Children’s Book Week 2023: Author-illustrator Lynnor Bontigao Unfolds the Making of Sari-Sari Summers
Lynnor Bontigao once drew 30 pages of birthday greetings for her mother on scrap paper. She also admits to being “a graffiti artist” who drew her own artwork on the backs of furniture.
“I just told my mom recently, ‘If you look at the back of the vanity cabinet, there’s a drawing I did when I was 5, maybe,’” she said with a laugh.
Today, Bontigao is an author-illustrator and the featured speaker for The Library’s Joan Y. Leopold Children’s Book Week Celebration, Nov. 6 through 12. She will introduce her book Sari-Sari Summers, which is based on her memories of growing up in the Philippines.
Children’s Book Week is The Library’s annual celebration of the creative process when children engage with noted authors and illustrators and peek inside the pages of a book to see how it’s made.
Sari-Sari Summers, published in 2023 by Candlewick Press, tells the story of Nora, who loves helping at her beloved grandmother’s sari-sari store, a Filipino convenience store, every summer. When a heat wave keeps the customers away, Nora’s idea to pick luscious mangoes and turn them into cooling ice candy brings the community back together.
The book even includes a recipe for mango ice candy. Bontigao believes that food is essential to almost every culture. In the Philippines, it is at the heart of every relationship and every gathering.
“We are always connected to people through our food,” she said. “At this time, I’m into Korean dramas, so I’m making a lot of Korean food. I’m learning about the spices they use and where they get their chili peppers. It creates more understanding for everybody and appreciation of each other’s culture.”
Sari-Sari Summers integrates Filipino and Spanish words into the story and pictures without translation.
“That was one of my ways to encourage kids to read and learn some Filipino words,” said Bontigao.
Young readers love that, agrees Library Programming and Outreach Administrator Tynan Edwards. “They are always interested in new language and understanding.”
Bontigao’s memories of doing something special with a grandparent make her book relatable to every reader, he adds.
“It feels very authentic,” he said. “She’s writing something she knows and is drawing pictures of something she can recall and remember. That’s inspiring for kids, adults, writers – anyone who’s had an interest in telling their own story and knowing that those stories are important and they matter.”
This year, Children’s Book Week continues growing toward its pre-pandemic levels. Three Libraries are hosting visits from Bontigao, up from two last year, and the Zoom room presentations are attracting individual registrants and teachers with their classrooms.
Bontigao majored in visual arts in college, where she joined a children’s illustrators group. However, coming to the U.S., she couldn’t find a job in advertising, her chosen field. She joined a major finance firm after her brother talked her into studying programming. To her surprise, she enjoyed the work and stayed for 15 years until massive layoffs eliminated her job.
That was in 2016. She saw a new beginning and returned to her love of children’s books. She illustrated The World’s Best Class Plant, You Are Revolutionary, and Jack & Agyu before diving into authorship with Sari-Sari Summers.
For her Dauphin County Library System programs, Bontigao expects to read Sari-Sari Sumers and explain its traditions, demonstrate how to draw fruits and share their Filipino names, and even play the ukulele.
Giving children exposure to the creators of their books is “so important,” Bontigao said.
“It came out of their brain and hands,” she said. “It puts it into perspective that these ideas don’t come out of thin air. There’s a story behind the story that they wrote.”
Exposure to authors and illustrators broadens the concept of literacy, said Edwards.
“There’s literacy in being fluent in how to present language via the written word,” he said. “Being able to see a creator at work and meet the person who created a piece of art is meaningful. The kids can engage with someone and ask, ‘How did you draw this? Why did you choose this story?’”
Every family that registers receives a signed copy of Sari-Sari Summers.
“Kids might want to open the book and read it again, and they’ll have a fond memory of being in The Library and meeting this author,” Edward said. “A kid might go home and say, ‘Hey, look at this book I got signed,’ or ‘Mommy, can you read me this book?’ That’s what we want to achieve, which is being excited about engaging with stories.”
As always, members of the Leopold family are expected to participate in a session and share why they established Children’s Book Week in memory of their mother, a longtime Library board member and passionate advocate for early literacy. Their steadfast support has sustained Children’s Book Week for 17 years.
“It’s great to have benefactors and community members like them who want to see this continue and see this as a cornerstone of Library programming,” said Edwards.
Bontigao dreams of writing a children’s cookbook of global recipes. It’s in her “notebook filled with ideas.” She feels comfortable writing and drawing from a child’s perspective because, “inside, I feel I’m eternally 8 years old.”
“That is the kid in me,” she said. “That’s what keeps me joyful. I like to learn things, and I think there’s always a need to be learning something, even if you’re not good at it. I picked up the ukulele last year. I’m not good at it, but it makes me happy. It gives me a moment to step away from whatever I’m doing and focus on one thing. Learning something new, you’re always not good at the beginning, and you get better and better and better. It keeps us young in our minds and keeps our brains fresh.”
Joan Y. Leopold Children’s Book Week Celebration: Bontigao will appear at East Shore Area Library, 1 p.m. Nov. 10; McCormick Riverfront Library, 10:30 a.m. Nov. 11; and 1 p.m. Nov. 11 at Northern Dauphin Library. Registration required for in-person and Zoom attendees.