When Sophia N. Lee was growing up, she spent her summers in Tarlac, in the care of her paternal grandparents. “I was a very sickly kid, and this was the time I would be nurtured back to health by my grandfather who we called Dada, my grandmother Mama Jessie and my father’s sister, Tita Lynn,” Lee recalled.
“Those summers stand out in my mind as times when I felt incredibly loved—I remember dancing as my grandfather sang and played the ukulele in the early mornings, eating only my favorite food, playing tindera at my wawa’s (my Lola’s sister’s) sari-sari store, and having the most restful sleep.”
Lee would grow up to win the Scholastic Asian Book Award in 2014 for her young adult novel “What Things Mean,” with Scholastic Asia in Singapore publishing that novel in 2016. She then moved to Manhattan, New York, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults at The New School.
Last year, Scholastic Asia published her second title, a picture book called “Soaring Saturdays.”
But her own story with her grandparents also continued turning like the pages of a book. “It’s also the story of how my relationship with my lola progressed and changed over time, as she learned to live on her own after my lolo’s death, and as she slowly succumbed to Alzheimer’s and dementia in her later years,” she explained.
“She migrated to the US, and because I went here for my MFA, I’m grateful I got to spend some of her last years with her. I was writing this story when her illness progressed, and I witnessed how strongly she fought to remember her past. I wanted to honor that somehow through this story.”
That story came to life as “Holding On,” her novel about a girl’s summers visiting her lola: “a celebration and remembrance of things she and her lola love—favorite food, cozy traditions, special memories, but most especially, their shared love of music… As the girl grows bigger and her lola finds it harder to remember, each of them finds ways to hold close the things that they love.”
Lee’s agent, Wendi Gu, shopped the manuscript around and arranged phone calls for Lee to speak with acquiring editors about her inspirations and background. “Holding On” then went into an auction for the book rights.
“From there we just waited and then decided on what felt like the best offer for us,” Lee said. “Though it wasn’t as fast-paced as art auctions often are, it was an incredibly emotional experience for me,” she said.
“Not long after we went on submission, my own lola passed away unexpectedly from complications due to old age. It was right in the middle of the lockdown in New York, and because of COVID restrictions, we weren’t able to give her the memorial and funeral that she deserved. We sold the book on her pasiyam, the ninth day from her passing. I like to think that that was her way of reminding me that she was still there, taking care of me the way she always did.”
The winning bidder was Atheneum Books for Young Readers, the legendary youth imprint of giant Simon & Schuster, and publisher of titles such as Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” Ian Falconer’s “Olivia the Pig,” and Deborah and James Howe’s “Bunnicula.”
Lee still can’t quite believe it: “It feels incredibly surreal. Like pinch-me-am-I-dreaming surreal, for sure! ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret’ was one of the first books I read when I was starting to write, and that was one of the books that made me realize that I wanted to write books for young readers. It made me wish I had read that book as a kid, because I was the sort of kid who always looked to books for answers on how to navigate the world. It’s an honor to know my books will share the same home as those books, and I just hope that they’ll be just as beloved.” It is. After all, it was Lee’s first book with an American publisher.
When Lee was working on “Soaring Saturdays,” she had insisted a Filipino illustrate the book—Aaron Asis. She had the same request for her editor at Atheneum, Judy McCarthy, and they had the perfect person in mind.
Isabel “Pepper” Roxas was born in Manila but is now based in New York. She has made a name as an illustrator of children’s books—she already did the art for nine titles published in the United States, including Filipino American Erin Entrada Kelly’s Newbery Medal-winning “Hello Universe” (soon to be a Netflix series) and had worked with Atheneum before.
“I’m thrilled to be working with them again, of course. I think it’s also really wonderful that they are making a push for ‘own voices’ stories that will help diversify the American publishing landscape,” Roxas said.
Universal and Filipino
Interestingly, the two had never met despite both living in New York.
“I don’t know Isabel personally, though I’ve known of her and have been a fan of her work ever since I started writing,” Lee said. “She’s illustrated some of my favorite books for children. Since this is the first Filipino picture book that Atheneum is publishing, we wanted it to be illustrated by a Filipino artist as well, and we knew that Isabel would do right by the story. I love the warmth, whimsy and heart that’s always present in her work, and my editor feels the same way.”
Roxas said she believes “Holding On” has an additional significance for her. “For me, as a Filipino abroad, it also speaks about missing home and the comfort that music, food and memory can bring. These are all themes that are close to my heart, so it was fortuitous that this manuscript made it to my drawing table,” she said.
Lee’s work is done, so now it will be up to Roxas to add the magic to get the book out by its target street date of summer 2022. “We’re at the very beginning of the process… Plenty of work left to do, and I am looking forward to really digging in,” Roxas said.
So while Roxas gets to work on “Holding On,” Lee is already at work on what comes next: “I’ve already begun work on the second book, and after that, I’m excited to begin some other stories in the pipeline—a middle-grade comedy about a young aspiring author, and a YA novel that I call my food and feelings book.”
But in the meantime, the images of one Filipino girl’s indelible summer memories emerge from Roxas’ imagination, and Lee dreams of a different summer over a year from now: “It was really important to me to ground this book in Filipino life. So much of the small moments in the book celebrate my favorite things about being Filipino—our shared sentimentality, the reverence we have for our elderly, our love for our food, music and traditions. I’m proud to say that while the story itself is universal, this is a deeply Filipino book.” INQ