Monday, December 22, 2014

Review of Children's Books "The Magic Paintbrush" and "Mga Kuwentong Bayan"

Rarely does a children’s book written by a Filipino American author catch the attention of reading adults, let alone children who are old enough to understand them. For a long time, if you were a child growing up in America, it was almost assuredly certain that Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak would be your trusting, popularized author of choice. Of course, both were not Filipinos.

At one time, aspiring Filipino American children’s book authors could only talk about their brilliant ideas. Following benighted public opinion, few US publishers took them seriously. But a great strength of these FilAm aspirants is patience and perseverance and this has paid off with a growing literary standing. One of the latest among these sparkling FilAm books for children is literary newcomer Christine L. Villa’s “The Magic Paintbrush”.

Villa’s subject matter in “The Magic Paintbrush” alludes to the prospects of childhood preceding the encroachment of an adult existence. Through the metaphor of a magical paintbrush whose namesake is the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, “The Magic Paintbrush” is an expressive and illuminating take on the childhood narrative and the virtuousness that surrounds it.

Complete with Villa’s positive literary treatment and Kathrina Iris’s colorfully lighthearted artwork to complement the book, children audiences will get a sense in “The Magical Paintbrush” of the indomitable spirit they will need as they move forward towards their adult lives. In the meantime, children can take from this book that they still have their childhood to enjoy as well as a carefree learning curve on what is good and bad, on what is discordant and what is pleasing, and on what friendship should be all about.

The most promising thing about Villa’s book is that children can freely contribute their own readings of her text and Kathrina Iris’s pictorials. Young readers can digress from reading the many simple-minded, amateurishly-conceived works that flighty, money-grubbing children’s book authors try to sell them on. But Villa is generous in giving her young readers the opportunity to come in on their own terms with what the Magical Paintbrush is trying to relate to them. Villa makes it clear that it is never too young for children to think critically.

The bilingual (Tagalog and English) “Mga Kuwentong Bayan: Folk Stories from the Philippines” pulls the veil of historical ignorance from Philippine pre-colonial literature. It was greatly due to the advent of European and then later American colonialism that Philippine precolonial literature and culture was effaced from the Filipino consciousness. Edited by Alice Lucas, “Mga Kuwentong Bayan” is a children’s book whose title has gained value among Filipino American youths since its publication in 1995.

Alice Lucas organized the book by using three seminal folk tales from pre-colonial Filipino culture: “A Creation Story,” “The Monkey and The Turtle,” and “Aponitolau and The Star Maiden.” Lucas, with the help of depictive and evocative artwork, renders “Mga Kuwentong Bayan” an easy read for any child without losing its cultural and historical meaning and import.

Filipino children have probably read the same mainstream children’s stories over and over again. But how likely is it that they have even barely scratched the surface of the folk tales that not only form an idealized foundation of Philippine culture but also take the wind out of the myth that there was no culture before the Spanish arrived in the islands in the 16th century?

The three stories in “Mga Kuwentong Bayan” give FilAm children a sense of autonomous identity separate from the colonial one that has been inculcated in their minds. The stories, a result of centuries of cultural diffusion and evolution, are sure to be literary eye-openers for FilAm children.

In an age of globalization where children are rapidly learning everything there is worth learning in order to thrive, books like “The Magical Paintbrush” and “Mga Kuwentong Bayan” are invaluable for what they can mean for their own edification.


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