WOW Review: Volume XV, Issue 2

A grandmother holding up her grandduaghter to kiss her cheek. Both are in front of a background full of green leaves.Holding On
Written by Sophia N. Lee
Illustrated by Isabel Roxas
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2022, 32 pp (unpaged)
ISBN: ‎978-1534494459

Holding On is a moving yet feel-good picturebook about a young girl who spends song-filled summers with her music-loving grandmother in the Philippines. When her Lola starts slipping into “silence and stillness,” living with early signs of Alzheimer’s, the girl helps her grandmother hold on through music and the joyful memories the songs bring.

The book is the first-person perspective of a young Filipino-American girl who tells the story of her summer visits to the Philippines. The mixed-media illustrations powerfully exhibit the perspectives from the Filipino culture portrayed in the book. Lola, the grandmother, has Alzheimer’s disease—a poignant, universal point that may speak to people from all cultures. Furthermore, the characters challenge stereotypes of Filipino people in that they do specific things that are not true for the majority of people in this community.

One of the most notable aspects of the book is the vivid imagery that captures the essence of Filipino life. From the lively home to the serene beaches, the illustrations expertly depict the diverse landscapes and close family ties that represent the Philippines. The use of bright colors and intricate patterns reflects the rich visual arts tradition of the country.

In addition to its captivating illustrations, the book contains numerous references to iconic elements of Filipino culture, such as the bahay-kubo, a traditional stilt house that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The book also features popular Filipino dishes such as adobo and sinigang, which are home-cooked staples in many Filipino households and a significant part of the country’s culinary heritage. Additionally, the walis tingting, a type of broom made from the rib of a palm frond, is a commonly used cleaning tool in the Philippines, and its inclusion in the book serves as an excellent example of the country’s practical and resourceful approach to everyday life. These references not only add to the authenticity of the book’s portrayal of Filipino culture but also provide valuable teaching tools for educators. Through these references, educators can introduce students to important aspects of Filipino culture, such as the country’s unique architectural styles, rich culinary traditions, and practical yet sustainable way of life.

The book reflects specific Filipino cultural experiences and values through the love of music and the deep relationship between the grandmother and the granddaughter. The book is written for both children from the culture and other cultural backgrounds. Though some of the details are distinctive cultural preferences (i.e songs and singers named), the illustrations depict compelling images to draw young audiences from different cultures (i.e musical notes playfully inserted across the illustrations). To supplement this reading, it is recommended that teachers offer relevant activities so students can connect their experiences with the themes of the book. Having children tell their favorite summer memories, listen to the music mentioned in the book, and share what and how they will hold onto their favorite memories are strategies to activate children’s funds of knowledge.

During a recent interview with Simon Kids (2022), Lee and Roxas expressed their desire to inspire young readers in multiple ways. First, the book aims to encourage children to cherish their precious memories with loved ones, even after they have passed. By highlighting the power of music and art as means of preserving memories, the book teaches children that there are numerous ways to keep the memories of those they love alive. In addition, the book seeks to help children remember everything they love about their summer. Through its evocative imagery and immersive storytelling, the book transports readers to the idyllic summer days of the Philippines, showcasing the country’s unique landscapes, customs, and traditions. By immersing children in this world, the book helps them relive the sights, sounds, and experiences of their summer memories, encouraging them to appreciate the joys of life’s simpler pleasures.

In today’s increasingly globalized world, it is essential for students to develop a deep understanding and appreciation of different cultures and traditions. By introducing children to diverse perspectives and experiences, educators can help promote empathy, inclusivity, and cross-cultural understanding. A picturebook set in the Philippines can play a crucial role in achieving these goals, particularly in a classroom where students may have limited exposure to cultures outside of their own. The book can help broaden students’ horizons, providing them with a glimpse into the unique customs and traditions of the Philippines, while also helping to dispel stereotypes and promote a more nuanced understanding of this complex and fascinating country. Overall, Holding On presents universal themes in a culturally accurate manner. It celebrates the unique culture and heritage of the Philippines, while also promoting cross-cultural understanding and appreciation.

Exploring picturebooks of similar themes in a text set such as summer experiences, visiting grandparents, even touching on the delicate yet important conversations around dementia and old age, and finally learning about music are great tools to deepen understanding of this book. Without proper contextualization, readers might fail to appreciate the true value and message of the global story. The picturebook When Lola Visits, by author Michelle Sterling and illustrator Aaron Asis (2021), is a comparable book exploring similar cultural and intergenerational themes. Another great pairing exploring cultures in the same region would be Amah Faraway, by author Margaret Chiu Greanis and illustrator Tracy Subisak (2022), and Drawn Together, by author Minh Lê and illustrator Dan Santat (2018).

The author Sophia N. Lee remembers her summers being filled with music when Lolo (grandfather) would play the ukulele as she danced to ‘Pearly Shells.’ She adds that her Lola knew how to make everyone’s favorite food. Growing up in the Philippines, Lee understood the importance of showing close ties with loved ones, an undoubted mark of being Filipino. Lee is the author of the picturebook Soaring Saturdays, illustrated by Aaron M. Asis (2019), and the novel What Things Mean (2014), the grand prize winner of the 2014 Scholastic Asian Book Award. Readers can learn more about Sophia N. Lee at her website.

The illustrator, Isabel Roxas, explained her connections as well–her images of summer capture the lush greenery of the provinces in the Philippines, and family hometowns that are the school break destinations for many Filipino children. Roxas’ experience of summer is salient in the illustrations of Holding On. Being born, raised, and based in the Philippines, Roxas has deep connections with the country and its culture that emanate from the images she chose to illustrate in the book, such as the image of taho, a famous Filipino sweet tofu breakfast. Roxas explains how she used her grandmother Lola Ven as the inspiration for the Lola depicted in her illustrations. Visit her website to learn more about her work.


Simon Kids. (2022). Meet Author and Illustrator of Holding On | Read & Learn with Simon Kids [YouTube]. Retrieved December 2022, from

Rose Santos, University of Arizona, Tucson

© 2022 by Rose Santos

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WOW Review, Volume XV, Issue 2 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work by Rose Santos at

WOW review: reading across cultures
ISSN 2577-0527