By Camille Anne M. Arcilla

IT IS PRETTY SAFE to say that among books released internationally, there has never been a female Filipino protagonist. But young adult author Sophia N. Lee has changed this lack.

Groundbreaking YA book features Filipina protagonist

Ms. Lee’s What Things Mean is the first Philippine young adult (YA) stories published by Scholastic, the same publisher and distributor YA classics like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series.

What Things Mean won the grand prize at the 2014 Scholastic Asian Book Awards, followed by Catherine Rose Torres’ Sula’s Voyage. Ms. Lee and Ms. Torres were the first two Filipinos to win the prestigious literary award since it was launched in 2011.

Ms. Lee initially wrote the story as a requirement for a subject called “Writing for Young Adults,” when she was taking up her master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

“The project for that class was to come up with a novel-length story within the semester, which is around three to four months. I wrote the body of the story to get the grades, but after that, my professor encouraged me to join the contest,” she told BusinessWorld in an interview.

When the novel bagged first prize in the Scholastic awards, it was given a grant to be published, so Ms. Lee wrote a longer version of her original piece.

The story is about Olive, a young Filipina in search of her father — whom she never met. Not understanding why her family will not talk about him, she finds ways to answer her questions.

As Olive is obsessed with words and their meanings, each chapter in the book starts with a word and its definition in a dictionary-like format. Each word comes to play as the chapter progresses.

“They take on different meanings depending on what she is saying and what she encounters,” Ms. Lee said.

Olive, she said, was a character she wished existed when she was young.

“I wanted to write a story that I would have wanted to see when I was a young adult myself. I asked, ‘Why are all the heroines blonde and have blue eyes?’” she said. “Young adult stories themselves, we didn’t have a lot of them when I was growing up and we don’t have Pinoy YA.”

“It didn’t occur to me until very late in my life that it’s because no one was writing it,” she added.

Ms. Lee said young adults are at the point in their lives when they start to get answers from books and everything they see. “Everything is committed very well in your memory because everything is so fresh, even if it’s a minor thing.

“I am writing all these things I could remember so that young girls looking for answers hopefully find it here,” she says of her book, adding that she wanted to portray an “ate” or a big sister that she never had.

A huge part of the book, Ms. Lee said, was deeply-rooted in Filipino culture, such as having a big extended family living in one house and the Filipino way of eating.

Ms. Lee is positive that the industry for children and young adult literature in the Philippines is now progressing. The Philippines has a big market for young adult novels — she pointed out that some bookstores are even inviting international writers to come and visit the country.

“Our children’s literature and YA industry is still very young, but now we have a lot of children’s stories or picture books because publications are already on the rise,” she said.

What Things Mean, along with Sula’s Voyage, were launched at the recent 2016 Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore, one of the most prestigious children’s literary events in Asia. After the successful launch, the books will be officially launched in the Philippines on Aug. 6, 2 p.m., at the National Bookstore in Glorietta 1, Makati City. Registration starts at 1 p.m.

In hopes that this trend continues, Ms. Lee encouraged her young adult readers to explore writing their own stories.

“Read a lot and read books that you don’t normally pick up because there is so much knowledge in that,” she said. “First, write for yourself. Don’t worry if it’s bad — just get in the page first and finish it after.

“Second, don’t be afraid to revisit your work. Give it time,” she said. “And third, write a story that only you can write. Look around you. What makes your life interesting?”

For more information about the book launch, visit National Bookstore’s Facebook page: