A Day at the Park with Carmelita Ballesteros

Hello, Carmelita! Welcome to GatheringBooks! We are so fortunate that despite your hectic schedule as an academic, you still managed to find the time to answer our host of questions for our Meet the Storyteller September Feature.

How long have you been writing books for children? Is there any special reason why you chose this particular genre?

My picture storybooks Annie D. Ant  and The Fourth Little Pig  were published in the Philippines in 2003 and 2004, respectively. I’m just a part-time writer of children’s books.  I’ve always been a full-time teacher and textbook writer back in the Philippines (1980s onwards)

I’ve always loved picture books. Now that I’m a grandmother, I love picture books even more. That’s why I chose the picture storybook as a genre for Annie  D. Ant   and The Fourth Little Pig.

Tita Carmel with Son and Grandchildren

When did you discover you wanted to be a writer?

I was a campus journalist both in high school and in the university. In the 1980s, I started writing textbooks (Spoken English for Filipinos  published by REX Book Store) because there were no speech books for children.

Annie D. Ant,  before it became a picture book, was just a short fable I wrote for one of my speech books for children.

Right now,  you are a Visiting Lecturer at the National Institute of Education (NIE). Could you share with our GatheringBooks readers what your work entails?

At present, I’m teaching and chairing two courses on children’s literature which involve more than 250 students. At first, I taught academic writing, discourse analysis, and communication skills for teachers at NIE. Then came an opportunity to teach children’s lit. My Ph.D. is in literature so I welcomed the break although the specifics didn’t seem inviting.

Why were they uninviting? It was going to be an evening class, 7:00 – 10:00 p.m. The clientele would be part-time students who were full-time teachers in Singapore primary schools. Their median age was 40. The course would have to be delivered with a strong electronic learning (e-learning) component and I would have to manage the e-learning site for the course. Big problem.  I was a full-blooded techno-dinosaur then!

Photo's of Tita Carmel and Family in Boracay

I took a leap of faith and I’ve never looked back. My e-learning curve was very steep, at first.  After attending e-learning seminars and workshops as well as doing hands-on e-learning work, I’ve become fairly comfortable with educational technology.  In fact, I have several blogs, one of which is http://celebratingkidsliterature.blogspot.com/

More importantly, I’ve re-discovered an old love which is children’s lit. So teaching has become a nonstop adventure similar to young children having an adventure with worms, butterflies, flowers, goats, cows, clouds, rainbows, fairies, ghosts, aliens, robots, etc.

Is it difficult to balance being an academic and writing books for children? While both are creative endeavours, the intellectual rigour for the former is quite different from the spontaneous creative pathways of the latter, how do you manage to straddle both?

When you’re having fun doing something, you just do it. You make time for it. The actual writing of Annie D. Ant  and The Fourth Little Pig  was quite fast. It was getting them published as picture storybooks that took time and effort. But the process was similar to textbook writing and publishing so it was really an exciting episode in my staid academic life.

Snorkeling time with Family in Boracay

Were there special events in your life which led you to writing for children (or the young at heart?)? Could you share with us these events?

Let me tell you how The Fourth Little Pig  came about. I’ve been an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) since 2000. While teaching in Taiwan, I had a colleague and friend who was a polio survivor. She was a brave lady who left Taiwan for the United States, completed a Ph.D. through grit and determination, then went back to Taiwan. She was fiercely independent yet vulnerable.

OFWs  were the model for Gorgy, the fourth little pig.  My courageous colleague was the model for Josephine, the missy little pig on crutches. I didn’t know that I had a story about OFWs  and the differently-abled until a Filipino teacher remarked during a workshop I had run that there was hardly any picture storybook with a handicapped person as a character.

That night, my fingers flew on the keyboard of my laptop.

What are some of your favorite children’s books/YA fiction?

I don’t remember having a favorite as a child.  I read the usual children’s stories such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Little Mermaid, Ugly Duckling, etc. Of course, I also read the usual animal stories such as The Ant and the Grasshopper as well as the Three Little Pigs.

Right now, I get attracted to a children’s book if my grandchildren are interested in it. For example, I didn’t like Lauren Child’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book?  But my granddaughter, who was five years old then, visited with me in 2008. She was fascinated with Who’s Afraid  and asked me to read it aloud to her several times.

She carried it around and composed her own stories based on the illustration.  I guess it served as a toy book for her. Anyway, her fascination became mine. Through her, I understood what postmodernism is!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a postmodern advocate. I love all sorts of picture books – realistic, impressionistic, expressionistic, black and white, full color,  etc. I love fractured fairy tales like Roald Dahl’s Cinderella.  I also love graphic novels like Kampung Boy  by Lat and historical fiction like Peacebound Trains  by Haemi Balgassi and Chris Soentpiet (illustrator).

