Children’s books are a vital component of literature. They are no less relevant than the highly cadenced and formal discourse of the so-called adult literature. Children’s books though discreetly addressed to a certain age group are nonetheless encompassing, accessible, sometimes profoundly challenging even to a mature mind or to a developed sensibility. Such books capture the significance of imagination; they invite a new world of meaning and vital possibility.
In a time of political cynicism, dysfunctional educational system, and of the passivity-inducing, over-stuffed visual culture of social media, children’s books are an articulate, canny and modest, yet powerful expressive form to make truth communicable and truth-telling eloquent.
Isang Harding Papel by Augie Rivera with the wonderful illustration of Rommel Joson is a children’s book of this kind. It is a story—a far too common story of working class families during the Martial Law period—of a young girl who visits her imprisoned mother and begins to understand her struggle which is inevitably related to her country’s struggle.
After a sleepless, star-gazing night, the day comes to visit her mother whom she hasn’t seen for a month. Jenny and her grandmother Lola Priming now her sole guardian take a bus from EDSA. While on the bus Jenny observes her surroundings: the clean roads maintained by street sweepers, the whitewashed walls and the painted trash bins, and the giant billboards of images of president Marcos and her first lady awash with propagandistic slogans of “Bagong Lipunan” (New Society).
The seemingly improved changes of her environment is suddenly confounded at the sight of the ominous Camp Crame swarmed with soldiers.
“Grandma, why are we going there? There are a lot of soldiers!” (La, ba’t tayo pupunta dyan? Andaming Metrocom!) cries Jenny
“That’s where your mother is,” (Nandiyan sa loob ang nanay mo) replies Lola Priming.
It is a miracle of literature of this kind that says so much by saying so little. The juxtaposition of the seeming peace and order in her surroundings and the omnipresence of soldiers stabs something in Jenny’s childish innocence: that external changes are imposed through fear, terror, and force.
In the visiting room the prisoners arrived blindfolded accompanied by soldiers, among them is Aling Chit, Jenny’s mother. In the heart-wrenching meeting of the family the inescapable curiosity of a seven-year-old girl crops up: “Why did they lock you up?” (Bakit po kayo ipinakulong?)
And her mother answers in a candid voice that goes beyond disenchantment, something close to wisdom:
“Because during a street rally, we recite poems that are against Marcos, maybe he didn’t like them!” (Paano, pag may rally, lahat ng pinapalabas naming mga dula sa kalye, laban kay Marcos. Hindi nya siguro nagustuhan!)
As if to lighten the reference to the persuasive power of poetry Lola Priming jokes:
“Let’s just say that your mother loiters a lot in the streets, that’s why they’ve mistaken her for the rowdies!” (Ang sabihin mo, pakalat-kalat kasi sa kalsada ‘yang nany mo, kaya napasama sa mga iwinalis?!)
As the visit ends Aling Chit pulls from her pocket a flower out of a folded newspaper.
“Every time you and your grandma come to visit me, I will give you a flower, so you will always remember me.” (Tuwing bibisitahin ni’yo ako ng lola mo, bibigyan kita ng isang bulaklak. Pari lagi mo akong maaalala.)
Through close reading of a passage like this that we discover what truth-telling and poetic perception come up to in stories: the creation of memory. Every time we read a worthy book our capacity to remember is roused like a flower; a certain conviction grows in us and guides us like memory.
Perhaps the most poignant scene in the tale is the part where Jenny spends the night in her mother’s prison cell and is shocked to discover Aling Chit rip apart the bread which hides a tiny folding scissor and inside another bread a pencil wrapped in wire. Jenny panics, but Aling Chit knows better:
“Ssshhh! Be quiet! We will need these to make flowers.” (Ssshhh! Wag kang maingay! Gagamitin natin ‘to sa paggawa ng mga bulaklak.)
They spend the night making flowers, their togetherness a garden of hope, until the cruelty of the curfew robs them of light.
A regime of terror forces all of us to alter our repertoire of resistance and make many tiny adjustments to preserve hope. It is the brilliance of this scene that claims our imagination and revives our compassion, that praises the ingenuity of the downtrodden, proclaims the superiority of tenderness (even the feared Metrocom soldiers allowed Jenny to spend the night with her mother), and the cunning love of solidarity (Lola Priming cleverly colludes by hiding the tools in the bread).
The peaceful People Power Revolution of 1986 topples the dicator. After seven years, Jenny now fourteen, Aling Chit is freed and returns home, to be greeted by a garden of hope.
A literature of this kind despite and because of its brevity and slimness confers truth of such a scale that aims to not only entertain the readers of fresh years but to approach every age of imagination with lyrical eloquence, to model the active conscience through the convergence of story-telling and memory, extending our vision of what love and art can achieve even in the darkest days the way Jenny and Aling Chit with resistance and hope model flowers out of newspapers.
Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy. He regularly contributes to journals in the Philippines, writing politics, culture, and art. He also writes for a local academic magazine in Tuscany that is published twice a year. His works have been published in magazines in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Germany, The Netherlands, Scotland, Australia, India, China, and Mexico. Follow him on Instagram @carlo_rey_lacsamana.