Illustrating history for children with Adrian Panadero

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Panadero talks about his approach to illustrating the National Children’s Book Awards winner “Cely’s Crocodile” and the role of art in delivering historical truths to children. Photo courtesy of ADRIAN PANADERO

Adrian Panadero laughs when asked if he still needs to work after our interview. At past six in the evening, it looks like he still needs to take care of some remaining requirements for his new book “Bahay: A Tour of Traditional Filipino Houses.” Like his thesis-turned-first-book “Intramuros: The Walled City,” this new project is interactive. Readers may take apart the pages and build six models of traditional Filipino houses. With a target release date in September, this new project is what’s keeping him busy outside his design job at the branding and design studio And A Half.

“Bahay” and “Intramuros” are reminiscent of the books he favored in his childhood. “I enjoyed having reference books like encyclopedias where you can look into the castle. Mga ganon,” says Panadero. “Seeing people or having a bird's eye view of a village. Those are the children's books that affected me at a young age.”

Although he took delight in children’s storybooks like “Alamat ng Ampalaya,” Panadero would find a much greater sense of wonder in them later in life. This time, not only as a reader but also as an illustrator.

“Seeing people or having a bird's eye view of a village. Those are the children's books that affected me at a young age,” says Panadero. Photo courtesy of ADRIAN PANADERO

In 2019, Panadero won the Alcala Prize from the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY). The prize granted him the opportunity to illustrate his first children’s storybook “Cely’s Crocodile.” Written by Gabriela Dans Lee, the book tells the story of renowned artist Araceli Limcaco Dans. It zooms in on how Dans continued to nurture her art even during the turbulent years of the Japanese Occupation. Panadero’s painterly visuals evoke the hopeful, imaginative mind of the artist as a child as well as the darkness of the story’s milieu.

Recently, the book was picked by the National Children’s Book Awards as one of its best reads.

In this interview, Panadero talks about his approach to illustrating “Cely’s Crocodile” and the role of art in delivering historical truths to children.

Congratulations again for being chosen as one of best reads of the National Children's Book Awards this year. Also, congratulations on the PBBY-Alcala Prize, which goes way back. But I believe your involvement with the book was made possible because of that prize. Can you tell me more about that?

'Yung Alcala Prize is a yearly illustration award. I actually got to know it because a few of my office mates joined before and won. At the back of my head, I felt that I want to join in the future too. It was in 2019 when I saw the call for submissions. It was a week before the deadline. Late ko nakita 'yung call for submissions, so I seriously doubted if I should still enter. But I really liked the story, especially the artist that the story is about. It's about Araceli Dans. She was one of the artists that I learned about when I was still in school. I really like her artwork, which is about lace and all that. I was excited by the story, so I still submitted and thankfully won the prize.

If you win the Alcala prize, you get the rights to illustrate the whole book. It just also so happened that the author of the story is the granddaughter of the artist. After that, it became a deeper process of getting to know their family story, of getting to know the author's lola's artwork.

I read that it took you about seven months to finish illustrating the whole book. I want to know more about the process of illustrating [it]. How did you determine the painterly style you used in the book?

This was my first time to do a children's storybook. In the past, the children's books I worked on were more of reference books. They're mostly about history and architecture. This was the first time that it was my illustration style that's going to carry it. The process behind that was first looking at the existing artworks of the artist that the story is about. It became a bit tricky because, you know, if it's about the story na wala namang ni-re-reference na artist, you could really go very playful with what you want. Here, it's sort of an homage to her. It was really more of consulting her artwork and trying to dissect them and trying to pull out elements or something that you could use. If you notice, there are a lot of lace elements sprinkled but not necessarily in a way that is a copy of her paintings.

The whole process started with me sketching. I sketched many little thumbnails, because I'm the type who wants to see all the possibilities before settling on what I want to illustrate. I made lots and lots of little sketches. When I was [satisfied], I began to illustrate it. I used Photoshop — I'm a digital illustrator. That took quite a while. As you mentioned, seven months siya in total.

It was interesting because since it's my first children's storybook parang I thought that I wasn't content yet na parang I want to push it more or add some more. Once I was done illustrating everything, binalikan ko 'yung iba and redid it or added totally new spreads. Eventually, it worked out in the end. The publisher was fine with the extra time because everybody was happy with the final output.