Vacation in Boracay with Family

Who are some of your favorite authors in the YA lit/children’s book genre whom you feel may have influenced or inspired you in your writing?

I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking of any author  when I wrote Annie D. Ant and the Fourth Little Pig.  In terms of intertextuality, the old stories about the ant and the grasshopper as well as the three little pigs certainly did.

What constitutes a good children’s book for you? How about/YA story for you?

It must have strong and believable characters, an interesting plot, a riveting conflict, and a universal, timeless theme.

As a teacher, I keep an open mind to a good story and/or a good illustration. As an Asian teacher teaching in a multicultural country, Singapore, I deliberately include in my reading list children’s books from Singapore, other Asian countries, and other continents. I do keep the old favorites and newly minted but well-acclaimed books from the West.

, and Carmelita)”]

At East Coast Park in Singapore (from Left: Myka, me [Myra

May I say something about multiculturalism? I’ve noticed that when Western authors speak of multicultural children’s lit, they mean minority literature such as Asian or Spanish or African lit. I’d like to point out that these are minority literatures only from the Western perspective.

In Singapore, I think multiculturalism is an aspiration to harmonize the three dominant cultures – Chinese, Indian, and Malay. Same word, different meaning.

A Read Aloud Session for Gathering Books at the East Coast Park, taken during the National Day Parade.

Who are some of your favorite children’s book illustrators?

I don’t really have a favorite. But I do like some. I’ve mentioned Chris Soentpiet earlier. His illustration of Brothers , text by his wife Yin, is awesome. His illustrations look like photographs  with unbelievable details. That should make his style realistic, but his use of colors and light gives his art work a dreamlike quality.

Ed Young’s illustration of Tsunami  by Kimiko Kajikawa is spectacular.  The texture of Young’s collages makes his art

work seem so real. More than the technical aspect, th

e portrayal of the frightening power and drama inherent in a tsunami disaster

is truly stunning.

Leslie Liu’s illustration of Monica Chang’s Mouse Bride  is incredible.  Each mouse looks different; the details are amazing.  Mouse Bride is a re-telling of an old Chinese folk tale. Leslie Liu and Monica Chang are Taiwanese and Mouse Bride was published in Taiwan.

What are some of the joys in being a writer? What are some of the difficulties that you have encountered so far in writing? How about in publishing?

If I could sing, I would.  If I could dance, I would. But I can neither sing nor dance, so I write. I guess it’s a matter of self-expression.

One of the difficulties in writing and/or publishing is meeting a deadline. However, deadlines  give me the adrenalin rush. So for me, deadlines are good.

Would you share with us in Gathering Books how your first book got published? What was the feeling like?

If I remember right, my very first published book was a speech textbook for children in the 1980s. It felt like a dream come true. I was very young then and I couldn’t believe it was happening.

Anyway, when Annie D. Ant  was published in 2003, I was still very excited. It felt like giving birth to a long-awaited baby.

Are there special issues that you think are being faced currently by writers coming from Asia? What is it like to be a children’s lit writer from the Philippines currently working in Singapore?

I think Asian writers of children’s books need to have a stronger marketing support from international publishers.  I also think that Asian writers, editors, reviewers, publishers, and teachers should support one another.  I do my part by including some Asian writers in the reading list for my Children’s Lit classes.

For example, my list includes  Granny  by Suchen Christine Lim and What Sallamah Didn’t Know  by Sharon Ismail. Both of them are Singaporeans.

Blogs like Gathering Books can also do something to give Asian writers a special platform.  (Thanks very much!).

As a children’s writer from the Philippines working in Singapore? I have kept a low profile about my ‘hobby.’  Even my students in children’s lit don’t know I’ve written Annie D. Ant  and the Fourth Little Pig.

Read-aloud of Annie D. Ant at East Coast Park

How did you go about choosing your illustrator for your narrative? What was the artistic collaboration like between you and Beth Parrocha-Doctolero (Illustrator of The Fourth Little Pig).How about with JoAnn A. Bereber (Illustrator of Annie D. Ant)?

I looked at picture books displayed in bookstores. Then I made a short list of illustrators whom I felt could draw what I had in mind. I e-mailed them and Beth and JoAnn replied. I met separately with them, discussed the respective manuscripts with them, and let them interpret the text in visual form.

You have two lovely grandchildren, how are they instrumental in the creation of your stories?

