By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
Saturday, 21 November 2015
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The Philippine Book Development Month of November was off to a promising start with the “Booklatan sa Bayan” of the National Book Development Board (NBDB) at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) in Sta. Mesa. I had never been on that campus and was surprised at the oasis it provides in the congested part of the city. All I had associated the university with were the years of leadership of its well-known president and political activist, Nemesio Prudente, and former CNN Beijing bureau chief Jaime Flor Cruz heading the roster of outstanding alumni.

How did the NBDB and PUP cross paths? Booklatan is the NBDB’s 13-year grassroots program that promotes a culture of reading among young Filipinos by encouraging the production of original content, the promotion of library systems, and the renewal of public interest in local literature.

At each Booklatan, writers, storytellers and publishers are invited to speak to teachers, parents, students and other young readers. The concept has grown into a full-blown three-day festival because of the enthusiasm of our PUP partner, its Center for Creative Writing headed by Merdeka “Dekki” Morales. PUP, home to 70,000 students, reputed to be the largest student population in Manila, became host of our first university-based literary festival.

The initial sessions were on copyright and its personal and professional significance to the writer. Too heavy and too cerebral a topic? Not when two lively speakers make it so memorable and entertaining. Kudos to Filcols (Filipinas Copyright Licensing Society Inc.) executive director Alvin Buenaventura and author Beverly Siy for making copyright sound so cool.

Significantly enough, in the month when the 83rd birth anniversary of that avid book lover Ninoy Aquino is marked, the discussions and the book fair took place at the college library named in his honor.

Another noteworthy literary event was spearheaded by the UP Reading Education Area led by Portia Padilla. The full-day forum, “Isyu sa Kuwento, Kuwento sa Likod ng Isyu,” focused on six trend-setting children’s books on very sensitive topics. The NBDB supported this discussion as it is an idea whose time has come. Three books that were studied, showing how families can have different setups, are: La Salle Bacolod economics professor Jeanette Patindol’s “Papa’s House, Mama’s House,” on separation; Bernadette Neri’s “Ikaklit sa Aming Hardin,” on having two women as a parent-couple; and Eugene Evasco’s “Federico,” on having a special child in the family.

Children in different challenging circumstances were likewise given critical attention: Augie Rivera’s “Ang Lihim ni Lea,” on child abuse; Mindanao-based Mary Ann Floresta’s “War Makes Me Sad,” on conflict in Mindanao; and Russell Molina’s “Tuwing Sabado,” on weekly visits to a father in detention.

One would think these are realities in our children’s world to which they need to be exposed, particularly to hasten their healing or even the genuine expression of their feelings, were they similarly situated. However, as the authors recounted, there are sectors in our society that are uncomfortable with such books on sensitive issues. One bookstore manager did not want to carry a title, and a foundation devoted to book donations steered clear of unconventional family themes. And yet they are comfortable with all that movies and television expose children to?

We do not have the United States’ tradition of Banned Books Week every September. Perhaps we should, if only as a marketing ploy, to draw more attention to these outstanding books. One cannot help but smile at the honor roll of challenged books year in, year out: “Catcher in the Rye,” “Captain Underpants,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” “In the Night Kitchen,” the “Harry Potter” series, etc. When I was teaching young children, I was personally taken to task by some parents for exposing my students to a book on Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher to go to space except for the unfortunate space shuttle Challenger explosion soon after takeoff, witnessed by all, her family and students included.

Can we really shield our young readers from reality? Heed this counsel from YA novelist Ellen Hopkins: A word to the unwise./ Torch every book./ Char every page./ Burn every word to ash./ Ideas are incombustible./ And therein lies your real fear.

I am looking forward to the NBDB’s 6th Philippine International Literary Festival-Lalang, the very first one outside Metro Manila, in Davao. (“Lalang” is a Filipino term meaning “shape.”) The theme emphasizes the idea of writers creating, writing and publishing regardless of place of origin and target readership.

The most welcome twist to it is that even if the 38 Manila delegates do not make it, the Davao conference can happily proceed on its own with writers and experts from that part of the country. What heartwarming news that is.

Whether from Davao or Manila, we are starstruck at getting to know better our rich pool of Filipino literary talents, from Butch Dalisay to Tita Lacambra-Ayala to New-York-based Fil-Am Mia Alvar, recently hailed by the New York Times as a young talent to watch following her Knopf short story collection “In the Country.”

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( [email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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