Category Archives: Insights

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.


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.


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A Whole New World: The Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (2017)

I came to Sharjah eager to share of myself and Philippine children’s literature. Five days later, I flew back home, my mind and heart filled with wonderful and shiny new treasures. Attending the 2017 Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, I unexpectedly became a richer individual than I had been five days before — in terms of inspiration and insights.

Day 1:  My flight was late. We touched down at around 5:00 AM, almost an hour late. When I finally got out of the airport the sun was just coming out.

By the time we’d turned into Corniche Road where the Hilton was, the sun had already risen (below). I come from a country very famous for its sunsets. Only then, I realized that I had for years been programmed to look westward and at the end of the day, to look at the sun; I had never seen the sun at sunrise as immense as magnificent as this. It felt like a warm hug. It truly seemed as if God was smiling at me. What a beautiful greeting Sharjah gave me. Sadly, my phone cam did not do it justice at all.

Despite the lateness of my flight, it looked like I arrived too early for the festival. The  SCRF 2017 booth at the Hilton lobby had not even opened yet when I checked in. In my room, I napped for a couple of hours and then freshened up, then went down again to check the booth again to get my guest badge and inquire about transport to the opening ceremonies of SCRF 2017.

I got this box of cute doodads as a welcome gift from the Sharjah Book Authority (below).

It had felt so surreal, to be in the United Arab Emirates. The place is so unlike anywhere I’d ever been. But even then, within the UAE, the contrast between the emirates of Dubai and Sharjah seemed so marked. You will notice this in the architecture of the skyline. While Dubai is all modern, cosmopolitan and shiny, Sharjah’s sand-colored cityscape is proud, elegant and genteel, designed to complement the changing colors of the sun. Both are fascinating gems in a crown setting, each uniquely beautiful in its own way.

On the way to the Expo Centre, we passed by the iconic Eye of the Emirates (below).

It wasn’t  a dream after all, as I checked my FB news feed. In just a few hours, I was already going to be in my first SCRF event, a panel discussion on “Illustrated Stories and Its Status”. The Sharjah Book Authority had already announced it on social media (below).

The entrance to the Sharjah Expo Centre, venue of the 2017 Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (below). The theme for SCRF 2017 is “Discover Beyond”.

A handy guide to the activities and a map to help you locate these in the huge venue (below).

Had to pinch and tell myself again that this was really happening.

Cute preschoolers in very colorful costumes hold up hashtags in Arabic (below). It was only my very first few minutes in the Expo Centre, so I’d been unable to ask anybody for a translation of the signs.

Very young schoolchildren waiting for the Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi to open the festival gamely pose for photographs (below).

A typical panel discussion that simultaneously happened around the venue. This featured two very young talents (below). One was a published writer who wrote her own stories in English while the other one was a storyteller who specialized in interpreting traditional Arabic stories. The forum was  bilingual and the rapt audience was composed of middle schoolers.

(Below) Our panel discussion entitled “Illustrated Text:  Illustrated Stories and Its Status”, facilitated by Linda Abdel Latif (Egypt) and co-paneled by  Sheena Dempsey (UK) and myself (Philippines).  The questions were in Arabic. Sheena and I and the audience were provided headsets while a translator in the booth interpreted the questions and answers alternately in Arabic and English–in real time. So cool.

Sheena discussed the importance of the various roles the illustrator plays to meet the changing needs of the child readers in their various developmental stages,  “Illustration plays different roles in different genres of books. In picture books for instance, the illustrator co-invents or co-authors the book, while it is seen playing a slightly different role in fiction where the illustrator responds to the author’s text – something I did for Dave Pigeon by Swapna Haddow,” said Dempsey.

I talked more about the expanding definition of literacy, beyond reading and writing, to include the visual as well. “In the college where I used to teach back in the Philippines, we have pushed illustration to include the visual metaphor, the visual pun, and visual analogy — traditional terms normally used in the formation of text — and applied these to visuals. There is a similar movement in visual arts schools in the US toward visual literacy. In a media-dominated world, we not only read books and magazines, but film, internet content, TV shows, and we need to learn to respond to these critically.”

Linda, Sheena, and I pose for posterity (above).

My lovely host, Ms. Cool-under-pressure Qurrat of the Sharjah Book Authority and I finally meet, and of course, we celebrate our first meeting with a selfie.

What an incredible first day!

On the way back to the Hilton, the glittery Eye of the Emirates winks at me.

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The Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival is a cultural celebration attracting not only children, but extending the joy of learning to parents and adults in a family- friendly atmosphere. SCRF encourages learning and self-education from a young age, helping raise a generation of leaders, scholars and professionals who will contribute to the development of their society.

SCRF is held annually under the directives of His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, the UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, and the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher Bint Muhammad Al Qasimi.