In 2003, my then two-year old grandson was my art critic for The Fourth Little Pig.  He looked at the pencil sketches, the color proofs, and the cover designs. When he squealed with delight and pointed out details that he liked, the artist (Beth Parrocha-Doctolero) and I knew it was a good illustration. When he didn’t, we knew it needed to be made more child-friendly.

Your first picture book, Annie D. Ant was especially dedicated to Bantay Bata 163. Could you share with our readers how this came about?

Bantay Bata 163 is an NGO dedicated to child rescue and rehabilitation in the Philippines. As a mother and grandmother, I just can’t help but be concerned with child abuse issues. So I grabbed the opportunity of highlighting the cause of children’s rights by dedicating the book to Bantay Bata 163. It was a very small gesture.

Annie D. Ant deals with an environmental issue (El Niño) – any special reason why you thought about writing something like this for children?

My motivation for writing Annie D. Ant  was the 1998 El Niño  or drought in the Philippines.  I was a freelance educational consultant during that year and I was travelling around the Philippines. Thus, I witnessed first-hand the devastation wrought by El Niño  on farming, fishing, forests, and the life of ordinary folk.

I felt inside me a voiceless scream that needed to be expressed. I wanted children, most especially, to understand what was happening to the environment – their inheritance and future. But lecturing would be useless. Hopefully, through an emotionally engaging picture storybook, they will internalize the message.

Are there elements in Annie D. Ant that resonate with the Filipino culture/sensibilities? Traces from the narrative that may be distinctively Pinoy?

I think readers like you are in a better position to make that observation. But let me try and be an ‘objective’ onlooker. First, Annie D. Ant  is a story about being good neighbors. Filipinos are good neighbors in the sense that they’re always willing to help others even if they’re strangers, even if it means giving up their best bedroom, or giving up a precious glass of water.

Second, Annie D. Ant  is a Filipino Christmas story. The Christmas lanterns or  parol , the rice cake (bibingka) and ginger tea (salabat), and the Christmas dinner (Noche Buena)  are uniquely Filipino. Most of all, the last frame, a double spread, gives the message of love and hope despite the bleak circumstances wrought by El Niño. We, Filipinos, are hopeless optimists.

The character of Annie and Georgia differ markedly. In Jungian terminology, they may even be perceived as ego/alter ego, could you share with our GatheringBooks readers your thoughts about this, and your ideas as you were creating their profiles.

You know, when I’m writing creatively, I don’t put on the analytical thinking cap. I just write as the ‘muse’ moves me. I guess I already had in my subconscious the ant/grasshopper archetype in the original fable.

I simply played it out using a different setting – time, place, and circumstances. Of course, I added other old characters like the Little Red Hen. This is what discourse analysts and literary theorists  call intertextuality.

But I wasn’t aware of it while I was writing. I simply wanted to put a message across through an animal story for children.

I particularly like the fact that Annie is very IT-savvy, was this a deliberate effort to include elements of modern technology in the book?

It was part of the new setting – the 21st century. It came naturally; it wasn’t deliberate as in product positioning in Marketing 101. I wish I had such a marketing  agreement with a huge IT company. LOL!

I have done a special feature on the different variations on The Three Little Pigs – so I am keenly interested in your Fourth Little Pig. Out of all the fairy tales, any special reason why you chose to modify/extend/add on to The Three Little Pigs?

The ‘three little pigs’ archetype is about independence and building a strong house. My fourth little pig extension is about inter-dependence and building a strong house as well as friendship.

The Three Little Pigs  was the first storybook I read to put my grandson to sleep when he was an infant. That’s because I can’t sing lullabys.  He loved it because it always put him to sleep. So I started calling him the fourth little pig.

That gave me a title. But I had no story until I put together the OFW phenomenon and my friendship with a differently-abled colleague.

You never know when an inspiration would manifest itself. When it did, it took me only a few hours to pound the story on my laptop.

This book also discusses deep issues such as trust, friendship, and relating to those who are differently-abled, could you share with our GatheringBooks readers your inspiration for this?

Relating with my differently-abled colleague in Taiwan was an education in humility, determination, and faith for me. It filled me with awe and admiration for my friend. I can’t imagine myself surviving and thriving in her braces,  special shoes, and wheelchair.

She drove a special car which was completely hand-maneuvered. It was an amazing car built for an amazing lady. She’d get her crutches from the trunk of her car, then she’d stand using her crutches. Then she’d fold her wheelchair and put it in the trunk of her car.

Then she’d walk toward the driver’s side, open the door, sit down, gather her crutches, then stash them beside the driver’s seat. And off we’d zoom past other cars.

