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.