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10 July 2006 @ 12:32 pm
On the cover of Rene O. Villanueva’s definitive reader of children’s literature, we see an image of the author as a storyteller flanked by characters from the sixty or so stories he has written for the young.   Behind this, a much larger face stares at you — in dark green, barely smiling, eyes unnerving.  The combination borders on being daunting.   

It’s not meant to be, and for the most part it isn’t, but if it does appear so it should be perfectly understandable.  Villanueva is arguably the most influential living writer of children’s literature in the Philippines, and an omnibus of his works in the genre seems bound to command that sense of nostalgia reserved only for rock stars or Julie Andrews.    

Over the past few years I have been avoiding children’s literature.  In a way, being privy to this world of wonder and delight makes me feel awkward.  I prefer to imagine that adults ought to leave the privilege to children who will not read politics and Freud into every little crevice.   (Sometimes I wonder if we do that because we understand more than children do, or if we simply can’t tolerate the idea that all important things we ought to know are, as a matter of fact, intuitive.)

It surprises me how much I’m actually familiar with most of what’s inside the Rene O. Villanueva Children’s Reader. 

The volume contains published stories, songs and plays from Villanueva’s multi-awarded career as a writer for children.  What immediately caught my attention was the section that contains some of the songs he wrote for the television show Batibot, where he was head-writer for many years. 

The program’s now-classic title song drew generations upon generations of Filipino kids (myself included) to the show and turned them into regular viewers.  The Reader treats us to a pastiche of almost- anthems that some of us still sing in dreams or psychedelic chemical high: Ang Kapitbahay, Pagsama-samahin ang Pare-Pareho, Paggising sa Umaga, and the hypnotic lullaby Umihip Tulad ng Hangin. 

One reads the lyrics now and wonders how these fairly short songs, which describes simple experiences like waking up in the morning, being kind to neighbors, organizing your things and the like, eventually became so universally mesmerizing.  I guess children, at least from my time, were indeed molded by the magic of words— the hypnotism of language is how we learned things.  Now that that role is largely challenged by the visceral appeal of manufactured images (CGI and its ilk), I wonder if we can still say the same.   I certainly hope so.

Villanueva’s great respect for words takes center stage in the stories, which ultimately gives meat to the Reader.  With themes ranging from childhood realities to child abuse, child rights and even (believe it or not) erotica, he displays a mastery of language that enamors anyone who cares to listen. 

I feel that the inclination to dumb down or be silly is the misgiving of most writers who attempt to write for children.  Learning and character building, after all, need not be a product of embarrassment or deus ex machina.  Villanueva’s repertoire fascinates me because they never insult readers.  His characters, even those in stories for very young or beginning readers, are never dumb.

In Dagat sa Kama ni Troy (1995, from the Buhay-Bata series), for instance, the title character Troy struggles to control constantly wetting his bed by actively trying to solve the problem (i.e. not drinking too much water at night, taking a leak before lying down, and the like).  Children take the lead in social change in Bayang Walang Batas (1998), where a country almost goes down the drain after a naughty fairy provokes anarchy.  In the quintessential Villanueva story Ang Unang Baboy sa Langit (1991), which according to the notes was created impromptu during a storytelling session, a pig dies and becomes a saint in the name of cleanliness. 

The Reader also includes landmark work that Villanueva is best known for— a handful of stories that pushed children’s writing into what would have been deemed dangerous (and a tad boring, but not in this case) territory: serious issues. 

The melancholic Nemo, Ang Batang Papel (1992) speaks of the plight of street waifs and makes a strong statement on children’s rights.  Karunungan ng Mga Pusang Itim (1987), written in the height of the Bataan nuclear power-plant controversy, features a feline family who escapes a nuclear holocaust.  Bertdey ni Guido (1989) chronicles how a boy slowly comes to terms with why a People’s revolution is more important than his own birthday.   Blip (1995) alludes to the dangers of censorship, while Ang Lalaking Naghahanap ng Antok (2004) caricatures the unreasonable demands of modern society, where people work so much they forget the things that make life worth living.  Ang Mahiwagang Buhok ni Lola (2001), Ang Makapangyarihang Kutiks ni Mama (2002) and Tsampion ang Tsampurado ni Tiyang (2003) compose a trilogy of stories that Villanueva dedicates to women, and the values that make them appropriate social models. 

Ang Batang Ayaw Gumising (1997) is, I believe, this Reader’s most significant inclusion.   It tackles incest, which, along with homosexuality, still remains in the hidden corners of the genre.  Through the hazily-recalled experiences of Tina, a juvenile narcoleptic being abused by her uncle, Villanueva dives into a no-nonsense contemplation of justice, acceptance and healing.  He never pontificates; he simply challenges the juvenile reader to think.   The story is complex, all right.  The more conservative may think of it as an inappropriate subject for children to read about.  Still, when we are reminded that most cases of abuse happen when children are ignorant of the gravity of what’s being done to them, it becomes clear why stories such as these need to be written and deserve to be read.

Each story in the Reader is preceded by short notes about how they came about.  Reading these tidbits feels like going through the milestones of children’s writing in the Philippines.   At the same time, one gets the chance to have a peep at Villanueva’s unconventional but ultimately adorable mind. 

It’s funny how he mentions that he actually dislikes children in the annotation to the unconventional Christmas tale  Pasko ng Tatlong Ungas (1999).   He also voices out his displeasure with moral models that are good beyond belief.   The three rats in the story, all uncouth and smelly, fall in love with parenting when they find a newborn mouse who needs their care.  They unapologetically remain vile and undesirable till the very end; and although they never really admit to enjoying their unconventional family, they still end up loving the little mouse more than anything else.  

Even the dirtiest among us have the capacity to be divine, we hear Villanueva whispering.  He may never admit it, but through his work he has taken care of us like little rodents he loves to hate.  

The Rene O. Villanueva Children’s Reader bookmarks an unfinished literary career.  He continues to write stories for children.  Somehow, knowing that comforts me.



feeling: amusedamused
attakatastrophy on July 11th, 2006 11:23 am (UTC)
Another winner!