By Maureen Bautista | Banner design by Samantha Palanca
What makes a children’s book controversial—to the point that it might never see publication? In the past decade, there have been a few children’s storybooks containing “taboo” topics that were censored or entirely rejected by publishing houses. Take the case of “Dalawa ang Daddy ni Billy,” written by Michael P. De Guzman and illustrated by Daniel Palma Tayona. De Guzman, who started writing the story in late 2001, has said in various interviews that though this book has been awarded an Honorable Mention at the 2003 Philippine Board on Books for Young People-Salanga Prize, it wasn’t until 2013 when a publishing house (Tahanan Books) accepted his manuscript. “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 [be] ashamed of. It’s normal.”
Even if these books manage to get past tight restrictions, libraries or even parents themselves can prevent these books from reaching the hands of a child by imposing a ban. A 2019 journal article about ending the censorship and banning of children’s books says that a common argument against reading “taboo” topics is that it may lead to bad behavior and thoughts since children are easily influenced by what they consume.
Times have changed, and so too have children’s storybooks, which have noticeably shifted from conservative to radical. Gen Z is often called the “woke generation,” and perhaps increased social awareness is a trait that will be passed down to younger or future generations. July is National Children’s Book Month, so it’s only fitting that we celebrate how writers, publishers and readers have progressed in recent years.
A significant step in the radicalization of children’s books happened in 2016 when Lampara Books called for submissions for an anthology entitled “Taas Kamao: Mga Radical na Kwentong Pambata,” which was set to feature age-appropriate works for children about dangerous or abusive situations, poverty and discrimination, among others. In a statement, Lampara Books wrote: “Matagal nang pinupuna ang panitikang pambata sa Pilipinas bilang ‘masyadong wholesome’ o kaya nama’y hiwalay sa tradisyong makabayan ng panitikang Filipino. 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 three-part “Antolohiya ng mga Radical na Kwentong Pambata” edited by Eugene Y. Evasco and Segundo Matias, Jr., with illustrators Dominic Ochotorena and Ivan Reverente, was published in 2018.
Morris Gleitzman, an Australian author of English children’s storybooks, argues that adults should not be afraid of exposing children to dark and “taboo” topics, saying: “Our young people live in a world,” he says in a panel discussion for Latrobe University’s Bold Thinking series, “where they can no longer be cotton-balled away from the many aspects of the world that cause us adults deep shame and unhappiness.” Shielding them from the serious side of life will limit their perception of the world and hamper the formation of their “personal moral landscape.” Of course, teaching these topics to kids can be difficult to do alone — which is where storybooks come in.
We have yet to reach the point where we can easily talk to children about topics like SOGIE (sexual orientation and gender identity and expression), bodily autonomy, and historical events rife with injustice and inhumanity, but it is certainly time to try to peel away the shame and stigma surrounding these things. Here, we compiled a list of Filipino children’s storybooks bold enough to tackle these topics. May these works serve as a stepping stone in raising smarter and kinder readers.
When Manang Elisa returns from a trip looking different, Tobey wonders if this is actually his friend. The Manang Elisa he knew had long hair and wore a red skirt. But this person has short hair, wears red basketball shorts and prefers to be called Manang Eli instead. “Dumating na si Manang Elisa!” teaches kids that altering one’s appearance according to their gender identity, especially if it differs from their assigned sex, doesn’t mean a change in their character.
This book is featured in Mulat Sulat, a program that promotes SOGIE inclusivity and representation in children’s storybooks. Program spokesperson Jason del Rosario said it centers around breaking the status quo and making “hindi kakaiba maging iba popular.” He adds, “Bahaghari ‘yong mundo natin. Napakadaming kulay, napakadaming kuwento. I think this is just our contribution to the vast amount of beautiful stories out there.” All five works (including “What’s My Power Gear?” written by Mondi Ruedas and illustrated by Ruthie Genuino) promoted in this program can be read for free.
Adel, the fierce and fabulous boy in pink, is different from boys his age. He likes wearing pink clothes, doing household chores, singing and dancing. Despite the many people who bully him for being different, the support he receives from his family empowers him to stand up for himself. This book questions why we must assign certain roles and qualities in males and females.
