The Lure of Neverland


At one time or another in our lives, we’d stumbled through a rabbit-hole with Alice into Wonderland. Set out for Narnia and Seonee Hills on an adventure. Fished with Haroun in the Sea of Stories.

Good books inevitably change us.

This is a reprint of a journal article I’d written 19 years ago, when I was just beginning to write and illustrate books for children.

Reprinted from The RAP Journal, Vol XXII October 1999. Published by the Reading Association of the Philippines. Dina Ocampo, Editor.

Tobias, M. M. (1999). The Lure of Neverland. The RAP Journal, XXII (October), 26-31.


10 hours in Dubai

The hotel checkout at Sharjah Hilton was at 12 noon and I had been all set to go earlier to the airport, spend the night there and wait for my 3 AM flight. But what does one do when she has fifteen hours to kill? Good thing my kind-hearted Dubai-based cousin Roman took pity on me and told me that he and his lovely wife Arlyn will pick me up and take me on a quick tour of Dubai.

Wondergirl Ilay

Wonder IlayImage copyright © 2017 May T Papa

I met Ilay in 2012. Mama Lyzeth told me that we will get along well, because Ilay loves books.

True enough, when Ilay and I met, we instantly became friends. She had just undergone a very delicate operation that took out a large tumor from between her eyes. But from her wide smile, her very quick and playful manner, it didn’t seem as if she had just gone through something very scary and painful. She was only four years old.

She must have some kind of superpowers, I thought. Amazing kid!

Ilay and her mother live in Bataan. They just come to Manila for Ilay’s treatments. Even if I wanted to visit her, Bataan was just too far away. Years passed, I was able to see Ilay grow up, through the photos Mama Lyzeth shared on her Facebook page.

“Ilay’s first day in school” Mama Lyzeth captioned one photograph. “Ate Ilay makes it to the Top 5 in class,” she captioned another. I was happy Ilay was growing up to be a happy, smart, and pretty young lady.

Last Sunday, Mama Lyzeth sent me a PM. And then I saw Ilay’s new pics. Apparently, all these years, Ilay’s health has remained very delicate..

“Things are not looking look good for Ilay,” Mama Lyzeth wrote. “The infection in her blood has reached her brain. She continues to fight, but we expect to lose her anytime now. She is already very weak.”

At age 9,  Ilay is fighting her  bravest fight, but her mortal body cannot keep up anymore. We are lifting Ilay up to God, in whose loving arms she can finally find comfort and rest.


Nakilala ko si Ilay noong 2012. Nasabi ni Mama Lyzeth na magkakasundo kami, dahil napakahilig ni Ilay sa libro.

Noong magkakilala kami, agad nga kaming nagkaibigan ni Ilay. Noo’y kakalampas pa lamang niya sa isang delikadong operasyon na nagtanggal ng malaking tumor sa pagitan ng kanyang mga mata. Ngunit di mo ito mababakas sa napakalaki niyang ngiti at liksi ng kilos. Tila walang nakakatakot o masakit na pinagdaanan. Apat na taon pa lamang siya.

Baka may superpowers siya, naisip ko tuloy. Pambihirang bata!

Ngunit sa Bataan nakatira si Ilay at ang kanyang nanay. Lumuluwas lamang sila kapag magpapagamot si Ilay. Gusto ko man siyang dalawin ay napakalayo ng Bataan. Sa kabila ng lahat, sa paglipas ng panahon, nasubaybayan ko ang kanyang paglaki mula sa mga letratong ibinabahagi ni Mama Lyzeth sa Facebook.

“Unang araw ni Ilay sa paaralan,” ani Mama Lyzeth sa isang letrato. “Top 5 si Ate Ilay,” aniya naman sa isa. Nakakatuwang makitang lumalaki si Ate Ilay na isang masiyahing, matalino, at magandang dalagita.

Bigla na lang noong Linggo, pinadalhan ako ng mensahe ni Mama Lyzeth. At nakita ko ang mga bagong larawan ni Ilay. Sa kabila pala ng kanyang masasayang letrato, sakitin pa rin pala si Ilay.

“Hindi maganda ang lagay ni Ilay,” aniya. “Umakyat na ang impeksyon niya sa dugo sa utak. Patuloy pa rin siyang lumalaban, ngunit ‘di na namin siya inaasahang magtatagal. Napakahina na ng kanyang katawan.”

Sa edad 9 na taon, ang pambihirang si Ilay ay lumalaban sa pinakamalaking laban ng kanyang buhay, ngunit hindi na kakayanan ng kanyang katawan. Itinataas namin ang aming pinakamamahal na si Ilay sa kandungan ng Panginoong Diyos, kung saan siya makahahanap ng ginhawa at pamamahinga.

Nurture vs Nature

How much does nature contribute to an individual’s formation? How much does their environment influence their being? Is behavior inherited (ie genetic) or acquired–or both?

“Nature is what we think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors. Nurture is generally taken as the influence of external factors after conception e.g. the product of exposure, experience and learning on an individual.”


According to their LinkedIn page, “Al Jalila Cultural Centre for Children is founded on the belief that culture is essential to understanding both ourselves and the world in which we live today. The overall aim is to enrich the cultural lives of children and prepare them to welcome their future.”

