A book about cats that also makes you appreciate the Filipino language

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“Ang Aklatang Pusa” is a children's book that follows the story of retired librarian Aling Salvacion, who starts a library of cats in her home. Photo courtesy of EUGENE EVASCO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Aling Salvacion is a retired librarian who lives alone in a house that has seen better days. The inside of her home is decorated with bookshelves, but instead of storing books, they contain an assortment of cats — some playful and friendly, some shy, some lethargic.

Just as she had done with books, she catalogues her cats, sorting them by name, age, color, and personality. And just like in a library, she opens her collection of cats to neighbors looking to borrow one momentarily to address some need, such as to catch mice at their home, serve as inspiration for an art piece, or even as a friend to a lonely child.

Aling Salvacion is the central character of Eugene Evasco’s children’s book, “Ang Aklatang Pusa,” a recent winner of the Romeo Forbes Story Writing Competition, which challenges writers to send in a 1,000-word story based on a single art piece. Evasco's story is based on a piece by artist Jared Yokte.

The competition, which has been running for 12 years now, is an initiative of CANVAS, an organization that publishes children’s books that tackle social issues, and vows to give one million books to one million Filipino children. Once the winning piece of the competition is chosen, the artist brings the story to life by creating around 20 new artworks, which are showcased at an exhibit and used as illustrations for the book.

ECD.002.jpeg As a long-time cat owner, author Eugene Evasco often writes about them to raise awareness on animal rights. "Ang Aklatang Pusa" also features a Lumad character, introducing young readers to the struggle of the Lumad people. Photos courtesy of EUGENE EVASCO

“Ang Aklatang Pusa” is not an anomaly in Eugene Evasco’s body of work, which includes a collection of children’s poetry on cats and a series of virtue-laden books with a precocious kitten as their main character.

As a long-time cat owner, Evasco often writes about them to raise awareness on animal rights. His main source of inspiration for the book was the Human Library, a project that began in Copenhagen in 2000 where visitors could borrow “human books” of various backgrounds and experiences to engage in a conversation with. The goal of the project was to challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue.

Evasco’s fictional cat library, on the other hand, shows young readers that cats, much like humans, have their own unique personalities and quirks, and are valuable creatures in their own right. This, he says, is in a way a response to events such as the alleged relocation of the cats in Shangri-La at the Fort’s community earlier this year.

In featuring a diverse set of human visitors to the library, Evasco also opens young readers to certain realities of this world. One particular character in the book is a displaced Lumad child who finds comfort and companionship in one of Aling Salvacion’s cats.

The character’s participation in the story is brief (due to the competition’s 1,000-word limit), but the inclusion still remains important in both introducing an oft forgotten group to children, and in allowing them to empathize with their struggle.

A piece published in The Boston Globe highlights the role of children’s literature in the lives of kids today, who are exposed to concepts like terrorism, violence, prejudice, and authoritarianism at an early age, pointing to the way the victims of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this year used “Harry Potter” to make sense of their experiences.

When asked about how he manages to present complicated and “adult” concepts to young readers, Evasco says that he does not think too much about making stories more easily understandable or palatable to kids.

“‘Pag sumusulat ako ng mga children's stories, hindi ko iniisip na ito ay para sa bata,” he says. “Basta ang gusto ko lang ay makasulat ako ng isang magandang kwento na kung magustuhan o hindi ng bata, ok lang sakin ... Hindi ako gumagamit ng simple language. Kasi ‘pag simple language, para mong tinignan ng mababa ang bata na parang, ‘Hangang dito ka lang.’”

“Ibibigay ko ang pinakamaganda kong language para sa [mga bata],” he adds. “Hindi ko sinisimplify ang wika ko para ito maging pambata.”

Photo-10.jpg “Ang Aklatang Pusa” is on display at the Tumba-Tumba Children’s Museum of Philippine Art exhibit until July 27 at the UP Vargas Museum. The exhibit showcases the artworks created for the book, as well as scenes depicting Aling Salvacion's home littered with her cats. Photos courtesy of EUGENE EVASCO

Evasco, who is a professor of Filipino and Creative Writing at UP Diliman, is also an advocate for increasing literacy in Filipino, and in “intellectualizing the language.” That is why he chooses to write his children’s stories primarily in Filipino, oftentimes insisting on using uncommon words rather than settling for their English counterparts. Instead of “petal” he will use the word “talulot.” To describe a group of cats collectively meowing, he writes “salimbayangmeow.”

“Gusto ko talaga na ma-develop at ma-promote ang Filipino language sa mga bata ngayon. At hindi lang i-popularize kung hindi i-intellectualize,” he says. “Ang tingin sakin ng ibang tao, ‘Yung mga short stories for children niyan masyadong sophisticated ang language.’ Hindi ko ihihingi ng paumanhin ‘yun. Kasi gusto ko ‘yung mga bata sophisticated ang language nila, lalo na Filipino.”

“‘Wag nating ipagkait sa mga bata ang ganda ng ating wika,” he adds.

“Ang Aklatang Pusa” is on display at the UP Vargas Museum until July 27, where CANVAS has mounted an exhibit called the Tumba-Tumba Children’s Museum of Philippine Art, a prototype of a children’s museum that the group hopes to put up one day. Here, visitors may enjoy various interactive art pieces, check out installations based on the three books CANVAS has launched along with the exhibit, as well as purchase a number of books, including "Ang Aklatang Pusa," which is up for sale at ₱1,000.

At the exhibit, one can imagine scenes from Aling Salvacion’s life, as a clowder of cat statues takes over the space, sleeping on tables and climbing atop bookshelves. A drawer stands in the middle of a room, where one can find index cards marked with the names and descriptions of the imaginary cats, teasing visitors with the idea that they may check out Romeo or Abe or Orange to keep them company or perhaps teach them a lesson or two.