The making of Adarna House, publisher of children’s books 2
The Adarna House books that made it to the #NeverAgain bundle, five titles that dealt with the subject of martial rule. Image from Adarna House Facebook page.

The story of Adarna House began during the Marcos years

The red-tagged publishing house’s origins began even before 1980, when future National Artist Virgilio Almario was called on to lead a mental feeding program
Dahl D. Bennett | May 16 2022

Kids of the 80s would remember Emang Engkantada, a terno-wearing fairy who would set three wasteful kids straight by showing them what nature’s wrath is like. Or perhaps they would recall Digong Dilaw—a dyed-in-the-wool dilawan, if there ever was one—a boy obsessed with the color yellow and eventually gains the power of turning everything into his favorite shade. Will he eventually get sick of a sun-colored world? 

Born from the imaginations of Virgilio Almario and Rene Villanueva respectively, Ema and Digong are titular characters of two beloved children’s books, “Emang Engkantada at ang Tatlong Haragan” and “Digong Dilaw.” Both titles were published by Adarna House whose books shot to national renown four decades ago as supplemental reading materials for kids—more engaging, more entertaining companions to school textbooks and created by some of the country’s most talented and awarded writers and illustrators. 

Adarna House founder Virgilio Almario, National Artist for Literature.
Adarna House founder Virgilio Almario, National Artist for Literature.

The 40-year old publishing company was red-tagged last week after announcing its special sale for five previously published books that touch on the subject of Martial Law. The chosen titles have been labeled collectively as the #NeverAgain Bundle and are reportedly seeing swift sales since they were offered on 20 percent discount last May 11, two days after the Commission on Elections’ partial results showed Ferdinand Marcos Jr.—whose father placed the Philippines under martial rule in 1972–leading significantly in the presidential race. 

On May 12, National Intelligence Coordinating Agency’s (NICA) Director-General Alex Paul Monteagudo, in his Facebook post, accused the publishing house of ‘radicalizing Filipino children’ against the government. “This is how the CPP/NPA/NDF radicalize not just our youths, but our children. The Adarna Publishing House published these books and they are now on sale to subtly radicalize the Filipino children against our Governement (sic), now!" his post claimed. 

In a presser the day after, Monteagudo said that when issues like martial law are taught to kids, this means “planting seeds of hatred and dissent in the minds of these children.”

Emang Engkantada
A book about caring for the environment written in the 1980s by Rene Villanueva.

Don’t judge a book… 

Two of the books in question were authored by Palanca awardee and “Batibot” writer Augie Rivera who has 20 children’s titles to his name. These include books that discuss sensitive issues such as verbal abuse, sexual abuse and, yes, Martial Law. “Si Jhun Jhun, Noong Bago Ideklara Ang Batas Militar” tells the story of a boy living in the precarious pre-Martial Law era. The book was given a special citation for children’s literature by the National Book Awards in 2005. Meanwhile, “Isang Harding Papel” tells the story of Jenny whose mother was jailed for staging a street play critical of the Marcos dictatorship. 

Rivera in a Facebook post condemned the allegation that his books radicalize Filipino children, and denied he is in any way affiliated with the groups Monteagudo mentioned. He said the “Jhun-Jhun” book was written in 2001 as part of a five-title series of historical fiction published by the UNICEF Philippines and Adarna House. 

Digong Dilaw
Adarna founder Virgilio Almario proposed a world in yellow via “Digong Dilaw.”

“Tampok dito ang mga kuwento ng pakikipagsapalaran at pagkamulat ng mga kabataan at mahahalagang pangyayari at aral ng ating kasaysayan,” said the writer who was two years ago awarded the Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas by the prestigious group of Filipino writers, the UMPIL, or the Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas, for his contributions to local children’s literature written in the vernacular. 

The two other books in the #NeverAgain bundle include “Edsa,” written by Russel Molina and illustrated by Sergio Bumatay III, a counting book parents and teachers can use to tell the story of the 1986 People Power revolution; “The Magic Arrow” written by Bonet Banal with art by Korinne Banal, which tells the story of a people’s uprising against a dictator/King who kept saying ‘No’; and “Ito Ang Diktadura” which is part of Adarna’s Aklat na Salin. Written by Equipo Plantel with illustrations by Mike Casal, it was originally published in Spain in 1978 and reprinted and translated in Filipino by Adarna House. It describes what dictatorship and social injustice look like through a child’s eyes. A full spread is dedicated to famous dictators around the world including Ferdinand Marcos, Sr.

