The Beat Asia Reads: The Profound Wisdom and Wonder of Children's Stories
July 18, 2023
When's the last time you read a children's book?
It would be remiss to say children's literature makes for light reading. Contrary to this sentiment, children's stories in fact have the capacity to speak truth to power and wade through heavy themes like loss, death, grief, and other vulnerabilities in ways that are subtly subversive and perceptive in their simplicity. Often enough, children's stories feel like the kind that one has to "outgrow” to move on to more serious adult books. Left to gather dust on the shelves for years, thrown away, or buried in a box in a storeroom, one’s children’s books are rarely picked up again, if at all.
But children's stories have much to teach us. They often only unsheathe what's essential, demonstrate just as much the values we hold dear, and, perhaps, point us the way to rediscover the parts of ourselves we weren't aware we've lost over the years. There's a necessity to return to these youthful stories and these values time and again; one, so we never forget them, but even more, so we may read them and ourselves in a new light.
'Si Jhun-Jhun, Noong Bago Ideklara Ang Batas Militar' by Augie Rivera
In the age of post-truth, this short, moving children's book written by Augie Rivera and illustrated by Brian Vallesteros from 2001 demands to be read and reread. The book won the 2001 Gintong Aklat Award Manila Critics' Circle Award Special Citation and tells the story of the lives and rights of children before the declaration of martial law in the Philippines under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It centers on Jhun-jhun, a young boy who loves to play with his friends and is curious about where his older brother goes. His innocent curiosity leads him to the events in the streets to witness and learn from the collective spirit of the Filipino people. "Si Jhun-Jhun, Noong Bago Ideklara Ang Batas Militar” may be purchased via Adarna House for only P99.
'American Born Chinese' by Gene Luen Yang
Although made for young adults, graphic novelist Gene Yang's "American Born Chinese" (2006) will strike a chord among minorities who grew up feeling like the odd one out among their peers. The multi-awarded graphic novel follows the story of three, unrelated characters, Jin Wang, Monkey King, and Chin-Kee, whose lives become intertwined due to an unforeseen twist. Characterised by its anime-like style fused with an American sensibility, the action-packed modern fable will take you on an exhilarating journey, capped off by an incredible climax.
'Karung Guni Boy' by Lorraine Tan
In Singapore and Malaysia, "karung guni" refers to a rag-and-bone man or junk dealer who goes door-to-door to collect scraps and other unwanted home stuff. Lorraine Tan's "Karung Guni Boy" follows the story of Ming, a young, inventive boy who wants to create a lot of things. Without having the money to make his inventions a reality, he becomes a karung guni so he could create things from the items he collects from his neighbours. Illustrated by Eric Wong and published by Epigram Books in 2016, "Karung Guni Boy" was shortlisted for the Hedwig Anuar Children's Book Award in 2018.
'The Little Prince' by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Surely, you've heard of "The Little Prince?" For the uninitiated, this novella written by the aristocrat, writer, and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry follows the story of a young prince from a small planet, who goes around the universe to learn about life and the ways and mores of adults. "The Little Prince" deals with themes like loneliness, loss, love, and friendship, among others, as the prince meets a wide range of characters in his travels, from a fox, a rose, and a snake to a salesclerk, a lamplighter, and more. In the book, the prince said, "All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it." So, let this book be your reminder.
'A Wizard of Earthsea' by Ursula Le Guin
The late Ursula Le Guin was most famous for her speculative fiction, one of which was her "A Wizard of Earthsea" series that saw her win the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction in 1969 and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1979. The first book of the series centers on Ged, regarded as the greatest sorcerer in Earthsea, and his recklessness during his youth that caused him to meddle with the world's secrets and unleash a horrible shadow. Ged's powers will thus be tested as he sets off to restore balance in the world. The "Earthsea" series comprises six titles; if you loved "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia," these books deserve a space on your shelf!
'The Hobbit' by J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien deliberately wrote "The Hobbit" as a children's fantasy book and the prequel to the high-fantasy trilogy “The Lord of the Rings," although it's safe to say that the former is the quintessential children's book for adults! "The Hobbit" precedes the events of "The Lord of the Rings" by about 60 years and follows the story of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the wild adventure he takes through Middle-earth in the company of Gandalf the Grey and thirteen dwarves, and his eventual discovery of the One Ring and encounter with the creature Gollum. If you've yet to dip your toes in Tolkien, "The Hobbit' is the way to go.
'The Giving Tree' by Shel Silverstein
Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree" is the kind of story that keeps on giving. For over 50 years, the children's picture book has moved adults and children alike with its poignant, yet simple story about unconditional love and selflessness, but also greed. It centers on an apple tree that gave everything it could to a young boy, who couldn't be satisfied and asked for more until the tree had nothing to give. The book is usually given as a meaningful gift on special occasions, although it's a beautiful story that should be read any time – if not just because, then as a searing reminder to appreciate what one has before it's gone.
Xilef by Augie Rivera
We'll never tire of Rivera and his progressive stories that seek to open up new conversations on various issues – for "Xilef," it's on disability. This 32-page story focuses on a young boy and his experience as someone who has dyslexia, a learning disability. A trailblazer of its category, "Xilef" is the first-ever Filipino children's book that was written in hopes of raising awareness and advocating for greater understanding for youth with dyslexia. "Xilef” bagged third prize at the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature (Short Story for Children) in 1999, the National Book Award - Best Book Design in 2000, and the International Board on Books for Young People - Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities in 2005. You can get it for only P99 via Adarna House.
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