This, I believe, is what the world needs to nurture confident, culturally literate and emotionally intelligent kids–a cultural centre like the Al Jalila Cultural Centre for Children. The Centre encourages creative self-expression. They even have a 24-hour family radio station, Pearl FM (with 5 studios) where kids can call in and talk about just anything.

I was privileged to be taken on a tour around the complex, and I was just awed at the facilities and the conceptualization, creative energy, as well as resources that brought the centre to life.

Grateful to the Sharjah Book Authority for arranging my storytelling activity at the Al Jalila Cultural Centre for Children as part of the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival 2017. Thanks also to Ms. Ayesha Juma, AJCCC Director for Program Management, and the very accommodating AJCCC staff for making me feel so welcome and taking me on a wonderful tour around their centre.

Sharjah Scrapbook

Sharjah is widely considered to be the cultural capital of the United Arab Emirates. It is a city that beautifully juxtaposes the old with the new. For the 2017 Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, we were billeted at the Sharjah Hilton which had a vantage view of the sunrise over the Khalid Lagoon. The sunrises are spectacularly beautiful from the hotel, as the city’s sand-colored palette amazingly reflected the colors of the sun.

The story behind our bee book.

I believe that the true test of a brand story’s worthiness is when it can explain complicated things to a child.

Shell Philippines gave me my most challenging commission yet, a picture book that will engage young and old readers alike, and call their attention to urgent environmental concerns.



We rewrite our story: Day 2 of the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival

We are so different, and yet, in many things, we are also alike.

AJCCC facade.png

The Al Jalila Cultural Center for Children. An amazing place. This was where did my storytelling on the morning of my second day at SCRF.


Ms Marwa (below, left) welcomed us and ushered us to the AJCCC Library on the second floor.

I was assisted by SCRF 2017 student volunteer, the petite Amie (below, right), who balanced herself amazingly in stilletos while lugging an LCD projector.


I felt so privileged to do my storytelling in such an inspiring place. (Was later taken on a tour of the place. Will post the pics in a separate post.)

School children magically appeared as soon as we had settled and set up our projector in the library. Shortly after we’d gone up to the second floor, a couple of school buses must have arrived carrying some thirty school children and their teachers. There was no sign of them while we were in the lobby earlier. Or, maybe there is a school adjacent to the cultural center?


Me: I heard that the kids who come to the AJCCC are the smartest and most creative…
Kids: Yes, Teacher!
Me: I was wondering if you could help me with my problem.
Abdulrahman M: What is your problem, Teacher?
Me: I wrote a book, and I used some Filipino words. I want to rewrite it using Arabic words so Arab kids can understand it. Do you think you can help me?
Kids: (chorus) Yes, Teacher!


And so we brainstormed (above), and chose the best words to use in our storytelling:

Yammah. Souk. Rafiqui. Sellah.

I was very pleased. I liked the sound of our words.

It was impressive because these kids were not only bilingual, but they were literate in writing in Arabic and English. They were very specific with the pronunciation as we agreed on our anglicized spellings of the Arabic words. The teachers beamed as they listened to their students enthusiastically interact with me. When the Head Teacher saw that the kids kept raising their hands to suggest even more words, she laughingly said, “We have about twenty words for everything!”

Was also told that it is easier to learn to write in English than in Arabic. These kids are geniuses, then, to both know how to write in Arabic and Latin.

In exchange, I taught them Filipino words: Nanay (mother), Palengke (market), Suki (customer-pal), and Bayong (native basket).


And I read them my book with its new title,  “A Day at the Souk” (above), using the Arabic words:

Today, I woke up early.
I was still sleepy when Yamma helped me get dressed.
I will spend the day with her.
Today is souk day!

Yamma and I each carry a sellah.
Yamma’s sellah is big and colorful.
Mine was small and yellow.

I told the story using slides. There was an awkward moment of silence, as I clicked and showed them this scene (below).

I had told this story a hundred times. I had forgotten it was there.


A little boy, whose name I would later find out, is Abdulrahman M, raised his hand, and exclaimed:  Teachur, der ees a P. I. G.!

His outburst caused the class to titter. I felt faint, and flushed all over, about the faux pas.

I remarked to the Head Teacher:  I apologize for that oversight.

She smiled, gave a little compassionate nod, and waved her hand, as if to say, “Don’t worry about it.”

Then I explained  to the children that it was a typical scene in a Philippine market, unlike in a souk, where the meat they sell is halal.

After the storytelling, I told the children that it was only my second day in the UAE and so I’ve not yet been to an Arabian souk, and if they would be so kind as to draw me a picture (below).


The activity made them quiet for about five minutes, hahaha.

The Head Teacher thanked me. “You were wonderful with the kids,” she smiled.

“The pleasure, really, is mine, Ma’am, ” I told her.

We took some group pics, but Amie took my pics for my camera from the side, huhuhu.

As the kids formed lines and waited to exit the library with their teachers, Maha came up to me, stood on tiptoes and gently pulled me toward her, to whisper in my ear:  I drew your picture at the back of my drawing, Miss May! (Maha’s drawing of me as Miss May Buterskawt, below.)


Was overwhelmed, because I believe I gained more than I gave of myself in this storytelling session.

Thank you, Sharjah Book Authority. Thank you, Al Jalila Cultural Center for Children.

It was a truly unforgettable experience.


29 copy

I have a dream job. and it really all started with a dream.

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