Virgilio Almario’s family
Virgilio Almario’s family is now running the publishing house. Photo from Adarna House website.

In defense of Adarna

While Adarna House have yet to address the red-tagging, many have come to its defense. (ANCX reached out to the publisher for this story but our request for an interview was declined. “We have no comment on what is happening and see no need for an interview,” went the message.) 

The Book Development Association of the Philippines, in a letter addressed to parents, teachers, and readers, said that NICA’s claim is far from the truth, adding that four of the titles in the bundle have long been in circulation as historical fiction picture books while one is a translation. The letter also said children should know “they have the basic right to free speech and that they can take part in the national conversation in a meaningful and respectful way.”

The Manila Critics Circle also called for a stop to red-tagging publishing houses. In a Letter to the Editor published in Inquirer.net, the organization, composed of professional literary critics and newspaper columnists, expressed its support for Adarna House.“Not only is Adarna House an award-winning publisher known to produce only quality material, it is also a publisher devoted to the truth.” The letter said it is a disservice to young readers when people assume they should be exempt from learning about significant events in Philippine history like the imposition of martial law. “Let the truth be told. Let the publishers publish,” the statement urged.

Even the popular fantasy and children’s books author Neil Gaiman, who wrote the bestsellers Coraline, Norse Mythology, and The Sandman, weighed in on the issue. To a Rappler post on Twitter about the intelligence chief’s comments, he simply said: “Not good.” 

Adarna House
Adarna House makes books for kids that are not just for kids “kundi para sa lahat ng nagpapahalaga sa kapakanan ng kabataan.” Photos from Adarna House website.

Magical bird 

Adarna House was established during Ferdinand Marcos Sr’s reign. According to a blog post on adarnahouse.wordpress.com, in the late 70s, the Nutrition Center of the Philippines, “a non-profit organization established in 1974 to help address malnutrition” in the country, approached the esteemed poet, educator and literary historian Virgilio Almario in the late to lead its “mental feeding program.”

The future National Artist for Literature was, as per the Adarna blog, a big believer that ignorance is a disease—and so the guy took on the agency’s challenge and launched a series of books for children which he christened Aklat Adarna, clearly invoking the healing power of the mythical Adarna bird. When the program ended, Almario continued the series with assistance from a group called Children’s Communication Center. The amount of books they were putting out eventually necessitated the founding of a publishing and distribution house of their own—and so in 1980 Adarna House came into being. 

Over the decades, it has, as it says in the blog, continued to come out with books for kids that are not just for kids “kundi para sa lahat ng nagpapahalaga sa kapakanan ng kabataan.” 

According to the Adarna House website, it was established “to respond to the need of Filipino children to develop their minds through enjoyable learning opportunities and memorable literary experiences.” Today, the publishing company is helmed by Almario’s wife Emelina as Chairman of the Board of Directors with the help of their children Asa Montenejo as President, Ani Almario as Vice President for Product Development, and Agno Almario as Vice President for Sales and Marketing. 

The Adarna House books that made it to the #NeverAgain bundle
The Adarna House's #NeverAgain bundle

Bundle of learning 

For the past four decades, Adarna House has been a quiet but steady cultural entity, providing Philippine schools and Filipino homes children’s books that promote reading in Filipino and English, teach local culture, and help children understand complex societal truths such as the breakup of marriages, death, and injustice.  

Former parenting website editor Leah San Jose laments the accusations directed towards Adarna House by the NICA. “In my past job, it was always a treat to get introduced to their baby board books because they were written in Filipino,” said San Jose. “Inaangat nila yung heritage, cultural identity, at values ng mga Pilipino. Ang daming stories to help young kids and parents process emotions, including two books na nasa Martial Law bundle nila.”

Before Adarna House, two of the country’s oldest independent bookstores known to carry extensive Filipiniana collections, Popular Bookstore and Solidaridad, were also targets of red-tagging. In March, the bookstores’ facades were spray-painted with “NPA” and “Terrorista.”

Meanwhile, with its decision not to defend itself with either written statements or interviews, Adarna House seems to be saying it’s unbothered by the accusations. And why should it be when, as per its website, it’s stood by the often-undermined capabilities of its primary audience? “It is [the Filipino children’s] curiosity that keeps us motivated, their creativity that we wish to equal, and their potential for greatness that we will always strive to serve,” the company writes. “It is they who keep us committed to our duty: to create good playmates, classmates, and friends not only for children, but also for art, literature, and country.”