My Typical (Illustrator’s) Work Day

Today I will be donning my Illustrator’s hat and share with you the article I wrote for my nephew Matthew in the U.S. because he wanted to know more about my job for his Career Day class project.


It takes me, at the very least, a day to finish a page or a spread of illustration.

Will take you step by step through a project I did last year, for an exhibition commemorating the life of two Philippine heroes, who were incidentally married to each other and are parents to the current Philippine president.

I belong to a group of Filipino illustrators of childen’s books, Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan (Ang INK) and our group was tapped by the Ortigas Foundation to illustrate the writings of Benigno S. Aquino and Corazon C. Aquino.

I illustrated this passage of text from the former President Corazon C. Aquino which describes her feelings while her husband was unjustly imprisoned by President Marcos during the Martial Law and she was left with the tough job of raising their five children:

“As a housewife, I stood by my husband and never questioned his decision to stand alone in defense of a dead democracy against an arrogant dictatorship.  As a housewife, I never missed a chance to be with my husband when his jailers permitted it. Nor gave up looking for him one day when he was taken away, no one could tell me where…..As a housewife, I held his hand as the life drained out of him in a self-imposed fast of 40 days, to protest a fine legal point about the civilian jurisdiction of a military court…… For seven and a half years, I sat outside the gate of his maximum security prison, with his food and his books — when they allowed it — and with forced smiles from our children and myself…”

It is the job of the illustrator to help the reader understand the text by interpreting it into a visual that conveys the essence of the author’s meaning.

Here, the author is Corazon C. Aquino, and because she used to be a former president, there is a lot of information about her on the web.  I had to do some research on her life, her thoughts about her husband being imprisoned then later, martyred as he was assassinated. Although my rendering would be stylized, I still wanted to know how she looked like when she was a young wife and mother, and what her clothes looked like back in the 70s. I downloaded her pics and some articles about her as references so I can access them easily on my desktop whenever I felt at a loss about my interpretation.

Making studies. I spend a whole day on this before I paint. I make additional research, if I feel I need to. So the first thing I did after researching was to sketch studies.  First I did tiny sketches on my sketch book.  Illustrators call these sketches thumbnail sketches.  These are tiny (though literally not the size of your thumbnail), quick sketches so called because of their size.

How does one interpret pain of being away from a loved one?  How does one visually describe the longing of a family for their father?  I decided that this was what the way I wanted to interpret Aquino’s text.

So, from my sketches I chose one which I thought best captured the meaning I wanted to convey and then I made a bigger, more detailed sketch exactly the size of the painting I was going to make.

From this I made a cleaner drawing. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to save that sketch.)  Will use the drawing later to transfer the image onto the collage background I will be making the next morning.

8:00 AM  Making the collage background.  A recent favorite technique of mine is making painted collage artworks. I cut pieces from magazines, my old notebooks, scrapbook paper, just about anything that I find interesting.  I keep a box of scrap paper of all kinds for this purpose. I apply them on a canvas panel with acrylic emulsion. The acrylic emulsion acts as adhesive and as primer for the canvas.

I like the way the handwriting on the torn notebook pages convey memory. After all it was Aquino’s reminiscence I wanted to capture in my artwork.

10:00 AM  Painting the background.  I prime the background with white acrylic, covering some of the collage and leaving some details uncovered.  The wonderful thing about this technique is that you can make mistakes.  You just paint over them.  Over this I put a layer of green acrylic glaze.

Then, at this point, I add more textures to the surface with unconventional materials and tools.

11:00 AM  Transferring the drawing onto the background.  I make a tracing of the clean drawing I made earlier on the surface of the collage, and then I start painting in the flesh tones.


1: 30 PM  Working on the skin tone.  I refer to old artworks for the skin tone. Mixing the skin tone is a bit tricky. I needed just the right mix of chrome yellow, white, vermillion and burnt umber.  I referred to a previous painting I had made of the Aquino sisters.

2:00 PM  Working on  the middle tones.  Then I worked on the middle tones. I work layer by layer.  This is what artists call the “glazing” technique.  At this point I also start adding the darker tones and shadows.

Adding details and definition.  It is an extremely painstaking process, and you have to be really patient.  It is only at this point that what I am painting gains a semblance of the final product.

6:00 PM  Finishing up. After all the details are in place, the artist signs the artwork. Sometimes an illustrator opts not to sign an artwork, especially if it is going to be used in a picture book.  In a picture book, the acknowledgment for the artist appears on the cover, along with the name of the writer. But this particular artwork is for a commemorative exhibit which aims to familiarize the Philippine youth with the writings of Benigno and Corazon Aquino. So I sign it.

Giving the artwork a title is usually an optional step for illustrators.  But I gave this artwork the title “Seven and A Half Years”.

Drawing from life

The writing of many of my stories mostly start the same way—they were inspired by stories while I was growing up and they now include stories from my expanded world as an adult.  Everything I had ever written, I think, are, in varying degrees, semi-autobiographical.

