By Beaulah Pedregosa Taguiwalo
The 4th children’s book seminar of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) was held in Iloilo City last Saturday September 18, 2010.
As usual, we had the seminar at the University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV) Art Gallery inside a lovely old building built in the 1930s. Way up in the high domed ceiling of the grand front lobby, there are coffee colored stains shaped like oversized ink blots. They are caused by bats whose ancestors have probably hung there, upside down, way before any of us were even born. In the gallery itself, the stainless steel and copper animal sculptures of Januiay artist Antonio Wuthrich surrounded us, providing inspiration and artistic ambiance. Bats or no bats, we were all set.
We had twenty seven attendees: eleven pre-school and high school teachers, three art instructors, three Montessori school teachers/administrators, two university professors, an education college major, two student teachers, a minister and his wife, a graphic artist/illustrator, an information technology (IT) content writer, and a self-employed entrepreneur.
This time, our host and partner Professor Vicente Tan conducted the opening session on writing for children while Dominique Garde Torres conducted a mid-afternoon session on writing scripts for children. I conducted our classic offerings—the roundtable Booktalk, Notable Children’s Books, and Children’s Books in Hiligaynon or Kinaray-a.
Writing for Children
Professor Vicente Tan (Vinnie) teaches Communication and Media Studies at UP Visayas, chairs the UPV Chancellor’s Committee for Culture and the Arts (CCCA), and curates the UPV art gallery. He has conducted training programs in theater, leadership, and team building for pre-elementary, elementary, and high school students. He talked about writing for children by drawing from one’s past. For example, he discussed the script that he wrote for a short film for children. It is based on his own experience and stories that he heard as a child about underworld creatures: mga tamáwo, mga kápre, mga kamâ-kamâ—Iloilo’s variants of fairies, ogres, and elves.
Cultural worker and arts administrator Joseph Albaña added his own insights, drawn from his experience in working with the Theater Arts Guild of UP Visayas and going all the way back to running the Australian Centre in Makati.
For the Booktalk, we brought forty children’s and YA books: Jerry Pinkneys’ 2010 Caldecott winner The Lion & The Mouse; Neil Gaiman’s 2010 Carnegie winner and 2009 Newbery winner The Graveyard Book; Connie Pirner’s and Nadine Bernard Westcott’s Even Little Kids Get Diabetes; Jamie Lee Curtis’ and Laura Cornell’s Tell Me Again About The Night I Was Born; Norman Rockwell’s Counting Book; Ellen Spinelli’s and Betsy Lewin’s Heat Wave; Sherry Garland’s and Tatsuro Kiuchi’s The Lotus Seed; Neil Gaiman’s and Charles Vess’s Blueberry Girl; and other books published abroad.
We also had books published in the Philippines such as Karen Flores’ and Mark Justiniani’s The Chair King; Raechelle Castellon’s and Maria Bernadette Solina-Wolf’s Lost At Sea and other seafarer children’s stories; the Hiligaynon and Kinaray-a versions of Alice McLerran’s The Mountain That Loved A Bird; Rene Villanueva’s Personal; and the 2010 winners of the 1st Philippine National Children’s Book Awards (NCBA)—Jomike Tejido’s Tagu-Taguan, Russell Molina’s and Sergio Bumatay III’s Tuwing Sabado, Becky Bravo’s and Jason Moss’s Just Add Dirt, Gidget Roceles-Jimenez’s and Bru’s Can We Live On Mars? A Book About Space, and May Tobias-Papa’s and Isabel Roxas’ Araw Sa Palengke. Unfortunately, we did not have a copy of one NCBA winner, Russell Molina’s and Jomike Tejido’s Lub-Dub, Lub-Dub.
We invited everyone to browse through the books and pick one. Each person was then asked to quietly read the book they picked, answer questions designed to make them notice various aspects of the book, talk about the book to the rest of the group, and use it as a basis for their individual hands-on writing and translation exercises. The books we brought were varied, so everyone was able to individually study and later, as a group, discuss and appreciate the different ways that children’s books can be written, illustrated, designed, produced, published, promoted, and distributed.
One of the attendees, a graphic artist and illustrator, was probably the best equipped to appreciate and gush over Gaiman’s and Vess’s Blueberry Girl. He held up the book and tried to describe how the text and illustrations combined into a one-of-a-kind visual experience, then simply gave up and said: “Wow. That’s all I can say. Wow.” Merely seeing that a children’s book can be made to look that way by a fellow artist clearly made the seminar worth it for him.
The minister of a church chose a seafarer children’s book, part of a set of ten designed for children whose fathers are mostly away at sea. He wanted to know where he can get copies of all ten books. In the course of his work, he counsels many broken families where one or both parents are absent, working abroad out of economic necessity. “Madamô nga pamilya ang amo sini,” he said. (Many families are like this.)
Another attendee talked about Norman Rockwell’s Counting Book, all the while hugging it close to her chest. Her parents used to subscribe to The Saturday Evening Post, so she has known and loved Norman Rockwell’s art ever since she was small. “If I ever see this book in a bookstore, I’d buy it in a heartbeat,” she said. “Even if I have to use the last of my money,” she added. And that, we agreed, is the kind of adult you become if, as a child, you grew up loving books and reading. A book comes bundled with an array of rich memories and associations—being loved, feeling good, feeling safe, being happy, feeling empowered, feeling connected, and having the freedom and capacity to remember, imagine, and dream.
