Celebrating the loving ‘lolas’ in our lives in Sophia Lee’s ‘Holding On’

The young Sophia with her Lola Jessie, Josefina Tañedo Lee.

By Cristina DC Pastor

It seems Sophia Lee has so many grandmothers.

Typically, you have two. In the story of how she became Simon & Schuster’s latest heralded children’s book author, her maternal and paternal grandmothersnot to mention the grand aunties, played pivotal roles.  They all surrounded her with love from the time she was a sickly little girl and up until she came to New York to attend grad school.

“As a child who grew up in a really full household, I felt really seen in my Lola’s house. We called her Mama Jessie. I didn’t have to compete with anyone for attention. Though I was a really picky eater, whenever I was there, I had a really good appetite because all of the food we’d have were my favorites. I could just be and read and nap for hours, or dance and sing, or play tindera at my grand-aunt’s sari-sari store.

“Those summers really stand out in my mind because I just felt so loved whenever I was there. That’s how I want to remember my Lola, always caring for me and for everyone around her.”

“Holding On” is Simon & Schuster’s first Filipino picture book, authored by Sophia and illustrated by Isabel Roxas, both Filipinos working as artists in New York. It will be published under the Atheneum Books for YoungReaders division. It is the story of a young Filipino girl who uses music – from Sammy Davis to Basil Valdez’s love songs — to connect with her grandmother whose memory is fading. “And when Lola starts slipping into silence and stillness, she helps Lola hold on, piece by piece, with the joy and music that Lola taught her,” came the publisher’s synopsis.

‘Holding On’ is Simon & Schuster’s first Filipino picture book, the story of a Filipino girl who uses music to communicate with her grandmother whose memory is fading.

“It is the first time that Simon & Schuster is investing in a Filipino children’s story,” said Sophia in an interview with The FilAm.

Part of their pitch while reviewing the book’s possibilities, she said, was a short video from a member of their marketing team, a FilAm mom and her son who talked about how much they wanted to have a story about a Lola with Filipino characters they recognized out in the world. A rash of feel-good stories growing up under multiple lolas welled up in Sophia’s memories. It was a theme she knew so well.

“The memories in the book come from experiences with my different Lolas – from my maternal grandmother Benita who we called Ima, which meansmother in Kapampangan, and my paternal grandmother Josefina who we called Mama Jessie,” she began.

But much of it was inspired by her Mama Jessie, with whom she spent summers as a little girl and lived with for some time as a grad student in New York.

‘I just felt so loved.’

Born and raised in Manila, Sophia came to New York City in 2016, to take up MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults  from The New School. Although she finished law school in the Philippines, it didn’t feel like a good fit for her and the kind of life she wanted. She continued to indulge in writing and reading fiction.

“What Things Mean” was the young adult novella she had written for her class under Professor Heidi Eusebio-Abad. It was her first published book and it won the grand prize in the Scholastic Asian Book Award. She was pleased when her second book “Soaring Saturdays” was also accepted for publication by Scholastic Asia.

 “Holding On,” her third published book, was completed in 2019 right before the pandemic happened. It got multiple offers from different publishing houses. 

“I wrote this story at a time when I and my lola were navigating our changed relationship from those summers when I was younger to the time when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and could no longer remember who I was,” she said.

The day the manuscript sold at auction was also the day Mama Jessie passed.

“It was a bittersweet day,” she recalled. “I think my Lola was definitely looking out for me as well. I wish that she could have read the story and seen the book.”

© The FilAm 2022

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