By Rafael Besa | Banner Design by Paulina Linarez

Literary heritage is a complex term, and in the Filipino context, it’s more often than not divided according to different eras and their corresponding influences. Would it pertain to the Spanish or English works created during the colonial era, or does it truly begin with the first published Tagalog works at the tail end of the 19th century? Arguably, more people would first recall the books present in school curricula such as “Noli me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” by Jose Rizal, and “Florante at Laura” by Francisco Balagatas, and few would mention more obscure fields such as that of children’s literature. 

Beyond the many picture books across different genres, there are also magazines about popular culture, recent compositions by aspiring poets on the internet, and even historical documents such as Rizal’s early illustrations. The more freeform, relatively simplified methodology of these types of works has deemed it an endeavor of purely leisure or for the purposes of educating the youth.

Thus, in the face of an increasingly more interconnected world, the studies of business, science, and  literature dominantly based around critique takes precedence over any kind of remotely creative pursuit. But in reality, these writings are a critical part of our heritage and do have practical applications in modern society. A relevant example for the latter is reading therapy: a form of expressive healing that focuses on the creation and connection to reading materials with a positive effect on children for both educational and therapeutic purposes. Therefore, whether it be the creativity and lasting impact left by poetry, or the nurturing role of children’s picture books, the appreciation of this dimension of literature is a step in the right direction in ascertaining the true scope of Filipino identity.

A Celebration of the Youth

July 20 was a national holiday for Eid al-Adha. Many of us would only remember it as a no work or class day, a much needed respite from the demands of weekday responsibilities. Yet, with the exception of a few dedicated literary institutions and educational centers, many have forgotten or even simply not been aware of the celebration of National Children’s Book Day.

This day, honored every third Tuesday of July, has been celebrated since the first publication of Jose Rizal’s retelling of “the Monkey and the Turtle,” produced by the London-based Trubner’s American and Oriental Literary Record. Last year, they upheld this celebration of Filipino heritage at the height of the pandemic through a collaboration between the Philippine Board on Books for Young People and the Cultural Center of the Philippines entitled “Sa Pagbabasa, Hindi ka Nag-iisa.” It was through this program that they led the creation of educational events, talks and workshops aimed at reaching out to children on all platforms at no cost. For the year of 2021, we must strive for the continued celebration (and progress) of the youth’s education. With that, let’s take a look at the evolution of children’s literature in relation to our history—it might help us better understand the role of children’s literature in shaping our country’s future.

Evolution on the Literary Level

Filipino children’s literature first began in our pre-colonial roots as individual regions seeking to preserve their cultures against the test of time, forming their own lullabies and epics through oral tradition. In Luzon, lullabies like “Duoay ya” of the Ilocanos and “Ili-Ili Tulog Anay” of the Illonggo became critical for adults to educate their young in philosophies and religious beliefs. Even rhymes that exist to this day like “Pen Pen de Sarapen” came from these pre-colonial practices, in this case chanted by children during mock battles and plays. They would go on to form their own mythologies, helping maintain the survival of these early Filipino habits even as the arrival of Europeans sought to shape our ancestors’ lives under a very different vision.

It wasn’t long before the Spaniards’ first landings in the 16th century erased many traces of local literature. What’s more, practices like the strict adherence to all manner of beliefs and maintaining oral traditions were carried on not in the propagation of Filipino values but in the conversion to Christianity. Over the centuries, adult and children’s works were commissioned to “re-educate” Filipinos as Spanish control was established throughout the rest of the islands; turning Filipino indios into model Christians and subjects of the Spanish Crown. 

Even as revolutionary fires began to light in the late 19th century, adherence to Catholicisim and Western ideologies among the illustrados defined contemporary Filipino society throughout the period. The later arrival of the Americans that introduced their own renditions of Western literature such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Alice and Wonderland” did little to dissuade Filipino faith in established religious teachings, only realigning pre-existing learning techniques and overall education of the youth in line with American authority. Rather, there was confusion among the younger generations of Filipinos unable to grasp, let alone experience, the nature of American expressions and references.

Nevertheless, the Filipino child consistently learned and absorbed the lessons taught, essentially making these new values their own. As the first decades of the 20th century passed, there was more creative and literary freedom. Filipinos created their own books separate from the primarily religious nature of Spanish-era literature or the Western sciences of the Commonwealth. Pictures in children’s books, first in handmade black and white patterns, then eventually comics that also catered to young adults emerged through the often uncredited efforts of Filipino illustrators, writers and translators. Rizal was one such individual,  retelling a popular folktale, “The Monkey and the Turtle.”  In the 1920s,  Liwayway magazine printed the still-running “Mga Kabalbalan ni Kenkoy” by illustrator Tony Velasquez and scriptwriter Romualdo Ramos, the former of which is considered by many to be the father of Filipino comics.

During the American era, artists such as Fernando Amorsolo worked on children’s literature with the encouragement of student cartoonists under the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts. Overtime, they honed their craft and continually pushed the boundaries of Filipino art even after the country’s formal independence in 1946. Eventually, comics and children’s picture books evolved into cartoons.

Still Children at Heart

On a deeper level, literature has a positive effect on the overall development and level of reasoning that seek to harness a child’s growing ability to better prepare them for environmental realities. Through these mechanisms, fantastical elements alongside more factual content helps the child better recognize information through the use of literary devices such as pictures and the more subtle inclusion of moral themes. Philosophies and lessons gleaned from even simple picture books can be applied to practical scenarios and improve the ability to adapt. However, this does not simply serve as an early acclimation period before formal schooling or in between the day-to-day activities of a child’s life. Rather, literature may also have a therapeutic effect on their well-being. Research has shown that stories induce increased self-esteem and facilitate better interpersonal skills. Alongside these health-related benefits, children’s books work alongside familial nurturing and ultimately help shape the overall character of children as they approach maturity.

Children’s writings have evolved parallel to wider Filipino literary movements, adapting to meet the beliefs of the period yet still upholding our distinct traditions since before the arrival of either the Spanish or the Americans. The simple fact that many of the same nursery rhymes, games and books are still played by children today shows that the true root of our history continues to be renewed by our society’s youngest and newest members. 

Indeed, poetry and children’s literature still play a practical role as an effective tool in guiding childhood development but the crucial connection it has to overall identity is undeniable. It’s true that our identity as a fusion of cultures tends to have divisive effects when trying to envision a distinctly Filipino image but it may also be a strength that allows a more open understanding of the world around us.

The children of our country and the books they hold close to their hearts are quite literally the key to our future and with the right encouragement, will continue to carry the legacy of the Filipino for centuries to come. Thus, the innate importance that poetry, folktales and compositions have on children as well as their contribution to the overall Filipino identity as a historical part of our heritage. As Rizal stated in his poem “To the Filipino Youth,”

Hold high the brow serene,

O youth, where now you stand;

Let the bright sheen

Of your grace be seen,

Fair hope of my fatherland!

Disclaimer: The views shared in this article do not reflect or represent those of the National Book Development Board.