Filipino writers win big at Scholastic Asian Book Award


SINGAPORE — Filipino writers garnered top honors for the 2014 Scholastic Asian Book Award, a biennial search for new Asian children’s stories written in English, announced at the recently concluded Asian Festival of Children’s Content held at the Singapore National Library Building.

Organized by Scholastic and the National Book Development Council of Singapore, the Scholastic Asian Book Award was presented by Singapore Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong. Filipino writer Sophia Marie Lee was named the grand prize winner for her story “What Things Mean,” and was awarded a cash prize of SGD 10,000 as well as a publishing deal from Scholastic. Another Filipino writer, Catherine Torres, ranked first runner up with her story, “Sula’s Voyage,” while India’s Vivek Bhanot ranked second runner up with his story “Robin and the Case of the Summer Camp Kidnapping.” Runners-up and selected shortlisted entries for the SABA are also considered for publication.

This year’s entries were judged by an international panel of literary experts and renowned authors led by Sayoni Basu (India) as head judge, along with Ken Spillman (Australia), Marjorie Coughlan (Canada), Sarah Odedina (United Kingdom), Wanitcha Sumanat (Thailand).

“We [the judges] were pleasantly surprised with the high quality in the manuscripts submitted this year, which demonstrated greater depth and diversity in their stories, and more sophistication in writing craft as compared to previous years. The universality of the themes will enable all children in Asia and across the world to identify with the stories,” said Sayoni Basu.

NBDCS Executive Committee Chairperson Lim Li Kok, High Commissioner of India; Her Excellency Vijay Thakur Singh; Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Ministry of Communications and Information Lawrence Wong; AFCC Board of Advisors chairperson and senior vice president of Banyan Tree Gallery (Singapore) Pte Ltd. Claire Chiang; and Scholastic Asia director Selina Lee pose with the Scholastic Asian Book Award winners: 2nd runner-up Vivek Bhanot, 1st runner-up Catherine Torres, and winner Sophia Lee (Photo courtesy of NBDCS).

For Asians, by Asians

The Scholastic Asian Book Award aims to recognize excellence in fiction in Asian stories for children, showcase the diversity of literary talent within the region, and to encourage and inspire more books and stories with Asian content.

“Essentially [when we started the SABA], we felt that there were not enough stories told by Asians for Asia,” states Selina Lee, director of Scholastic in Asia. “There were a lot of stories by foreigners trying to write about Asia, and because of the lack of Asian content, we were lapping all that up. We just thought it was time to fund efforts towards that [creating Asian content]. One of the contest requirements is for the author to have resided in Asia for at least a couple of years; it’s not going to be someone abroad writing Asian stories. We’re not looking for specifics — it’s more about having a story that is compelling enough, that is clearly told.”

While SABA started out as an annual competition, the organizers decided to shift to a biennial schedule to give potential authors time to write their stories. “We received 112 entries on our first year, followed by over 30 entries on our second year. That’s when we realized we had to pace ourselves — we spaced it out, and this year we had 69 entries, which affirms we’re headed in the right direction,” Lee adds.

For Scholastic, the bulk of the work comes after the winner is announced. “We still go in and work with the writers in terms of editing the book so that is ready to go into publication. Extending the contest into a bi-annual search also gives us time to prepare for publication and work closely with the authors.”

And while their commitment is to publish the winning book, the company also goes through all the shortlisted entries to find compelling stories for Asian readers. Since the award’s inception, Scholastic has published six stories that were discovered via SABA: “Book Uncle and Me” by Uma Krishnaswami, “The Girl Mechanic from Wanzhou” by Marjorie Sayer, “The Mudskipper” by Ovidia Yu, “Bungee Cord Hair” by Ching Yeung Russell, “Not in the Stars” by Pauline Loh, and “Hidden In Plain Sight” by Ang Su-Lin.

After publication, Scholastic offers marketing support for the books.

“Our SABA titles have already been distributed all over Asia. We work with almost every established retailer in the region, and we also push the books in our fairs and book clubs. Where the authors are available, we bring them to organized book talks for the schools. Different countries will deploy different marketing support,” Lee details. “We will also make sure that the books are always kept in print — previous winners will always go with the new SABA titles.”

Surprise Win

IMG_3577SABA 2014 winner Sophia Lee, shortlisted candidate Shi Min Xie (Singapore), and first runner-up Catherine Torres

SABA winner Sophia Lee thought joining the contest would be a good exercise in dealing with rejection.

“As a finalist, I was really shocked because it was my teacher, Heidi Eusebio Abad, who encouraged me to submit [a manuscript] for this competition. The manuscript was actually a project for her class, and although she encouraged me submit, I never really thought anything would come of it. I’m a very insecure writer, and I thought it would be a good way to start facing rejection,” recounts Lee. “I thought I just needed to get used to it and toughen up, so that was really my intention for joining. [I figured] at the very least, good writers would be able to read my work, and just to hear I was shortlisted, I was already blown away.”

Lee’s entry, “What Things Mean” is about a girl named Olive who is looking for her father, whom she’s never known. “All she knows is that she looks like her father, and this physical resemblance has estranged her from her mother, and she doesn’t really know why. She thinks that if she can only find her father, she can understand why she’s so different from her mother, and why her mother seems distant and cold, ” Lee narrates.

Lee’s novel is told through dictionary words, with each chapter marked by a dictionary entry. “I wanted it to reflect Olive’s search for meaning, and I was fascinated by definitions and how words can have different meanings. My motivating thought was for the reader to take away that they don’t have to be defined by just one thing, and that they can choose to define themselves, giving their own brand to their personality.”

More shock was in store for Lee when she was named winner of the SABA. “I was shaking; I was so worried they would ask me to give a speech and I wasn’t prepared. I came here not expecting to win, and it was such a pleasant surprise. I was also happy that by some fortunate accident that my family was here with me for the announcement — I’m based in Manila but we’ve been traveling before this and our travel agent managed to get us a free stop in Singapore so that they could spend the day of the awarding with me.”

Meanwhile, for first runner up Catherine Torres the second time was the charm after having joined the SABA in its inaugural run in 2011.

“That was my first attempt at children’s writing and I realized I had no idea what it’s about. I’ve always been writing; I’ve had short stories and essays published, but always for a grown-up audience. I’ve even written ‘Sula’s Voyage’ as a short story for grownups and I’ve tried placing it in journals, but it didn’t work out. The story stuck with me, though; I really wanted to tell that story. I realized it was for a different audience so that’s when I started rewriting it [as a children’s story] and entered it for this year’s SABA,” Torres narrates. “Basically, ‘Sula’s Voyage’ is a story about identity and a girl’s journey towards discovering herself.”

Looking ahead


While the next SABA is slated for 2016, Scholastic and NCBDS have announced the Scholastic Picture Book Awards for 2015. The competition will gather entries for picture books targeted at children 0-6 years, Asian in content, written in English (or with accompanying English translation), and unpublished and uncontracted to a publisher until the prize is announced.

“Picture books will be trickier than chapter books, and we are expecting collaborations between authors and illustrators for this competition,” states Selina Lee. “But pictures books are definitive of what children’s books are about, and we feel that’s missing in what the market has to offer, so we want to fill that gap.”

Full details for the Scholastic Picture Book Awards (as well as the 2016 SABA) can be found on

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