational materials for children of all ages. It has also began to successfully develop digital products.

Tuwing Sabado (Every Saturday) by Russell Molina, illustrated by Sergio Bumatay III and published by Lampara Books deals with an unusual story of a boy who spends his Saturdays visiting his father in detention, something revealed only at the end.  The subject matter of the story is sensitive, yet the reader is filled with delight about all that the father does for his son during those visits.

Doll Eyes by Eline Santos, translated by Augie Rivera, and illustrated by Joy Mallari is published by CANVAS (The Center for Art, New Ventures & Sustainable Development).  This is a haunting read taking us through the labyrinth of a crowded district in Manila, Quiapo. It is eerie, as we are brought to the dollmaker’s shop with her terrified and terrifying dolls. Despite the mysterious twists and turns, a reassuring ending happens.

This book began like CANVAS’ other titles, with a painting or a piece of sculpture by a Filipino artist that invites Filipino authors to submit storylines for in the Romeo Forbes Storywriting Competition held twice a year.  The published books with the exquisite illustrations have become collectors’ items. It has a continuing book donation and reading promotion campaign, One Million Books for One Million Filipino Children, which donates its award-winning books to public schools, hospitals, and disadvantaged children. Because of its paramount aim of making their books accessible, its books are all downloadable free of charge.

CANVAS’ latest endeavour is the ongoing development of the site of the Tumba-Tumba Children’s Museum of Philippine Art in Batangas, a province south of Manila. The Museum will showcase child-friendly Philippine art towards promoting and encouraging a love for books and an invitation to reflect on the key issues of the times:  the power of storytelling, children’s rights, climate change, and safety on the internet.  

We believe that a child empowered by art and stories can change the world.

Tall Story written by London-based Candy Gourlay with illustrations by the now-defunct Cacho Publishing House lives on as it has been translated into Italian in 2012, Una Storia Gigante. The protagonist Andi is obsessed with basketball but nobody plays it in England where she lives with her mom, a nurse in a London hospital.  Besides, she is too small for the sport.  Her brother Bernardo arrives from the Philippines and he is not only tall, but is an eight-foot tall giant.

Tall Story has been shortlisted for several prizes in the UK, including the Carnegie Medal.  Her other YA novels include Shine, Bone Talk, and Wild Song, shortlisted for the 2023 Nero Book Award, nominated for the 2024 Carnegie Medal for Writing and The Observer Best Children’s and Young Adult Books of 2023.

The Great Duck and Crocodile Race written and illustrated by Robert Magnuson and published by  Hiyas-OMF Literature is a delightful story for the very young with the most charming illustrations—elements that lure the readers to read on. It carries the wonderful insight that no one needs to be a loser in any race.

Bulul by Mary Ann Ordinario, illustrated by Beth Parrocha deals with the subject of death, one challenging especially for a child to understand and accept.  Bulul are carved ancestor figures meant to guard the rice crops in granaries.  The term also refers to the name of a class of ancestor spirits and also the carvings that serve as sacred vessels to house these ancestors. In the story, the child’s grief on the loss of her grandfather is assuaged by the bulul that her grandfather had lovingly carved and left behind for her.

It is published by ABC Educational Center based in Kidapawan City, Cotabato in Mindanao. It boasts of a track record of thirty years with books translated into  Hindi, Urdu, Mandarin, Bahasa, Azerbaijani, Nepali, Thai. Ordinario is the sole author of her publishing house and writes on the culture of Mindanao, aspects of which are shared by many East Asian countries.

Knocking on Benok’s House by Mon Sy with illustrations by Faye Abantao is published by CANVAS.  The dark and eerie cover hints at a harrowing story about the country’s drug war.  The darkness and horror faced by a community are overcome when the citizens band together to face the “Knockers.”

Author Gabriela Dans Lee writes about a well-known visual artist who is her maternal grandmother in Cely’s Crocodile: The Art and Story of Araceli Limcaco Dans. It is illustrated by Adrian Panadero and published by Tahanan Books for Young Readers. As a young girl, she teaches herself to draw when her father brings home a crocodile.  Her life and her art are traced through different historical periods to the present as she persists in her art.  Art has served Araceli Dans well, “in times of war and in times of peace.”

Tahanan is the Filipino word for “home,” where the love of reading ought to begin. Known for its meticulous attention to text and artwork, its books have won several awards.  It has published over 150 titles which showcase biographies of Philippines heroes, folk tale and short story collections, reference and science books, bilingual and Filipino picture books, and a line of witty and humorous Pinoy pop culture books. 