My daughter who loves The Fourth Little Pig wanted to know whether Gorgy and Josephine will fall in love and “live happily ever after?”

Hmm, she has a rich imagination!  Maybe.  I don’t know. I haven’t thought of a sequel. I’m glad Myka’s toying with possibilities. Everything is possible in the realm of the imagination.

What inspires you to write? Any advice for our young writers out there?

Inspiration comes from life experiences, both direct and indirect. Indirect experiences come from observing other people and reading voraciously.

Creative writing is more than just being a word virtuoso. There has to be a story that’s begging to be hatched like an egg being sat upon by a mother bird. It also requires a really rich imagination and the ability to emphathize with people in different circumstances.

Writing for utilitarian purposes in order to pass a school exam or a course requirement can be learned. But writing as a creative activity cannot be forced. If it’s forced and there’s too much artifice, it’s not creative anymore.

Young writers should of course master the tools of the trade – grammar, vocabulary, descriptive writing, dialogue writing, scenario building, characterization, etc. But most of all, young writers should live their young life as fully as possible.

They must nurture their imagination through reading, music, theatre, movies, painting, etc. They must also remain curious and open to other cultures and ways of life. But most of all, they must know who they are and what they stand for. Cultural heritage and identity are very important.

Any future books in the works?

I have some vague ideas, but I’m still waiting for the ‘muse’ to use me. I’m not the kind of writer who labors diligently every day. I write when I’m inspired.

Incidentally, I wrote a play adaptation of Annie D. Ant  in 2004, just as a writing exercise.

In 2005, the husband of a good friend and colleague of mine passed away. They were South Africans and they were my special friends in Taiwan. Together, we would celebrate my grandchildren’s birthdays as if they were their own grandkids. We would celebrate Christmas together even if we sometimes worked on Christmas day.

My friend was heart-broken, and so was I. My grief gave me the drive to write 12 songs for Annie D. Ant  the play (unpublished)  in one week’s time. Let me share with your readers one of those songs:

“The Sweetest Glass”
Little Red Hen and Annie’s Duet
(for Dr. Milagros Wonchai-Lim, a real-life Annie)
Thank you for the water
It’s the coolest glass
It’s the sweetest glass
In all my life.
Thank you for the water
It’s the coolest glass
It’s the sweetest glass
From up Above!
I was the richest hen
In the richest kingdom.
Tiny ants didn’t count
Tiny bugs didn’t matter.
But now I know better
The kingdom’s getting poorer
Yellow leaves kiss the ground
And I’ve become a pauper.
Thank you for the water
It’s the coolest glass
It’s the sweetest glass
In all my life.
Thank you for the water
It’s the coolest glass
It’s the sweetest glass
From up Above!
When I knocked on your door
I said a humble prayer
I said I’m really sorry
I was proud and vain and silly.
When you opened your door
I started to believe
When I drank from your glass
I knew it was love!
Thank you for the water
It’s the coolest glass
It’s the sweetest glass
In all my life.
Thank you for the water
It’s the coolest glass
It’s the sweetest glass
From up Above!

Thank you so much, Carmelita, for your time. It is truly an honor to have you in our GatheringBooks pages. My daughter and I had a lovely time reading your beautiful books aloud at East Coast Park. Please do watch this video clip of our read-aloud at the park. Truly a lovely day like no other. Our heartfelt thanks, Tita Carmel.

Flash Animation

Sources for the Images
Annie D. Ant Cover Page http://www.panday-isip.com/annie_book.html
The Fourth Little Pig cover page http://www.youpublish.com/files/15008
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book cover page: http://fogartysbookshop.blogspot.com/2010/07/attic-door-loves-picture-books-second.html
Brothers by Chris Soentpiet: http://www.soentpiet.com/photo_working_models.htm
Tsunami by Kimiko Kajikawa coverpage: http://howtobeachildrensbookillustrator.wordpress.com/2009/09/
Mouse Bride Cover Page: http://www.amazon.com/Mouse-Bride-Co-Dau-Chuot/dp/9573221519
What Sallamah Didn’t Know Cover Page: http://www.squarecirclez.com/blog/what-sallamah-didnt-know/938
Annie D. Ant and The Fourth Little Pig were given to GatheringBooks (to Myka actually) by the author.
Book photos were taken by the GatheringBooks feature-writer (Myra Garces-Bacsal).
Other photos courtesy of Carmelita Ballesteros.
Acknowledgment goes to Roel Bacsal for the lovely photos from East Coast Park.

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