The Manila International Book Festival 2020: Social Justice and Children's Books

I had to wake up at 5 in the morning today to appear in the Manila International Book Festival, which went online this year.

Such a treat for this London based Filipino author to be invited to the festival, even though it did mean rising in the winter gloom. The MIBF is an astonishing tribute to a voracious book reading public in Manila – for the past five years, it's featured queues around the block, massive crowds and shoppers laden down with stacks of books they've purchased.

It definitely feels a more sedate affair online (especially if you're appearing from the other side of the world in London), but still filled with the book-loving joy of its original manifestation.

I appeared with moderator Lance Caperal and my friend Zarah Gagatiga, librarian and children's author, to talk about social justice and children's books. You can view Zarah's presentation on this link.

Manila International Book Festival panel with Lance Caperal, Candy Gourlay and Zarah Gagatiga

It's been ten years since I wrote my debut novel Tall Story, and to discuss social justice, I had to revisit the questions I had asked myself as I was writing it long ago.

Time is a funny thing – I am not the same person I was when I wrote Tall Story back in the early 2000s. At the time, I still introduced myself as a journalist foremost. And my experiences as a journalist were still fresh to me. Today, 20 years later, I no longer introduce myself as a journalist.

Tall Story by Candy Gourlay
Cover illustration: Rommel Joson

At the time, the main source of my reportage was Filipino immigration. I interviewed many Filipinos all over Europe who had left home to work abroad. And in 2005, I presented and wrote a programme on BBC Radio 4 called Motherless Nation, exploring what happened to the children left behind by the feminized migration in the Philippines.

In Tall Story, my hero was a boy left behind by his mother to work as a nurse in the UK – something I experienced myself when my father left us to work in Libya and Guinea. Eleven percent of  Filipinos have a close relative who has left the country to work abroad.

Social justice, like right and wrong, is not black and white. There are many shades of grey in between. And a novel is a safe place to ask questions that may not have answers. It holds up a mirror to the child who experiences these situations – and there is something cathartic and enabling to know that you are not alone. It encourages critical thinking that does not jump to easy conclusions – society and humanity are full of contradictions.

Should children be exposed to these hard questions? Well, they are already living it! We cannot underestimate what children notice about our world. Reading gives them the capacity to understand – and if not totally understand (because not everything can be explained) then at least to endure and to forge their way in life, despite it.

read about the 'Notice and Wonder' teaching strategy in a New York Times educational series called What’s Going On in This Graph? which helped teachers use New York Times  graphs and diagrams as a platform for Maths teaching. The students were asked to look carefully at the diagrams and think about, among others, these two questions:
  • What do you notice?

  • What do you wonder? What are you curious about what you notice?

The students then conclude with “The story this graph is telling is …”

(Reading up on the Notice and Wonder® strategy led me to this presentation by teacher Annie Fetter @mfannie called Ever Wonder What They’d Notice? I encourage you to watch it.)

I realised that books do the same thing. Books ask children:  'What do you notice?' 'What do you wonder about?'

There are no right or wrong answers because you are just teaching the children how to open their eyes and see things.

My second novel, Shine, presents as a ghost story. A girl yearning to see her dead mother again. But it also asks questions about how society chooses to treat people who are different. People perhaps who suffer from mental illnesses or from visible disabilities or from homelessness due to poverty. 

Shine by Candy Gourlay
Cover illustration: Ricky Villabona

I have no interest in lecturing children about what is right or wrong, but by 'capturing' them with my novel, I hope they find themselves noticing how my fiction moves in parallel to their own experience, and I hope my storytelling moves them to ask the questions that will help them develop empathy and make the best of their experiences.

My third novel, Bone Talk, harks back to a time when a foreign power, the United States, invaded my native Philippines. American writings from that era constantly portray the savagery of Filipinos as compared to civilized Americans. The invasion was portrayed as necessary to bring civilization to the Philippines. The question I asked in that novel was: what does it mean to be civilized? 

Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay
Cover illustration: Kirby Rosanes

It was not an easy question to ask because my characters, with ritualistic practices, dressed in g strings with a headhunting, animist culture, have all the trappings of what our modern society condemns as savagery. Its hero is a boy who  thinks that being circumcised will instantly turn him into a man. To his frustration, something happens to postpone this declaration of manhood – instead he has an adventure that teaches him there's more to manhood than a ritual. 

I know parents and teachers might find it a challenge to be confronted with this. The Bontok (I spell it with a k to differentiate the culture from the present capital of the Mountain Province) were a headhunting tribe encountered by U.S. invading forces in 1899. American propaganda of the era portrayed them as uncivilized, little better than animals. 

Writing this book, I learned that to be civilized is not about how you dress or what you believe ... it is about being able to see the humanity of someone who is not like yourself. This is the journey that my young reader takes – he or she comes to realize that the Cut does not define who the Bontoc are, just as my hero realizes that it is not the Cut that will make him a man.

By the end of the story, he has experienced life, death, discovered the true meaning of friendship ... and he learns what is important – and it isn't the Cut.

The othering of the Bontok people finds parallels in many issues such as race and gender that bedevil modern society to this day. Fiction is a great vehicle by which our young people can live in the shoes of people who are not like them.  

Here is a video of that morning panel at the Manila International Book Fair. 

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