Ako ay May Kiki (I Have a Vagina) written by Glenda Oris, illustrated by Beth Parrocha and published by Lampara Books (2020), deals with a topic that is not openly talked about.  It makes a breakthrough because through a story and direct information, the care and hygiene of one’s private parts. Experts have said that using “cutesy” terms for the genitals conveys a sense of discomfort and shame for the young. That also gives the impression that some body parts cannot be named and are “dirty, bad, or shameful.”  Books like this allow an honest conversation between adults and children.  Happily, it has been received in Europe and has merited a recent translation.  Happily, it has been well-received in Europe and has merited a recent Italian translation.

Alandal (2021)  by Jay Philip Ignacio, illustrated by Alex Niño and published by Komiket, Inc. is an outstanding example of the quality of our graphic novels today and explains the popularity of the genre here and abroad.  Reading this book, one wishes more of our history books would be presented in this format targeting our present generation of students.

Its publisher, Komiket is a non-profit organisation that organises comics art markets and publishes Filipino komiks. Through its efforts, graphic novels have been well represented and well received in Frankfurter Buchmesse since 2021.  Alandal is the first comics title to be published by a German publisher. The Philippines participated for the very first time at the International Rights Market at the 51st Anguolême International Comics Festival where Komiket presented over 52 Philippine comic and graphic novel titles to global publishers.

Safe Space: A Kid’s Guide to Data Privacy written by Gigo Alampay and illustrated by Liza Flores, Abi Goy, Frances Alvarez, and Jamie Bauza was published by CANVAS (2020) introduces the children to the concept of personal data and how they can protect themselves while online. Data privacy is a difficult concept to explain and this book through the choice of words, illustrations, and activities are engaging and thoughtful.  It is informative, well-made, and a timely title.

Flores, Goy, Alvarez and Bauza are some of the members of Ang INK (Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan), the Philippines’ first and only organisation of illustrators solely dedicated to children’s illustration. It began in 1995 when PBBY and the Goethe-Institut Manila organized an illustration workshop facilitated by a visiting German illustrator, Reinhard Michl. The group of twenty-one artists in attendance realised that their shared interests could not end with a workshop.  They banded together to form Ang INK to “professionalise the industry, encourage the creation and appreciation of illustrations for children, and uplift the quality of illustrations for children.” Their distinct presence in the industry attests to all that and they are acknowledged for their significant work in boosting the quality of children’s book publishing today.

The Little Girl in a Box written by Felinda Bagas and illustrated by Aldy Aguirre is a stunning children’s book published by Adarna House (2015).  The printing, the quality of paper used, and the illustrations are commendable.  It is the story of an orphaned girl who lived in an ordinary cardboard box and the narrative follows her search for a place where she can find love and care. 

What Kids Should Know About Andres and the Katipunan, published by Adarna House in 2016, was written by Weng Cahiles and illustrated by Isa Natividad. Reading it makes one wish all history books were as interesting and exciting. A truly engaging way to learn about history and an important Filipino hero.

 Si Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tábon written by Edgar Calabia Samar and illustrated by Borg Sinaban, published by Adarna House (2014) is best described as the tale of a young boy’s courage amidst the darkness in his life.  This suspenseful story weaves together mysterious events and characters from Philippine folklore and role-playing from video games which appeals to all gamers.  Samar is a multi-awarded poet and novelist.  The English translation of his first novel, Eight Muses of the Fall was longlisted in the Man Asia Literary Prize in 2009.

Mang Andoy's Signs by Mailin Paterno, illustrated by Isabel Roxas and published by Tahanan Books for Young Readers (2015) tells of the challenge of a signmaker who is told by the Mayor to make signs that would turn the unruly community into more law-abiding citizens.  The writer and the illustrator live up to the challenge with engaging results.

Si Kian by Weng Cahiles and illustrated by Aldy Aguirre was published by the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism and Adarna House (2017) documents the story of the senseless murder of a high school student Kian de los Santos by three policemen during the drug war.  His coldblooded murder was widely covered by the media and rendered more pathetic because he was begging to be let go as he still had an exam in school the next day.  The story’s intensity is heightened by Aguirre’s “dreamy watercolour illustrations.”   The policemen were convicted for murder.

 A Lolong Time Ago, published by Tahanan Books for Young Readers (2017), is an interesting book written by a team of writers Michelline Suarez, Joonee Garcia, and Divine Reyes and illustrator Benjor Catindig, which narrates in a very interesting and entertaining way how the nation came to be.  It is our story—how our islands were formed, how creative and ingenious our earliest ancestors were, and what life was like in prehistoric times. The book is billed as Halo-Halo Histories, the first title in the series.

Lost, written and illustrated by Rob Cham and published by Adarna House and Anino Comics (2016), is a successful wordless book that is able to maintain the balance between what is revealed and hidden from the reader to discover.  The storyline is about an adventurer in search of a mysterious treasure.

Cashaysayan: A History of Philippine Money, written by Michelline Suarez, Joonee Garcia, and Divine Reyes and illustrated by Benjor Catindig, published by Tahanan Books for Young Readers (2017), is Halo-Halo Histories 2. The authors agree that “money talks" and thus allow the money in your wallet tell you their stories—how it was invented, how it first came to our shores, and why it looks the way it does.

