Adarna books in the “free 80s” (Part 1 of a series)

It being July with National Children’s Book Day just around the corner, and it also being our 35th year, we have invited a children’s book specialist to help us take a look at our history as a company and producer of children’s literature. We are happy to have with us on this blog, for a three-part series, Katrina Gutierrez, who, following a PhD in Children’s Literature at Macquarie University in Sydney, has been granted fellowships at the Hans Christian Andersen Centre in Odense, the International Youth Library in Munich, and the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books in Stockholm. She is currently writing a book based on her doctoral thesis and is a cultural adviser and consultant for Lantana Publishing, a London-based publisher committed to addressing the lack of cultural diversity in children’s books in the UK. She also recently worked as project editor for Mga Kuwentong Adarna, a treasury of 35 classic and out-of-print Adarna titles, to be released later this year in limited print.

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Happy 35th birthday, Adarna books! To celebrate, I dropped by their lovely store in Sct. Fernandez and pored over some of Adarna’s earliest forays into the exciting world of children’s bookmaking. The 80s was an especially exciting time. Adarna was the first and only dedicated children’s publishing house in the Philippines. The imaginative terrain was wide and, as Ani Almario observed, free.

Ani summarizes her view of the “free 80s” in an article she wrote for The Diliman Review: “It means being free as a children’s book author to say anything you want and in a parallel sense, being free to illustrate a story any which way you desire, if you were a children’s book illustrator.”1 In other words, uninhibited by the moral constraints, political correctness, and worry that regulates children’s media today.

As I carefully leafed through the pages of the Adarna classics before me, it was easy to see what she meant. One of Ani’s favorites, Ang Biyoletang Tren (The Violet Train, 1980), written by Nora Castillo and illustrated by Jimmy Torres, introduces kids to the color violet through a whimsical and psychedelic train ride across a violet-colored world rather than cling to realism. The color violet is a springboard for a freewheeling trip that, more than anything, nourishes the creative mind.

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My eye was drawn to Disko sa Kanto (The Street Disco, 1980). The energetic kicks, flips and fist pumps of men in bellbottoms and women in polka-dotted rompers promised delightful anarchy and irreverence. While waiting for his girlfriend Conchita to finish her shift at the Paraiso Beer House, Crisanto daydreams about winning a million pesos and transforming the entire street into a disco. Gerardo Lapuz’ rhyming verse and Zabala Santos’ comic-style illustrations are full of wink. Conservatives today would gasp in horror at the illustrations of men smoking and women dancing a-go-go. But it seems that such portrayals of merriment barely gave guardians in the 80s pause, even when confronted with an entire spread of street bums swaying and singing with beers in their hands. Disko clearly does not condone drinking or smoking, but embraces the seedier elements of kanto culture and injects them with a healthy dose of the fanciful optimism Filipinos are known for. Like Biyoleta, Disko chooses fun, humor and story over everything else. And if a lesson must be learned, it is that a story can be spun from anything.

“Babaha ang toma para sa lahat ng istambay at lasenggo”

“Babaha ang toma para sa lahat ng istambay at lasenggo.”

Ang Pulang Laso (The Red Ribbon, 1981) and Ang Istorya ni Dodong (The Story of Dodong, 1977) amazed me by their very existence. Both aim to teach children—frankly and with no fuss or malice—about gender and the body. They are appropriate introductions to sex education that would be very useful today but have gone out of print because of modern censorship.  In Laso, twin cats learn that boys and girls can do the same things, play the same games, have the same number of eyes, ears and toes, but have different genitalia. Julio Perez’ warm illustrations support Rene O. Villanueva’s clear prose, which draws comparisons to the fruit-bearing female papaya tree and the barren male tree to allude to each genitalia’s function and purpose.

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Ang Istorya ni Dodong describes for young readers the proper care of both baby and pregnant mother. Julius Lopez combines three main types of styles in every page: geometric art for the mother and the things around her, a realistic mode for the baby inside her, and for the baby narrator Dodong, cheeky caricatures vaguely reminiscent of Maurice Sendak. The effect is full of retro charm as well as highly educational.  While reading, I felt that an updated version would pair well with John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury’s beautiful There’s Going to Be a Baby, in which a little boy and his mother have conversations in anticipation of the birth, and the youngster fancifully imagines the baby in funny situations. In Dodong, written and published two decades earlier, concise facts are enlivened by Dodong’s antics—usually a commentary to or an exaggeration of some tidbit of knowledge—in the margins of each spread. Reading Dodong is a wonderful way to teach Filipino children where they came from, help them understand what is happening to their mothers, build a bond between them and the as-yet-unseen baby, and give them ways to care for their own mothers.

So why is this book no longer in print? Because Dodong’s story includes an illustration of mom and dad having sex. There is nothing lascivious about his parents’ lovemaking. The genitals are even covered by an inset of sperm speeding towards a waiting egg. My initial surprise at the spread was immediately replaced by an appreciation for the completeness of Dodong’s story. Including the “how” of conception without any fuss champions the child’s right to information.

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Looking back at Adarna’s “free 80s” gives an interesting perspective to the children’s publishing scene today. If anything, it offers a fresh look at the creative liberties we have gained and lost and the ways we cultivate the minds and freedoms of today’s young people. What fun, funny, and experimental stories will Adarna House bring us in its next 35 years?

Ang Biyoletang Tren and Disko sa Kanto are included in the upcoming Mga Kuwentong Adarna.


1Almario, Ani Rosa. “The Violet Train.” Diliman Review, May 2004.

If you have any of the books mentioned here, or any Adarna book from the 80s or earlier, you might have a chance to win PHP5,000 and 100 storybooks from our #AklatPamana contest. See guidelines here.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Adarna books in the “free 80s” (Part 1 of a series)

  1. I enjoyed Disco sa Kanto as a young student. Our library in Ateneo had this in its Adarna shelf at the FIlipiniana section. It was only after reading this article from Dr. Gutierrez did I remember this book. I guess my fondness for the book was influenced by watching pinoy sitcoms during the 80’s and the 90’s which disensitized me from what would horrendous for readers today. What surprises me today was that I was not bothered by the content given its presentation of drinking and other instances of merriment. For me, it was all part of life and it amused me as a kid seeing it in a book.