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Scholastic Asian Book Award: Winning writing

‘Just write’ is the advice of aspiring author Sophia Marie Lee who did just that and won the chance to be published.

It's not every day that you win an award. It’s also not every day that you get your book published. Luckily for Sophia Marie Lee, both happened to her on the same day, thanks to the 2014 Scholastic Asian Book Award.

The Scholastic Asian Book Award (Saba) is a biennial search for new Asian children stories that are in English. It is sponsored by publishing company Scholastic and has been organised by the National Book Development Council of Singapore since 2011. The award’s aims are to recognise excellence in fiction in Asian stories for children, showcase the diversity of literary talent within Asia, and encourage and inspire more books and stories with Asian content in English language.

As a writer who is just starting out, the Saba was the perfect entry point for this Filipina. Lee, 32, says that although she has always put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, nowadays), it wasn’t until much later in her life that she actually began to write fiction; that was a few years before she started on her Master in Creative Writing degree, which she’s currently working on at the University of the Philippines.

“I have a very big extended family, most of them professionals – doctors, lawyers, bankers, engineers,” she explains in an e-mail interview.

“My mother is an accountant and my father is a lawyer. I grew up thinking that I wanted to be like my father, a lawyer, and so back then I saw writing as a means to that end. I was news editor and then features editor of my high school newspaper, and in university, I majored in broadcast journalism.

“I actually went to law school, thinking that I would be a lawyer at the end of it, but my story didn’t work out the way I thought it would.”

Lee’s winning entry, What Things Mean, is slated to be published in early 2015 and it chronicles the life of a young girl, Olive, who is struggling to understand why she is so different from her family.

She resembles her mysterious father closely – a man she has never known, and of whom her mother never says a word. Olive believes that finding out what happened to him will help her to understand who she is, and define the person she wants to be.

The story is told in part through dictionary entries that reflect Olive’s search for meaning in her own life.

Also being published next year under the award’s aegis are the books by 2014’s first and second runners-up: Sula’s Voyage by Cathrine Torres from the Philippines, and Robin And The Case Of The Summer Camp Kidnapping by Vivek Bhanot of India.

Lee explains that her love for the dictionary played a major part in inspiring the novel.

“Growing up, I always had a dictionary by my bedside. At random times during the day, I would open it up and read about the first word that caught my eye. I liked reading about the origins of words and how their meanings evolved, depending on how people used them.”

A strong believer of being the author of your own life, Lee is sure that every reader will take away something different from her story, all depending on their own personal history.

“Whatever circumstances we find ourselves with,” she says, “we can define what they mean to us, we can decide how big a part they will play in our own life stories.”

Lee urges aspiring writers out there to read a lot, and to learn from all the great writers, because reading will help you to decide on the kind of writing you want to do. And another piece of advice she has is to “just write”, and not to be afraid to show others your work.

“Always be curious,” she adds.

“Take every opportunity to learn about writing and literature.”

With Saba on the lookout for the next batch of winners, Lee’s advice is to simply focus on the writing.

“Meeting the requirements (of the competition) is very easy – the hard part will be deciding on the story that you want to tell, so get writing!” she urges.

Calling for entries

Want to be published? Organisers of the 2016 Scholastic Asian Book Award are calling for entries. The competition is open to all writers of Asian descent, aged 18 above, who are living in Asia. Entries must feature unique aspects of Asian culture, or be inspired by Asia, and targeted at children between the ages of six and 18. The deadline for submissions of manuscripts is Sept 1, 2015. For more information, visit