Pages from "Cely's Crocodile." Photos courtesy of ADRIAN PANADERO

How do you balance your freelance work and full-time job? They're both very creative and they require so much from you.

I don't. (laughs). Na-ba-balance ko siya in a way na morning is for my day job and then the freelance ones I do at night until the early morning. Kaya ko nabanggit na hindi ko siya na-ba-balance kasi it seeps into my personal time. That's something that I'm aware of now; I have to be more proactive in taking breaks. Ang nagiging pattern ko kasi a week of nonstop work tapos may isang weekend na I cannot do anything. I'm trying to find a happy medium na I'd do anything I can in a week and have focused days na puro freelance.

When I was working on “Cely's Crocodile,” I was on leave. Nag-sabbatical ako sa work. 'Yun lang 'yung focus ko talaga. In a way, naging secondary 'yung work kasi they'd just give me projects. I'm very thankful to my job for being understanding.

Where do you experience creative blocks more?

I find that I usually undergo creative blocks when nanggigil ako na parang gusto ko may sketch na for this. Dapat may sketch na, dapat ganito. Luckily, sa children's book naman, hindi naman siya as common. Nagkakaroon ako ng more creative blocks sa day job ko. Sa children's books kasi, I just sketch a lot. Because of that process siguro hindi ganoon kadali magka-creative block. Tapos look at the best sketch you see.

I also saw in the book that you're also credited as the book designer. Did that work to your advantage as an illustrator? What are the advantages and disadvantages of that?

It actually worked to my advantage because I'm a graphic designer in my day job. I work at a design studio by day, so I'm no stranger to layout, picking fonts, and everything. While I was illustrating, I was already thinking, "saan mapupunta 'yung text?" Or how would the text work in terms of the balance of the whole thing. Unlike illustrators that do it on watercolor paper muna or traditional media — I really admire them — for me naman, I can already mock it up sa InDesign or whatever layout software I was using while sketching. In a way, the design and illustration sides were already working together.

Siguro ang downside doon [is] you can be very immersed in the world of the storybook. The usual practice is having an illustrator and then there are book designers who will do it separately, so they can see the story from a new point of view and have their own sort of ideas in terms of the design. For here, I think it eventually worked well. In the design, I used a few illustrated elements. I feel like had there been a separate book designer, it would have taken more back and forth. It wouldn't have been as smooth of a process compared to what happened.

You were saying that as an illustrator you can get too immersed in the world of the story. That makes me wonder, how should an illustrator approach a story? How do you know the limitations and boundaries?

In terms of fleshing out the story?


For me, when I illustrate, I don't like limiting myself first. I let the editor or publisher do that if it's too much. There were a few moments in that process that I believe na they said, "Oh, there's too much happening in this spread. So you know, there's always that risk of being too "immersed." In my spare time, I read history books. Mahilig ako sa history talaga. Specifically this story, it's a biographical story in a way. Real events siya, so I researched a lot since it was set in World War II. I saw a play right before the first ever lockdown. It was regarding the comfort women, because that's alluded to in the story. It sounds funny, but you know how actors sort of say that nag-me-method acting sila? Or like, they immerse themselves in the content of their character? In a way, I also like doing that. I surrounded myself with the artworks of the artist that we were referencing, I watched documentaries regarding World War II, I read other stories. That's how I immerse myself siguro in the story, na parang trying to ground it through the research process.

"Bahay na Bato" from Panadero's forthcoming book. Photo courtesy of ADRIAN PANADERO

I saw that your thesis was a children's book about Intramuros, which was eventually published. Have you always had an interest in picture books?

It was an interest that I didn't know I had. Since I took up fine arts in college, I always took trips to National [Book Store]. I'd always stop sa children's books section but it wasn't like I collected children's books; I just enjoyed it.

Growing up, I had a few, but I wouldn't say that I hoarded stuff. I had the usual amount, I would say. But specifically, I enjoyed having reference books like encyclopedias where you can look into the castle. Mga ganon. Seeing people or having a bird's eye view of a village. Those are the children's books that affected me at a young age. For storybooks, I remember clearly si Adarna had a book called “Alamat ng Ampalaya.” That was mind-boggling for me kasi parang walang gender 'yung characters. Super naintriga ako about it. When I was child, I didn't think of it that way. Pero when I grew up, parang wow, ang galing pala non.

