BREAKTHROUGH By Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star)

At the end of May the National Book Development Board, in partnership with Museo Pambata Foundation, held for the first time a two-day literary festival with a special focus on children’s literature. It was called “Little Lit Festival: A Coming of Age.”

The choice of title, even if unintended, is timely and relevant because Friday, June 7 marked the 18th anniversary of the signing into law of RA 8047 by President Fidel V. Ramos. Known as the Book Publishing Industry Development Act with former Senator Edgardo Angara, then Senate president, acknowledged as the father of the law. This was the decree that gave birth to the National Book Development Board (NBDB) that was founded in 1997. Its mandate includes providing “capacity-building services for the agency’s stakeholders” — agency-registered entities like publishers, authors, printers and all those involved in book production; promoting a culture of excellence in the industry; granting fiscal incentives to publishers as tax-and-duty free importation of raw materials and exemption from the Expanded Value Added Tax (EVAT). Its 2012 Annual Report highlights the promotion of excellence and ethical practices within the industry, inspired by P-Noy’s relentless commitment to tread the path of daang matuwid towards “a strong economic and educational climate... where every Filipino will enjoy the pleasures of reading books, especially that of our own.”

The agency, which is under the administrative supervision of the Department of Education, has in recent years been especially committed to its mission of encouraging readership by recognizing and celebrating Filipino authors. Its immediate past executive director Atty. Andrea Pasion-Flores is credited for bringing the agency to public consciousness through its carefully planned initiatives, all that with the agency’s modest budget. The running joke among its staff is that its total budget is even much, much less than its mother agency, DepEd’s chalk budget item. The public may wonder what this government agency actually does. It is encouraging to see that it is concerned with promoting the lifetime habit of reading, a critical need.

Since 2008, it has partnered with the Manila Critics Circle, a highly respected group founded by Dr. Isagani R. Cruz for the National Book Awards that honors the most outstanding books in the country. This ensures that this 31-year-old tradition endures and is institutionalized as a highlight of the Philippine Book Development Month held every November.

It is also in November when the Manila International Literary Festival is mounted. Organized for three consecutive years now, it brings together our literary community of authors, teachers, students in direct contact with international authors like Nigerian poet Chris Abani and Pulitzer Prize winners like Junot Diaz and Edward Jones.

On alternate years, it runs the National Children’s Book Awards with the Philippine Board on Books for Young People in July when the National Children’s Book Day is observed. With the growth of children’s publishing in the country and an increasing number of titles each year, it stands to reason that this industry has its own set of awards.
Aware of the need to promote readership in students, NBDB organizes a quarterly Booklatan sa Bayan in different provinces which devotes a day or two of teacher and librarian training workshops on teaching literature and awakening student interest in reading.

A significant boost for authors is the National Book Development Trust Fund established in 2009 by virtue of R.A. No. 9521 which authorized the creation of a P100 million trust fund to support and encourage authorship to complete manuscripts for publication in the fields of science and technology and in subject areas where titles written by local authors are either few or non-existent. The trust fund has been possible with the mandated contributions from PAGCOR and the PCSO. As the fund interest earnings grow, the number of grantees is envisioned to increase. The first set of grantees was: Antonio Enriquez for the novel; Mercedes Planta for research on health and wellness; Ma. Florina Y. Orillos-Juan for research on the environment and biodiversity.

The second set of grantees to receive the first tranche of their P200,000 grants on June 26 includes Telesforo Sungkit Jr. for the novel or book-length literary work originally written in Cebuano; Lars Raymund Ubaldo for the documentation/codification of traditional knowledge; Miguel D. Fortes for the habitat rehabilitation and social impacts category.

There are four categories for the next grant applications: local history of a province written in English or in Filipino; a novel written in Ilocano; a biography in Cebuano; livelihood/new technologies in entrepreneurship.

A common misconception is that among NBDB’s functions is the monitoring of the textbook industry. Many times, it is asked what it is doing about the quality of textbooks being used in schools, in the light of the publicity regarding errors and inaccuracies in them. The NBDB emphasizes that it has no such oversight authority, as it is still the DepEd that is solely responsible for its choice of teaching materials.

However, by way of partnering with the Department of Education with the shared objective of promoting quality books, the Highly Recommended Supplementary Materials exhibit was held to assist public and private schools in their selection of supplementary materials for classrooms and libraries. It featured books vetted by the Network of Outstanding Teachers and Educators, Inc. and the winners of different literary contests over the years. It is a growing bibliography available to the public.

Another major undertaking that should be better known and closely studied by decision-makers and educational leaders is the NBDB Readership survey conducted in 2003, 2007, and 2012, the first such comprehensive study on the reading habits and preferences of Filipinos.

While the NBDB continues to strive to make itself relevant, its chair, Neni Sta. Romana Cruz, is the first to admit that the agency’s mandate is a never ending pursuit. No attempts are ever enough to promote the culture of reading in our people, especially with technology that competes. But the NBDB remains resolute in its journey.

In the spirit of transparency, I am making full disclosure that the current chair is my wife, a writer and a book lover like myself.