Habulan (The Chase), written by Kora Dandan Albano, illustrated by Beth Parrocha Doctolero, translated by Fran Ng, published by Anvil Publishing (2016), is a poetry picture book that has a cast of Philippine mythological creatures—an old man on the mound, a cigar-smoking tree giant, and a winking separator. It is a breathless and playful adventure of a chase.

Meläg is published by Adarna House and Anino Comics (2016), written and illustrated by Bong Redilla.  This is a collection of short comics that invites the reader to visit and be enchanted with the magical land of Melag. 

Tagu-Taguan:  A Counting Book in Filipino, written and illustrated by Jomike Tejio and published by Tahanan Books for Young Readers, uses all the backyard creepy crawlies one can discover. It is amazing how the writer-illustrator has vividly reproduced the exact anatomical details of the butterflies, the segments of the earthworms, the hind legs of the grasshoppers, the joints of the spiders’ legs to accompany his playful verse. The title may be translated as “hide-and-seek”. An enjoyable game for all.

A newly-launched award for the field is the Severino Reyes Medal to honour the most outstanding picture books, storybooks, and young adult books published in the country over the last decade. The award, established by International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Philippines is named after Filipino playwright and writer Reyes who is best known for his 1898 Tagalog zarzuela, Walang Sugat (literally, no wound or unwounded) and acknowledged to be the father of Philippine drama.  His stories which live on today are those he wrote under the pen name, Lola Basyang.

The 2024 recipients of the medal include, I Like Wearing Rainbows, for Best Story Book (published by the Center for Art, New Ventures, and Sustainable Development, written by Agay Llanera, illustrated by Lui Manaig); Kalambing, for Best Picture Book (published by Adarna House, written by Augie Rivera, illustrated by Al Estrella); and Moymoy Lulumboy: Ang Batang Aswang for Best Young Adult Book (published by Lampara Publishing House Inc., written by Segundo Matias Jr., illustrated by Jomike Tejido).

I Like Wearing Rainbows by Llanera/Manaig is the powerful touching story of a boy enamoured with the colourful clothes in his grandmother’s closet, a symbol of the early manifestations of his gender identity.

Kalambing by Rivera/Estrella is the playful story of a goat who is adamant about joining a race for carabaos and despite successive rejections, finally is accepted in the fold.  “Kalambing” is the portmanteau in Filipino for carabao-goat (kalabaw-kambing).

Moymoy Lulumboy: Ang Batang Aswang (Moymoy Lulumboy: The Child Witch) is the story of Moymoy, born of a goddess but raised by humans. Because of his magical skills like shape-shifting, he is able to journey back to the world of mythical creatures.  This title is the first in a Moymoy series.

IBBY Philippines is a new National Section initiated and applied for
by Vibal Foundation.

There are many promising prospects for the children’s literature sector, especially after its successful first-ever national stand at the 2024 Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

Not that there was any doubt that Philippine children’s literature would remain “undiscovered” and unappreciated for long. 

Not with its premier organisation of children’s book illustrators (Ang INK) being the most sought-after artists in the country today. 

Not with the rise of books on topics—both political and personal—previously considered taboo and not meant for young readers. 

Not with the rise of graphic literature attracting much international attention. 

Not with the crossover of books into different media and vice-versa—on Netflix, on stage for a musical play and a ballet, and even national postage stamps featuring the art of Beth Parrocha to celebrate the 2023 National Children’s Month.

Everything’s looking up for Philippine children’s literature these days with the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in 2024 and the country as Guest of Honour in 2025 at the Frankfurter Buchmesse.

Flor Marie Sta. Romana-Cruz (Neni) is a freelance journalist, educator, book reviewer, children's book writer, and Chair of the National Book Development Board.

Her books include Tales from EDSA, Gabriela Silang, The Warrior Dance and Other Classic Philippine Sky Tales, The Boy Who Would Feed the World, The Teacher, and Why the Piña Has a Hundred Eyes and Other Classic Philippine Folktales About Fruits, which won the Manila Critics Circle’s National Book Award for Children’s Literature.

She has also written a series on Philippine pop culture: Don’t Take a Bath on a Friday: Philippine Superstitions and Folk Beliefs, and the bestsellers You Know You’re Filipino If… A Pinoy Primer, and the Ngalang Pinoy: A Primer on Filipino Wordplay. Her work been anthologised in over 20 books.

She was former chair of the Philippine Board on Books for Young People. She continues to be a reading advocate today as trustee and trainer of the Teach for the Philippines Foundation (formerly the Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation) and the Department of Education's Library Hub, which dreams of building a nation through reading promotion programs in public schools.

She writes a column on literacy and education and occasionally writes reviews.


Pic c/o NBDB