The Zarah Gagatiga interview: Part 3 – PBBY Chair

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On August - 6 - 2010

In this third and final part of our interview with Zarah Gagatiga, she takes us through the storied (no pun intended) history of the PBBY, the organization which she now chairs, and the state of children’s literature in the Philippines.


What can you tell us about the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY) and your work with it?

Oh my God… the PBBY has been in existence for 27 years! It has a long history. Luminaries in Philippine arts and culture founded the PBBY: Lucrecia Kasilag; Alfredo Salanga; Larry Alcala; Serafin Quiason; Virgilio Almario. Its past officers and board members included the late, great Rene Villanueva, Mailin Paterno-Locsin, Linda Nietes, Gloria Rodriguez, Angelica Cabanero, Bodjie Pascue, Beulah Taguiwalo. The CCP, the National Library and the Museo Pambata are member organizations. The current board is composed of people you don’t mess around with! It’s a formidable non-profit organization pursuing a very challenging advocacy: literacy for children and teens! Young people are a country’s greatest resource. They need looking after, or else someone like the Pied Piper might take them away.

PBBY is a pioneer in the growth and development of Philippine Children’s Literature. In the course of 27 years, PBBY has initiated literacy activities for young people and those who work and care for them: the Salanga and Alcala prizes, storytelling, workshops, exhibits, book fairs, shows and plays, etc. The first National Children’s Book Awards (NCBA), which was held just recently, is a project that expresses the PBBY mission. We have to know where the industry is, before we can move on. Being in PBBY is a dream come true.

You’ve also given ten values of children’s literature, but it’s an important topic to return to: why is children’s literature so important?

To answer this question, I quote Candy Gourlay: “Children must find themselves on a page or else, they will lose themselves.”

I get Candy’s drift. Candy got this from Richard Peck, a writer of young adult novels, whose books I read in my teens.

Some (not I!) might say that time might be better spent reading more directly educational material (as opposed to fiction), such as non-fiction geared toward children.

Children’s literature covers both fiction and non-fiction material. It covers media, broadcast and digital too. If there is an area in kid’s lit that needs attention, it is the writing and production of non-fiction geared toward children, as you’ve said. In the 1st NCBA, only one non-fiction book made it.

I had early encounters with non-fiction books that amazed me, and books such as Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Guiness Book of World Records remain favorites of children. Back when I was a school librarian in Xavier School, I witnessed the boys devour them! They’d ask for non-fiction books in the sciences, travel, arts and recreation, sports, biographies, etc.

So educational material, like textbooks and references, are important, true. These materials are more directly instructional in nature and yes, kids learn from reading them. But you see, these are never enough… And textbooks can be so boring! Not to mention that many are poorly written. (The National Book Development Board is actually doing something about this.)

Non-fiction, especially the ones creatively written for kids, expands the horizons of children – but I believe fiction does the same.

Balance is the key. I believe it is the same with Internet and the use of digital technology. Knowing what learning resource (print, AV, digital or electronic) to use for a particular need or task is essential.

Fiction can be used to teach content and concepts. There is, in the teaching of reading, something called the Literature Based Approach. Storybooks are used to help children learn the framework of stories; to help them understand scientific and mathematical concepts; to teach them to value beliefs and attitudes, how to appreciate culture, and how to write.

There’s also a distinction in the purpose and desired outcome when deciding whether to use fiction or non-fiction teaching materials. Fiction is often used to teach story (elements of story; story grammar, etc.) and genre writing. Non-fiction is used to teach comprehension and the writing of expository texts and text structures (cause-effect; comparison-contrast; problem-solution). It’s a whole spectrum, actually of READING into WRITING and WRITING into READING. There is a pedagogical method involved. Strategies and techniques may be applied to do this for children and teens, which makes it fun to teach it!

How important is it to have home grown children’s literature here in the Philippines?

A nation’s literature is a cultural legacy. What we produce for our children is a heritage of identity. As for the economics of children’s literature, it’s flourishing! Believe me.

You’ve posted before on the development of children’s literature in the country. How would you describe the current state of the field of children’s literature in the Philippines? What about young adult literature?

The field of Philippine Children’s Literature is growing and evolving, if not rapidly, then at a steady pace. This is both good and bad. There are other areas in Philippine Children’s Literature that need support like children’s plays, movies and TV, and Online material should be included, too.

What do we need to do? We need to look at the industry as a whole: from writing, illustrating, publishing, accessibility (bookstores and libraries), research, study and teaching – and then act collectively. Come up with viable measures for the continued growth and development of the industry.

It has to be a tireless and ceaseless activity of producing literature for kids and teens so they will continue to read – for them to read, literature must be produced for them.

You previously mentioned some activities scheduled until December of this year. Anything in the immediate future you’d care to plug?

Storytelling in selected Jollibee stores! MaAGA ang Pasko to name a few. Philippine Children’s Literature will take center stage – meaning, no foreign titles! Ang taray!

What is your favorite children’s story?

My favorite children’s stories (and young adult stories) are those that speak of childhood and which raise the child hero to mythical status. I like reading children’s stories that empower the child reader and allow the child see the uniqueness of his or her identity and realize that, whatever differences he or she may have with the rest of the world, it is these differences that unify him or her to the whole of humanity.

[Image source: School Librarian in Action. Copyright holder/s maintain appropriate rights.]

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