June 2007
Literature and Literacy

A stunted market for kids’ books

YOU CAN tell which generation a person belongs to by how they learned to read and the books they loved as kids. For the prewar generation up to martial law babies, it was either Pepe and Pilar in English or Nene at Benito in Filipino. These books also caused several generations of dogs to be named either Tagpi or Bantay, although sometime during the ‘60s, children in private schools began learning to read without the help of Pepe and Pilar or Nene and Benito, but may recall John and Jill, and a dog named Spot.

[photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

Among the Filipinos born after Edsa 1, however, even those from public schools may no longer mention Pepe or Nene, or even Bantay. Today the resources available for children to start learning have become so numerous that many children know their ABCs as early as three; ask them about books they love, and you just might want to pull up a chair as you wait for them to finish going through a long list of favorite books and even memorable book characters.

That, however, is true only among those belonging to the middle and upper classes. As in other things, children belonging to poor families are unable to compete with their better-equipped and better-financed peers when it comes to reading, widening the chasm between the literates and not-so-well-read. And because the latter far outnumber the former, this means publishers and sellers of children’s books are catering to a very small market.

In 2003, the results of the Functional Literary, Education and Mass Media Survey (FLEMMS) showed that functional literary of the population aged 10 and above was just 84 percent. According to then education undersecretary Fe Hidalgo, this translates to 11 million Filipinos “who do not have the literacy skills to become truly productive.”

Last year, the education department also asked the nongovernmental Aklatang Pambata (Children’s Library) to conduct a survey at the Paltok Elementary School and Bayanihan Elementary School in Quezon City. The survey revealed that a whopping 90 percent of students from grades two to six were either slow readers or are unable to comprehend what they read, either in English or Filipino.

“We found a lot of them having a hard time reading,” says Alistair Troy Lacsamana, a professional librarian and executive director of Aklatang Pambata. “Many were slow, others could not understand they read. And to think they are on their way to high school.”

“Poverty is a factor,” he says, explaining in part why many public school children are unable to meet functional literacy standards. He adds that while preschool enrolment is now the norm, many children are left behind in reading and comprehension because books are understandably not among the priority purchases of impoverished households. He also says that not all children headed for public schools get to enrol at barangay day care centers, the budget-friendly counterparts of the multi-thousand-peso preschools those from the upper classes go to.

THEN AGAIN, before busy or nervous parents began enrolling their children in droves in day care centers or preschools, there was a time when the field was not too tilted in favor of those with money to spare for children’s books. In fact, most children used to learn their letters in their first year of formal schooling, in grade one, at a time when classrooms still had breathing space and when even the most remote public school could compete toe to toe with private schools.

ANI Rosa Almario, Adarna House project development manager [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

“Kindergarten was not common then, and Abakada was every kid’s first book,” says Jovy Anicete, who is in charge of purchasing children’s books at National Bookstore. Abakada used to be called Mga Unang Hakbang sa Pagbasa (First Steps in Reading). It first came to print in the ‘60s under Cacho Hermanos printing company. Millions of Filipino children learned to read after thumbing through the pages of the book until it was worn out or had to be returned at the end of the school year, which was usually the case in public schools.

Surprisingly, little has changed since in the Abakada. Written by Luningning Salvador, it can still be found at National Bookstore. It still has the same yellow and green cover with the same picture: a mother teaching her son and daughter how to read. It’s still in newsprint. It still has a few pictures to help a child along as it shows how, by combining letters of the Filipino alphabet, a word is formed. The few things different about it now include its price (now P9.50, compared to just a few centavos decades before) and the number of letters, which increased from 20 to 28, with the inclusion of the letters C, F, J, ñ, Q, V, X, and Z.

Education experts say the book’s approach still works even though many other things have changed in the teaching — and learning — world. The “other things,” however, help determine whether or not children will eventually develop a reading habit. Says Lacsamana: “In our analysis, there are too many things that distract children. They find less time to read.”

“Children now learn to read through a combination of resources available to them,” adds Ani Rosa Almario, project development manager of Adarna House, the country’s first children’s book publisher. “They have TV, computer games. Multimedia na ang sources.”

Indeed, the Abakada boys and girls have long been part of the past. As early as the ‘70s, many Pinoy kids were already learning their ABCs before they even set foot in a classroom, thanks to TV and “Sesame Street,” whose residents included a vampire called The Count, a very big yellow bird, and a blue monster who loved cookies. Then came a generation of kids who learned their ba-be-bi-bo-bu via “Batibot,” where the teachers included Kuya Bodgie and a giant turtle named Pong.

“BATIBOT” WAS the Pinoy version of “Sesame Street.” It disappeared from TV screens a while back, but the so-called idiot box still seems to be teaching toddlers the alphabet — and more.

Anicete, for one, says among National’s bestselling children’s books are those featuring characters from TV programs. These include Blues Clues books, derived from the cable TV show with the same title, and stories from Disney, especially those that feature Mickey Mouse. Books with TV tie-ins post big sales, says Anicete. “That’s what the kids look for,” she says, “what they saw in Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.”

[photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon are cable channels that are not seen by many children going to public schools. But some kid-geared shows on free TV seem to be pushing up the sales of books that have titles similar to theirs. A good example of this is the revival of the program “Mga Kuwento ni Lola Basyang” on GMA 7. When the program began airing, Anicete says, sales of Lola Basyang books, priced at P65 each and several versions of which have been around since forever, also increased.

