By Mae Respicio
In middle school I was mesmerized by the world of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield in SWEET VALLEY TWINS. I studied every cover and daydreamed about what it would be like to live as popular blonde girls with bright smiles in a suburban utopia.
Like the Wakefield twins I was a California girl, but the world created in the beloved series seemed so different from mine growing up Filipina American and straddling two cultures. The twins never had to be embarrassed about inviting their non-Filipino friends over for fear of their grandmother offering dried fish and rice as an afterschool snack.
Whenever I fumbled through an awkward tween moment I would wish for a Sweet Valley existence. I wrote in my diary that if I only had blonde hair like Elizabeth (my favorite of the two—she wanted to be a writer after all!), my seventh grade life would be perfect.
Childhood books are transformative. They inform our identities and can end up shaping us as adults. In my twenties I started to explore the Filipino American diaspora and for the first time I realized how much I longed to read about characters like me—that if I’d had such books as a kid it would have been life-changing.
But middle grade novels with a Filipina American protagonist didn’t exist in my era as a kid-reader and even well past that. In college my favorite genre was (admittedly!) chick lit, though there were no breezy beach reads with a Filipina American protagonist. When I became a parent, I thought that maybe children’s literature had changed so I set out on a mission: to fill my shelves with books that my future readers could see themselves in. I scoured every bookstore but still… nothing.
My debut, THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT, is about a twelve-year-old girl named Lou who has a big dream of building a tiny house. Like middle grade characters I love, Lou adventures with her friends, feels happiness and heartbreak, tries and fails at things and ends up stronger. She also dances in a Filipino folk dance troupe, eats dried fish for lunch at school, and rolls lumpia with her elders. She doesn’t think much about these details—they’re simply a part of her. At its core the book is about all things that tweens are figuring out: what they’re good at, how they fit into the world, and themselves.
When I started writing it, I observed my boys at family gatherings. I felt transported watching them experience the same sights, sounds, smells, and family dynamics from my own colorful childhood. Like Lou, I don’t give much thought to these things as they’re engrained in me. Filipino American is the automatic filter in how I see the world and whether I want it to be or not, one of the main lenses through which I write.
I wrote this book as a love letter to my culture and it’s been thrilling to hear readers’ comments like: “I wish this book existed while I was growing up,” or how proud they are to finally be able to introduce a book about a Filipino American family to their kids. One sweet reader posted about how it sparked a three-generation family read with “Titas (aunties) and lolas (grandmothers) reminiscing.”
This is the book my tween self would have adored with elements from all of my favorite middle grade novels—friendship, dreams and first kisses—but one that would have helped her see that her life wasn’t really all that different.
Mae Respicio is author of the middle grade novels THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT (out now) and the forthcoming BEACH SEASON, both from Wendy Lamb Books. Mae is a former recipient of a PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship, a past writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook and Atlantic Center for the Arts, and has published many musings on parenthood. On most days she’s fueled by iced coffee—and fear of the blank page.