As a photographer, a speech-language pathologist, and a food connoisseur, Michelle Sterling is no stranger to blending her artistic eye with her various passions. “My two loves in college were languages and art,” she says. “I majored in linguistics and studied in Barcelona for a year. When I was younger I wanted to be a travel writer or a photojournalist, but it just never panned out.”
From Illocos—in the northwestern Luzon region of the Philippines—on her mother’s side and Manila on her father’s, Sterling is excited for people of Ilocano heritage to read her book. Having grown up in the U.S. and currently residing in Southern California, she explains that she never saw a fiction picture book featuring the different regions and people of the Philippines. “I wanted to show people that even within a small country like the Philippines there are so many different groups and languages.”
Citing books by Beverly Cleary and the work of Filipino authors such as Mae Respicio as stories that stuck with her, Sterling says she hopes her book resonates with present and future generations. “There have been so many meaningful and poignant Asian and Asian American books published in the last couple of years, and I’d love to see more joyful and humorous stories.”
A lover of the picture book form, Sterling has been writing about children’s books on her blog Avery & Augustine for more than a decade, but she initially hadn’t considered writing a book of her own. It wasn’t until summer 2018 when she was walking past a bowl of peaches in her kitchen that the beginnings of When Lola Visits (HarperCollins/Tegen) started to take root.
“[The fruit] smelled so sweet and made me think of all the different smells I love about summer,” Sterling says. “And then I thought, could this be a picture book about a Filipino American family? I knew how hard it is to find an agent, and you’re never guaranteed publication. But because I wanted a story about a Filipino American family I was like, ‘I’m gonna do it.’ ”
Sterling set out to find an agent, scouring a number of websites, but she ran into early setbacks. “It’s hard [selling only a manuscript] if you’re just a picture book writer because all of [the agents] are looking for illustrators or author-illustrators,” she says. “A lot of illustrators’ work will be picked up, but maybe not as many by diverse writers.”
Steven Malk at Writers House passed her manuscript to fellow Writers House agent Andrea Morrison, which eventually led to their partnership.
Mabel Hsu at HarperCollins imprint Katherine Tegen Books then acquired the picture book. Finding an illustrator was the next step. Filipino illustrator Aaron Asis stood out to Hsu, and Sterling agreed he was the right choice. “I wanted someone who would capture the warmth and hospitality of Filipino culture,” Sterling says. “I felt like [Asis] exuded that. His work is carefree but has a natural warmth at the same time. And I feel like that’s so representative of our culture.”
When Lola Visits is a tale of a girl’s lola (grandmother) visiting the U.S. from the Philippines, along with the summer activities and food that the family shares. Inspired by her own childhood memories with her lola and the memories she hopes to make with her family, Sterling set out to feature Filipino foods that aren’t very mainstream and that encapsulate the history of Filipino cuisine.
Sterling cites her appreciation for Filipino food historian Doreen Fernandez’s book Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture. “I almost included her in my dedication,” she says. “I wanted foods that represented different aspects of Filipino food history. Sisig is a more recent creation.”
Sterling also wanted to surprise readers. “That’s why I chose the mango jam,” she says, along with calamansi pie, a twist on American key lime pie. “For me that spread [showing the pie] is really important. [Fernandez] talks about how many cultures have made their mark on the Philippines, but Filipinos are able to ‘filipinize’ the food that they bring in. [As Filipino Americans] we live with both cultures in our lives. Having that pie on the Fourth of July is like you’re in a new country but you’re still able to celebrate your home. It’s a coming together of cultures, kind of like what we do as immigrants.”
The buzz for Sterling’s book continues to grow: the first printing sold out and a second is in the works. “Oh my gosh, this is so crazy,” she exclaims, recounting how some Filipino indie book stores sold out in the first couple of days. She also describes how the organization Filipino Storytime Seattle collaborated with chef Melissa Miranda of Musang, a noted local Filipino restaurant, for a virtual readaloud and a take-home kit to make the cassava cake and mango jam featured in the book.
Sterling’s second picture book, A Sweet New Year for Ren, illustrated by Dung Ho, will be released in fall 2022 from Simon & Schuster's Paula Wiseman Books. Another picture book, Maribel’s Year, is set for winter 2023. She also has an idea for a chapter book and is open to collaborating on a comic, if someone were to ask.
“For now, mostly I just hope to write as many picture books as possible,” Sterling says with a laugh.