When I slowly became an artist and illustrator, I took interest in it by enjoying whatever it is out there na gawa ng talented authors and illustrators natin.

Who are the children's book illustrators that you look up to?

There are quite a few. Si Kora Dandan Albano. She's a veteran in the illustration scene.

Si Rommel Joson. He's also a painter. He also does grown-up books, but isa sa favorite kong gawa niya, which is probably the only children's book na naiyak ako after reading, is called "Isang Harding Papel." It's about a martial law detainee. Sobrang ganda ng illustration niya. Sobrang idol ko siya doon.

There's also Dan Matutina. He's not necessarily a children's book illustrator, but I interned under him din kasi. Nung college ako, ine-emulate ko 'yung style niya. Eventually, sabi ko parang pilit. But 'yun nga, when I got to intern under him, naging mentor ko rin siya.

Another illustrator I look up to is Joan de Leon. 'Yung work niya very folk 'yung dating but very endearing. Lastly siguro, si Aaron Asis. Ang galing niya sa brushstrokes, sa composition.

"Bahay Kubo" from Panadero's forthcoming book. Photo courtesy of ADRIAN PANADERO.

Na-mention mo kanina 'yung "Isang Harding Papel," which is about martial law. As a child, I also remember a lot of children's storybooks, especially the ones by Dr. Luis Gatmaitan. I found it interesting how he's talking about medical stuff. Some of the things I remember were this book about rabies and then one about pregnancy. It's interesting that a lot of children's books are dealing with a bit of heavy stuff. 'Di ba even old fairytales are very gruesome? Why do you think these stories work for children?

I think these stories work because children understand better than we think. Laging sinasabi sa amin noon sa seminars on children's books, children are sometimes even smarter than adults. Naiintindihan nila 'yung nangyayari. Ang personal view ko naman ay children's books help them understand it better in a way.

For example sa "Isang Harding Papel," I wouldn't doubt that a child would know the feeling of having her mom taken away. If I may share 'yung kwento, kinuha 'yung mom tapos they'd have to visit the jail every weekend if I'm not mistaken. Makikita ng bata 'yung pulis, 'yung selda. In a way, 'yung children's books deepen that understanding of children and allow them to make sense of the situation. They'd understand emotionally and visually. Emotionally dahil sa pagkakasulat and emotionally because it's something that delights the eye. I'd like to think that it will also make an imprint on them. As you mentioned, you have Dr. Gatmaitan's books as a core memory. Ako, I had "Alamat ng Ampalaya." Those stories make an imprint at a young age. Even if they contain heavy themes, they make a mark in our minds.

How should illustrators approach such heavy themes?

I believe paiba-iba siya. Merong isang book ang title niya ay "Si Kian." It was illustrated by Aaron Asis. It's about Kian Delos Santos. 'Yung approach niya was very painterly. It was solemn. I wouldn't have a blanket statement siguro how illustrators should approach it.

The way I would personally go about it is to try to pick apart 'yung truth, 'yung reality. Truth pa rin 'yung kwento pero for me, hindi siya dapat a very realistic depiction. Sometimes, kapag masyadong totoo, ang visceral masyado. But if you try to make it more lyrical and more painterly to sort of defamiliarize 'yung situation nang unti, baka pwede 'yung gumawa ng impact. Sometimes kasi 'yung mga bagay na nakikita natin sa mata natin now, when you reframe it, it suddenly gives impact.

"In a nutshell, illustrating heavy themes for children's books can be conducted like a song that would punch closer to the heart of the reader."

I think 'yung kinaganda ng children's book format ay spread by spread siya. Para kang nag-co-conduct ng music. 'Yun din 'yung natutunan ko sa “Cely's Crocodile.” Meron siyang peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys. And when you, say, put a heavy scene after a light scene, na-ma-magnify 'yung emotion. In a nutshell, illustrating heavy themes for children's books can be conducted like a song that would punch closer to the heart of the reader.

I liked that you mentioned 'yung pacing. Ngayon ko lang din siya na-realize. When I was younger, I tend to read the story and look at the illustration separately. But now, I can see what you're saying about pacing and how it works as a whole. The illustration is not just there to catch the eye but also to tell the story.

Sa design din pumapasok siya. There are books na isang line lang 'yun nasa buong spread. Para kang bumubuwelo tapos ibabagsak mo. Ganon siya in my head. Para siyang sayaw or a song.