When I was asked to write the Insular Life kiddie financial literacy series, I thought the readers needed a realistic story they could relate to, whether personally or through a classmate who had had a similar experience. And so I sought to write about kids with real-life concerns.  As a five-year-old preschooler, my son Anton was not of much help yet with the questions I asked myself for the project:  What do tweeners worry about now? How did they cope?

In starting to write a story, one wonders where one must begin.  And the insight I had been getting from many years of writing has been consistent. For me, the best starting point for a story is always myself, because it’s a territory I know so well—I draw aspects from my childhood, my present circumstances, my thoughts and view of the world. I don’t think it’s possible otherwise;  I’d literally get lost.

The directions for the Insular Life series, as communicated to me by my publisher Ani Almario from Adarna House, from the client brief through e-mail, were pretty pat: no mention of Insular Life brand or their products, stories must involve and empower the child reader into taking proactive steps in helping build the family wealth, and stories must be aimed at the middle reader (ages 8 to 12) so it was going to be a storybook, rather than a picture book.

Some projects practically write themselves.  As a little girl, I did have problems that had to do with my family’s financial status, and from a young age, I had been sensitive to the differences in my family’s financial circumstances with that of my classmates’, and this had been a source of my inferiority complex.  We didn’t eat out (for the same amount, my dad said we could have a feast at home), we rarely went to the cinema, we were given clothes or books instead of toys at Christmas, etc.  On the other hand, I had a classmate named Marjorie who had a new watch every week, had a tin Barbie lunch box with Thermos that I envied, and who celebrated her eleventh birthday by bringing our whole fifth grade class to their family fishpond in Bulacan.  Marjorie and I were classmates from the second to the sixth grades; she was also my very first art patron as she bought the paper dolls I drew on the cardboard backing of our writing pads (at 25 centavos) as well as the dresses (5 centavos for dresses and 10 centavos for gowns) I made for them.  Marjorie had also once pitted me in a drawing match with Beatrice, a girl from the morning classes.  There was no money involved, though.  But looking back now, I can see how she was so proud to be my friend and how she believed so much in my talent for drawing.

So many of these snippets of childhood memory found their way into The Luckiest Girl In the World, the first book. I had written down Marjorie as the name of the poor little rich girl in my drafts as a working name. I decided to keep it, however, because I thought it was perfect, and because the Marjorie I had created evolved to a completely different little girl from the inspiration—her mom was a nurse in UK (one of our classmates’ moms was a nurse in the US) and so she lived with her lola (grandmother).

Growing up, I wasn’t too crazy about my name. One of the names I fancied for myself was Carmina. My sixth grade teacher, Ms Dunca (now Mrs Alve) appears in a cameo role as Carmina’s Art teacher.

I got the project, my publisher Ani told me, because the client from Insular Life liked “Araw sa Palengke” which was illustrated by Isabel Roxas, art directed by Jordan Santos and published by Adarna House, and so they got the whole team back together again.

Christmas in February was loosely inspired by the stories from a friendship I’d been blessed to have—formed over the years, first through Friendster and Multiply, then through Facebook—with a woman who shares the same surname as my husband.  She and her husband work in UK, and their only child, a very smart and precocious little boy, lives with his grandparents.  Her sharings of her insights on motherhood, on working abroad, on being away from her only child are so touching and inspiring.

Insular Life wanted a story which featured children of Pinoys who worked overseas, because they want these kids to value their parents’ heroic sacrifice and consequently manage their allowances well. Insular Life wanted the kids to realize that they can help their parents in their own little way by saving up so that they will be reunited sooner. On my own initiative, I added the bit about the efficient management of funds by the caregivers (the main character Jaime’s grandparents) by imagining my parents in the role. Needless to say, Christmas in February was a bit more difficult to write, because I didn’t have the experience of working abroad at all, and I haven’t experienced being away from my child for a long time. But my parents, who were sketched as their younger selves as Carmina’s parents in The Luckiest Girl in the World, reappear this time as inspirations for Jaime’s grandpa and grandma who figure prominently in the story, with their sage advice on financial matters.

My parents came with me and my son to closing activity of the Insular Life Book Caravan at the 2010 Manila International Book Fair. Excerpts from the books were read as they were presented, and I saw how my parents turned both misty-eyed as they listened to Kuya Jay Menes. I was only too happy to show them that their stories and lessons all these years were not wasted on me, after all— because I listened.

Christmas in February was illustrated by the very talented young artist, Ariel Santillan.

Writing tip:  To form the outline for my stories, it helps for me to imagine the blurb on the cover of the book I want to write. I didn’t write the back cover blurbs for the Insular Life books, but I think it’s pretty much the way they would read if I had written them.  You must be able to pick out clearly the essential parts of your story and see how these contribute and flow into an integrated whole, so you will know where to take the story.