Rhandee Garlitos clarified that this book is about effeminacy (not homosexuality) in young boys, which might be the first children’s storybook in the world to tackle it. He asserts that effeminacy is “not a lifestyle, not a choice, and definitely not a disease” that can be cured but a natural identity. Effeminate boys don’t have to change who they are to fit in, and whether they like pink or blue has nothing to do with how they ought to be treated.
Get a copy at shop.vibal.group.com
“Ang Ikaklit sa Aming Hardin” was awarded first prize at the 2006 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in the short story for children category. It tells the story of Ikaklit (which means sunflower in the Bontoc language), a young girl who grew up with a loving family of two mothers that bond over gardening. She learns to be untroubled by the teasing of her classmates, learning that there is nothing wrong with “unconventional” families.
Just like how it doesn’t matter whether a male or female takes care of a plant, a family can develop and flourish despite any gender. The story talks about the idea that a family can take many forms: whether it consists of a father and mother, two fathers, two mothers or a single parent, we can call it a family as long as it’s bounded by love.
Get a copy at pumplepie.com
4. Ako ay May Titi (I Have a Penis) by Genaro R. Gojo Cruz, illustrated by Beth Parrocha (Lampara Books, 2019); Ako ay May Kiki (I Have a Vagina) by Glenda Oris, illustrated by Beth Parrocha (Lampara Books, 2020)
“Ang mga bagay na hindi alam ng mga bata ay hindi nila mapahahalagahan at maiingatan,” Lampara Books says on their Facebook page. “Ako ay May Titi” and “Ako ay May Kiki” attempts to normalize conversations with children about genitals. These books raise the importance of properly caring for one’s private parts and forbidding anyone from seeing or touching them, which medical experts say is the first step in defending oneself from sexual abuse.
Lydia M. Bowers, a sex educator, states that the habit of calling private parts with “cutesy” names due to embarrassment is harmful to children because it “[perpetuates] the idea that some body parts are dirty, bad or shameful.” Using the right terms will encourage children to be more confident in asking questions and raising concerns about their bodies, as well as warding off potential abusers.
Get a copy of these books at Precious Pages Bookstore.
5. Love My Body by Nikki Luna, illustrated by Julienne Dadivas (Power In Her Story, 2018)
As the first book published by Power In Her Story, an independent publishing house that advocates for women’s human rights and gender equality, this storybook tells us that “it is never too early to teach children that their body belongs to them and no one else.” With the many cases of sexual violence against the youth in our country, the feminist and artist Nikki Luna wants children to recognize the “power of consent” — which empowers them to speak up and say no to situations that make them uncomfortable.
To buy a copy, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Buy.” For every purchase, a child in a local marginalized community gets one copy in Filipino for free.
“Pinagmamalaki niya ang KANIYANG bansa dahil sa KANIYA ang buong bansa.” How does a nation live under a dictatorship where people are ruled by fear and punished without due process? Adults are advised to read this together with the child since the heavy subject may naturally lead to questions.
“Ito ang Diktadura” is part of Adarna House’s “Aklat ng Salin” series, which are Spanish books from “Libros para Mañana” translated to Filipino. Even at an early age, kids should understand that the role of the government is to serve the people with true dedication, not rule them with fear and out of selfish motives. The translation of this book into Filipino implies the topic’s relevance to the Filipino context, particularly the dictatorship of Marcos and the imposition of Martial Law.
Buy a copy at Adarna House.
Jenny regularly visits her mother Aling Chit, who is jailed for participating in a rally against Marcos in Camp Crame. Aling Chit would give her daughter a flower made from newspapers every time she visits her. Jenny yearns for her mother to come home as her room is soon filled with these flowers.
Adarna House collaborated with Edsa People Power Commission (EPPC) to educate young children on the Marcos regime, a time when “discipline” through detainment and imprisonment for going against the ideals of the government was believed to be a means to a better society. Given the many attempts to change the narratives of our past, future generations must never forget the hardships that Filipinos, including children who were separated from their parents for many years, experienced.