Is that something that you were conscious of when you were creating "Cely's Crocodile?"


Maybe we can look at it closer. I noticed na nagkaroon ng disruption sa life nila, it got a bit...


Yes. And I guess also tighter. Can you tell me more about that?

The text goes din na it was a hot summer, it was a lazy afternoon when Cely draws plants. I wanted to open it as if it was like a dream sequence. Sa first part, it was flowy and light. Wala masyadong harsh angles. Nung dumating 'yung [mga] Hapon, mapapansin mo na there's a line of soldiers intruding. 'Yun na 'yung sa next few spreads na. Mas directional siya, mas may perspective, mas may hard cuts.

'Yung work ni Araceli Dans, it's not like the first few spreads. Her work is, say, a white lace shawl tapos 'yung background niya black. That's her signature look. In a way, 'yun 'yung finish line in my head. I started with something very delicate and dreamy. Nung dumating 'yung Japanese, it became harsh. If you noticed doon sa spread where she was drawing sa may window, that was a break. 'Yung right side niya 'di ba dark? Tapos 'yung next spread niya it's almost completely black. After the war, if you noticed, may shawl na naka-drape sa black background. In my head, these were the ingredients that led to the signature style. You have the delicate and you have the bold and harsh. If you put them together, that creates her signature look. I'm not saying that that's her narrative, but that's how I approached the narrative of the book.

I also read that you write. Do you have any plans of writing and illustrating your own children's books?

Actually, I'm working on one now. But na-realize ko na mali 'yung sinasabi ko na nag-wri-write ako. It's not something that I want to be known for, because I'm not necessarily a writer. I just became a writer because of practicality. Since my books are paper crafting books that are not necessarily narrative, sinusulat ko 'yung text that accompanies it. It's more of synthesizing research and making descriptions.

But are there particular stories that you want to pursue?

I'd like to illustrate queer stories. I also want to illustrate stories that talk about our mythology or traditional beliefs. Lumaki rin ako sa mga fairytales and mga legends. Super mag-eenjoy ako if I could illustrate a compendium of myths or epics. Like, there's this Maranao epic called Darangen. Super matutuwa ako if I could do something like that kung darating man siya.

You know how people say that children are now focused on digital stuff like videos? But I noticed that young kids in our family, while they are very into those videos, they're also really interested in books and in drawing. It's interesting to see that they still get lost in the world of books and art. That made me think of how books can withstand time. Why do you think books remain relevant up to this day?

My personal view is that because of its format, parang you feel you're discovering it page by page. With videos, once you're in it, things just go on and on. You're just a passive viewer. When you're reading, there's the act of turning the page. For me, it's the feeling of discovery na "ah, eto 'yung nangyari next." It's ironic because it's more static as a medium, but in a way, you could dive into it more because it's as if you're part of the story. You're an active agent in the story, in driving the narrative forward. You're literally moving from one scene to the next by turning the page. I think 'yun 'yung magic ng book. The story can jump out of the page because of what you do, which is picking up the page and turning it.

What children's books should kids and also adults read now?

Anything that sparks the delight sa mga bata. We recently had the National Children's Book Awards, so it would be nice if people also read all the winners there. I also hope people would read more books from outside Manila. there's this publishing house called Aklat Alamid. They feature stories from different regions and provinces in the Philippines and make it a point that the authors are also from those places. They publish in languages like Waray and Ilocano. If possible, they also get illustrators from those places. It would be nice for those books to get more traction.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for children's books illustrators now?

Well, of course, nandun 'yung the whole “print is dead” argument. But for me, I just want to take this space to say na children's books are also being targeted by [the government]. Adarna has a book about dictatorship called "Ito ang Diktadurya" and tinroll sila. They were red tagged. As children's book authors, it's our duty to tell stories that are enriching. That also includes, of course, telling the truth. Even if fantasy siya, it speaks about the truths of people. Ngayon naman sa climate natin ngayon telling the truth is demonized and targeted. That's one of the challenges we're facing now. It's going to be an uphill battle for children's book authors and illustrators, because it's our job to tell stories that talk about truth. We put a lot of care into telling the truth, because children deserve that truth.

“Cely’s Crocodile,” “Intramuros: The Walled City,” and other books featuring Adrian Panadero’s work are available on Tahanan Books.