Yet another attendee chose The Graveyard Book. An alumnus of our seminar last year and a Gaiman fan, he loves the book, he said, except for the fact that it is softbound. He really prefers hardcover books. Not only are they sturdy and generally well made, they also smell good, especially when they are new. He pointed out that the corners of a paperback’s cover eventually soften and curl. For a certain kind of book lover, it’s really the whole package that counts: content, as well as form. A book is not only a pleasure to read, it is also a pleasure to look at, hold, smell, and keep.
Notable Children’s Books
A delicious and healthy lunch left everyone satisfied and full, but hungry for more of the seminar. To get an idea of what could be the most notable children’s books for 2010, we started with a presentation of award winning books. We discussed the six books that were judged as best published children’s books in the Philippines at the 1st National Children Book Awards (NCBA) announced last July 24, the 2010 winners of the U.S. Caldecott and Newbery medals, the 2010 winners of the U.K.’s Greenaway and Carnegie medals, and the five 2010 winners of the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year awards.
We wanted everyone to realize that while award winning books are a good indicator of excellence in children’s books, there are other considerations for choosing what books you yourself will want to read, buy, share, or keep to read again and again. So we ended with a list of children’s books that, in our opinion, may also be considered notable. On what basis? Simply this quote from book editor Peter Carver: “Children’s literature has to be wonderful. It has to encourage children to keep on reading throughout their lives.”
From Book to Stage
Our debut session on writing scripts for children was conducted by Dominique Garde Torres (Nikki). She has twenty years’ experience with the Dramatic Arts Division of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), and has co-written a script that won as Best Screenplay in Cinemalaya, the CCP’s annual film festival. She is also the Assistant Regional Advisor of SCBWI Philippines, and our seminar logistics specialist.
In her overview of scripts written for children in the Philippines, Nikki noted that there’s hardly any. Most of the scripts she found were not written for children to read and stage on their own. Rather, they were either written for children as the intended audience, or they are meant for teachers and adult facilitators to use in staging plays with or for children. Fortunately, Nikki found excellent samples of 3-, 6-, and 12-minute scripts that children can very well read and stage on their own. They are classified as reader’s theater, and can be found at the website of Aaron Shepard, a fellow SCBWI member based in Seattle, Washington state. Aaron gladly gave Nikki permission to use the scripts in our seminar.
Children’s Books in Hiligaynon and Kinaray-a
The final session was writing children’s stories in one’s mother tongue. That would be Hiligaynon for Iloilo City, and the endangered language Kinaray-a that is spoken in the rest of Panay island. Again, everyone was asked to hunker down with the books they picked for the Booktalk earlier. Their options were: simply translate the story to Hiligaynon or Kinaray-a, or adapt it as well and make changes in the story. It was near the end of the day and this particular activity was, maybe appropriately, closer to home. The stories that resulted were delightful and surprising.
One attendee filled up a whole page with a short story written on the spot in crisp, deep Kinaray-a. Nikki, who does not hail from Iloilo, couldn’t understand a word. But she could tell by the group’s reaction that the story is scary, funny, and spellbinding. The audience listened, breathless, laughing one moment and horrified the next. That was in spite of the author’s extreme nervousness—he had to stop his reading three times just to take a deep breath. “I never thought that I would end up writing today,” he said with a deep sigh of relief when he got back to his seat, fanning himself with his wilted manuscript. “I was afraid my muse has deserted me.”
Another attendee had only a paragraph to show. But when she read the words with childlike wonder and expression, complete with background sounds, her five or six well written sentences in Hiligaynon were picture book perfect. As an illustrator, I can almost see the book—the images spread by spread, some of them accompanied by only a phrase or two, some with no words at all, the five or six well thought out sentences just right, no more, no less.
Our 5th seminar in 2011
At the end of the day, when all the certificates of attendance have been handed out, and all the cameras and cellphones with cameras have had their turn at taking the requisite “class picture” with everyone included, our partner Vinnie looked up as if he was admiring a painting displayed on the art gallery’s ceiling. “I can almost see it,” he said. “Our 20th children’s book seminar.”
And why not? It just keeps getting better. Even the daily Iloilo City brownout spared our 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. activity, thanks to the resourcefulness of Friya Jaye Guzman, Vinnie’s amazing assistant. And all day, we had perfect seminar weather: bright and sunny that every now and then shifted to overcast and cool. It was a stark contrast to last year’s dark clouds and gusty winds which, we later learned, were a boon compared to typhoon Ondoy’s rains and floods that devastated parts of Metro Manila that day on a scale that weathermen said only happens once in a hundred years.
Yes indeed, we can see our 20th seminar sixteen years down the road, just around the bend. Coming up next, our 5th Iloilo children’s book seminar in 2011—bats or no bats!
This report is still in progress, more pictures to follow soon.
The author is a book designer and children’s illustrator. She was born in Jaro, Iloilo City and has been a member and Philippine Regional Advisor of the Los Angeles based Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) since 2001. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.