Elegy for the lost: Nick Joaquin’s Pop Stories

Florianne Jimenez
On National Children’s Book Day, we celebrate the work of the National Artist for Literature

NICK JOAQUIN'S 'POP STORIES FOR GROOVY KIDS.' The complete set minus 'Sarimanok Versus Ibong Adarna.' Photo from the 'Pop Stories for Groovy Kids' Facebook page

[Writer’s note: National Children’s Book Day is often used by writers as a platform to promote books children should be reading. Today, July 16, I’d like to use this occasion to write about a lost series of children’s books, in the hope that someone from the Joaquin estate will take notice and consider doing a reprint.] 

MANILA, Philippines – National Artist Nick Joaquin is best known for his gritty newspaper reportage and prose fiction. His stories of women with two navels and sensual summer rituals are not the kind you would read aloud to your toddler son or daughter.

This is why the fact that Nick Joaquin once came out with a series of children’s stories — fantastic ones, at that — is all the more surprising.

Nick Joaquin’s “Pop Stories for Groovy Kids” was published by Mr. and Ms. Publishing in 1979. The series had two lines, a Red series and a Blue series, with a total of about 10 books. 

The terms “pop stories” and “groovy kids” might make the books seem dated, but the stories are timeless in their appeal. I read them in the ’90s, after my two older siblings had enjoyed and grown out of them. I still enjoy taking our copies out and flipping through the pages today.

Exciting stories

The variety of the stories in the series is exciting, and offers something for every child. Some are retellings of classic fairy tales from Europe.

For example, “Elang Uling,” which is a Filipino retelling of “Cinderella,” has the classic elements of absent father, evil stepmother and stepsisters, kind magical creatures and handsome prince at the ball. “Johnny Tinoso and the Proud Beauty” fuses elements of “Beauty and the Beast” with the gender roles reversed. 

Some are stories about ordinary Filipino children which fuse elements from our classic folk tales. My personal favorite, “Sarimanok Versus Ibong Adarna,” is about two boastful schoolgirls who create a classroom rivalry over their pets, the fabled sarimanok and ibong adarna. Both girls know that these animals don’t exist, but one day, they suddenly come to life, and the girls get more than they bargained for.

Another close favorite, “The Adventures of Culas-Culasito,” is about a young city boy who gets into different scrapes — a run-in with a legendary creature called an Itim Asu, a tussle with some neighborhood toughs who decide to eat his puppy and an encounter with Bernardo Carpio, the lost hero of the Filipino race.

All of the stories are written in Joaquin’s neat, sparse prose. Above all, they are gritty and dark, and some even have some intense social commentary lying underneath.

One unforgettable story is “Lilit Bulilit and the Babe in the Womb,” which never ceased to baffle and yet fascinate me when I was a kid. Lilit Bulilit is a small, grumpy, homeless woman with a bouffant hairstyle, who survives on a diet of soda pop and unborn babies. When she hears a pregnant woman sighing that she doesn’t want the baby in her womb, she sucks the baby out with a straw and has her fill.

As a child, this feature of the story grossed me out and also puzzled me — Who wouldn’t want a cute little baby running around? And why would you be so happy to lose it?

GRUESOME. An example of a full-color illustration from 'Pop Stories,' from 'Lilit Bulilit and the Babe in the Womb.' Image courtesy of Florianne Jimenez

When I came across the story again as a teenager, I realized that the story was  the aswang story made urban, and perhaps an allegory of pre-term abortion as well. Because “Lilit Bulilit” faced realities that weren’t discussed in children’s books, it has stuck with me until today.

In their physical form, the books have a largeness that today’s children’s books just don’t have. The Pop Stories are about 1ft by 1.5ft, which is about twice the size of the average children’s book today. That size may not seem impressive to an adult, but imagine the joy a child has when she reads an illustrated book that’s bigger than her face.

The series’ gorgeous full color illustrations done by various artists and designers also add to the magic of the Joaquin stories.

The books are best for side-by-side reading with a child, or for an older child to read on her own, and not for reading aloud and showing to a class. The smallish (about 16pt) type is printed directly onto the illustrations, which may make reading with the book facing your audience, as teachers do, a challenge.

For children’s books, the illustrations are just as much a part of the story as the text, and a child will enjoy the stories most when they can see both.

Sadly, “Pop Stories for Groovy Kids” have never been reprinted, which is why generations of young children today may never know the magic of Nick Joaquin’s children’s stories.

It’s a shame: we could use more children’s stories with a sense of whimsy and irony. So I offer this lament for this lost set of children’s books, to have us remember the stories we have lost, and perhaps to bring them back someday. – Rappler.com

 

‘Pop Stories for Groovy Kids’ can be found in some university libraries in the Philippines and abroad, and may also be in the basements and bodegas of private homes. A Facebook page pushing for the republication of these stories, https://www.facebook.com/nick.is.groovy, has uploaded an enhanced pdf of ‘How Love Came to Juan Tamad’ for interested readers to enjoy. If you have the resources or the connections to bring these books back into circulation, please email the author at florianne.jimenez@gmail.com.

 

Bo Jimenez


Florianne L. Jimenez teaches Literature and College Writing at the University of the Philippines Diliman. She is a Palanca award-winning non-fiction writer, with a creative interest in the self, places, and consciousness. She has a massive to-be-read pile dating back to 2008, which includes such titles as ‘The Collected Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez,’ ‘Book 5 of Y: The Last Man,’ and ‘The Collected Works of TS Spivet: A Novel.’

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