Anicete says that in 2006, National was able to sell 88 percent of their children’s book offerings, up two percentage points from 2005’s figure; she declines to cite the bookstore chain’s sales in terms of absolute numbers. National now has 95 branches nationwide, and remains the book market’s strongest institution in terms of book selling. Every time it opens a new branch, the number of potential readers rises.

Here’s another piece of good news: Even though bookstores now offer more foreign titles among their children’s books, local titles are selling better, at least at National branches. According to Anicete, this is because local books are more wallet-friendly. Although publishers use cheaper materials, she says, these are still of good quality.

Adarna, for instance, sells some 7,000 books a month; most of its books go into second printing within a year. Its softcover storybooks cost about P50 each. “It is not like the United States where you can sell children’s books for $20 on the basis of the art,” says Almario. “(We) can’t impose very high margins, no matter how much sweat we poured into making a book.”

She says that aside from price, Adarna lures buyers with a formula that makes sure Filipino children are always in its stories. “Part of our mission is to talk about all things Filipino, to write about things that is not far from the realm of the Filipino child,” she explains.

Adarna, which is almost three decades old, has seen a whole generation of Filipinos grow up reading its books. Its top seller remains Ibong Adarna (The Adarna Bird), which has been in print since 1981. Among its other popular titles are Alpabetong Filipino (The Filipino Alphabet), Si Pilandok at ang mga Buwaya (Pilandok and the Crocodiles), Si Pilandok sa Kaharian ng Dagat (Pilandok in the Sea Kingdom), and Ang Alamat ng Ampalaya (The Legend of the Bitter Gourd). Its alamat books awaken the imagination of young Filipinos while teaching them good manners and right conduct.

“Parents are now more conscious if a story has a moral lesson,” says Almario. “More than that, they also want books with pedagogical concepts like math, books with school values. And of course, they’re also concerned about the price. That’s still the primary consideration.”

THIS MAY be partly why the children’s books sector does not really turn in as much profit as other areas of the book industry, such as the textbooks. Says Almario: “We’re not raking in millions. It’s not lucrative but it can support our staff. The income is enough to help us survive, live.”

Low retail prices and a small market also mean writers of local children’s books should have day jobs. Anicete says that only those who have written numerous titles, and hence can live off on royalties, can go into writing more books. But Almario says most writers hold down other jobs to make ends meet. “Nobody writes full-time,” she says. “I don’t know of any who writes just children’s books full-time. Hindi talaga kaya (They just wouldn’t earn enough).”

Even at Adarna House, writers are paid a modest P15,000 for every story that goes to print. Illustrators get the same fee. For every book sold, the writer and illustrator each get a five-percent royalty. But the commissions, which come every quarter, are sometimes too little to merit attention. Other publishers offer as much as P35,000 for a children’s story, but that comes with the condition that the writer forfeits royalties.

[photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

One can only imagine then how the writers — as well as the publishers — feel when their books are pirated. Anicete recalls hearing about mimeographed copies of children’s books, flash cards, and posters being sold in Blumentritt and Divisoria five years ago. She says even the ever-reliable Abakada was being pirated and sold off bilaos at P10 per copy. “The pirated versions are cheaper because they don’t have to pay royalties,” she says.

Almario says she has also seen photocopied Adarna books being sold in Baclaran. Actually, she clarifies, the pirated versions had been turned into coloring books, using the illustrations from the Adarna storybooks. But that doesn’t exactly make her feel any better.

Piracy is particularly painful for Adarna House, which spends as much as nine months in producing a book, the longest in the industry. Adarna sends the story to as many as three experts to check its accuracy and merit. Two versions of the book are initially printed. These are then taken to several schools, where they are critiqued and votes are taken over which is the better version. About 100 school children belonging to the book’s target age group make up the voters.

“The kids are the final critics,” says Almario. “We get comments like, why does the goat look like a pig, or why did you kill this or that character in the story?” The plot and the visuals are then revised accordingly before the book goes to print. Almario says while many illustrators now use computers, she encourages them to draw the artwork by hand. It may be the old-fashioned way, but she believes it is “grander looking.”

Having all that hard work reduced to poor photocopies is thus disheartening for Almario. “The copyright information was a forgery, they used pseudonyms,” she says of the Baclaran coloring books that used Adarna illustrations. But she has not attempted to file a complaint because, she says, no agency oversees the protection of intellectual property rights involving children’s books. Almario says she will only end up charging a few sidewalk vendors but not those who copied and printed their work.

IN MANY ways, writing and publishing children’s books could be said to be more of a public service rather than a means of making money in a country like the Philippines. That could change if more Filipino children take to reading, but that may not happen anytime soon.

Recently, civic-minded people who saw the urgent need to improve the reading skills of children from poor families have set up nongovernmental organizations to help address the problem.

Aklatang Pambata — actually a public library set up and maintained by volunteers — has itself targeted grade schoolers who need tutoring in reading. Volunteers from various schools spend eight weekends teaching three students each. Lacsamana says the program has been successful, with the support of teachers who require weak readers to undergo the program. So far, Aklatang Pambata has nurtured some 1,000 youngsters into basic reading.

Aklatang Pambata has also attracted some children who were forced to drop out of grade school because their parents were simply unable to cope with the costs of sending them to class. After all, while tuition is free in public elementary and high school, there are the school materials, uniforms, and miscellaneous fees that have to be paid for.

Yet even Lacsamana of Aklatang Pambata concedes that endeavors like theirs will succeed only if the community, the schools, and the parents support these. Almario agrees, saying, “The home has to be a reading environment. The parents have to be readers themselves.”

And therein lies yet another drawback for children who belong to families where reading and reading materials are luxuries.