Writing the Book I Would Have Loved as a Kid

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.

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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.

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Anxious Voices

by Suzanne Selfors

I had the fortune and misfortune of being born into a family that overflows with mental illness.

I say fortune because my family has provided me with some of the most colorful characters I’ve ever met. They’ve raised me, shaped me, influenced and inspired me.

I say misfortune because I don’t know anyone who would choose mental illness. I don’t know anyone who would say, “Hey, I’d sure like to be depressed and anxious, throw in some paranoia and addiction, and I’m good to go.”

I was an anxious child. But I didn’t know that word. Depression and anxiety weren’t common terms in the 1960s. And they certainly weren’t words that were taught to children. Armed now with hindsight and life experience, I can see how anxiety was always there. My mom said I was “tightly wound,” and I remember that whenever I stayed up too late or did too many things, I would break down by vomiting. While I didn’t have panic attacks, there were a few episodes when everyone’s voices would suddenly speed up and the world seemed to be going too fast. My heart would race. I’d find a quiet corner and sit until it passed.

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Author Q&A with Aisha Saeed

What inspired you to write AMAL UNBOUND?

The idea for AMAL UNBOUND came to me several years ago. At the time I’d known I wanted to write about a girl like Amal who was brave and full of hope and who lived in Pakistan—an often misunderstood country— but I wasn’t sure what her specific story would be. While reading the day’s headlines one day in 2012 I came across the inspiring story of Malala. Her story stopped me in my tracks because it reminded me of the strength and resilience many young people I worked with as a teacher showed every day—their situations were of course starkly different than Malala’s but many of my students were also resilient and brave in the face of unspeakable difficulties. With this in mind, thinking about all the brave children around the world who never get a headline but who work in the way of justice nonetheless, I began writing AMAL UNBOUND. Lately, many people have told me that AMAL UNBOUND feels like a timely story. I can understand that. A story about resistance and justice against all odds and the power of each of us to affect change does seems like an incredibly timely story. Of course in 2012 when I began writing this story I could have had no idea how deeply relevant the story would have been today but it is and I’m grateful if it is giving people hope. The name Amal means hope in Arabic and it is my hope AMAL UNBOUND that not only does this book show us a glimpse into a country that is often misunderstood but that it also reminds readers of their own inner strength and the importance of working in the way of justice whether a spotlight shines on us or not.

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