WOW Review: Volume XV, Issue 4

A young girl stretches her hand out into a pond full of koi fish.Maribel’s Year
Written by Michelle Sterling
Illustrated by Sarah Gonzales
Katherine Tegen Books, 2023, 40 pp
ISBN: 978-0063114357

Maribel’s Year is the story of a young Filipina girl who moves to the United States with her mother but, unfortunately, without her father. Not only is Maribel in a new country, but she endures separation from her father, who must remain in the Philippines for another year. When Maribel and her mother first appear outside their new home during the frosty winter, Maribel frowns angrily. Two pages later, she looks crestfallen from missing her family and friends in the Philippines. At first, Maribel reminisces about carabao milk and big family meals. Then, however, she begins to warm up when a friendly classmate shares sour candy with her for Valentine’s Day.

Months pass, and June sunshine marks the beginning of summer. Seen on an outing at the beach with friends, Maribel and Mama pack their picnic basket with cold treats like orange sherbet, fresh fruit, chips, and saltwater taffy. They also blend a milkshake my Mindanao-born mother sometimes craves—an avocado shake! Soon after, there is dried mango and tamarind from Lolo’s (grandfather’s) farm, along with a letter from Papa. Then, Maribel goes berry-picking with her friend from school, which evokes the nostalgia of drinking buko juice, a drink made from young coconuts, with Papa.

More time passes, and autumn leaves signal the season of picking apples, baking pumpkin pie, carving Jack-o-lanterns, and roasting pumpkin seeds. By partaking in the festivities, Maribel shows that she is embracing her new home and incorporating elements of her favorite foods and customs from the Philippines. For example, Mama and Maribel share their first Thanksgiving with turkey, gravy, and ube pie. Ube is a purple yam popular in Filipino cuisine and especially famous in desserts. This intermingling of traditional food expresses a love for their homeland and appreciation of their new home. When Mama and Maribel reunite with Papa, it is a snowy winter again, but they feel at home now.

Maribel’s Year is luminous and dreamlike with its penciled illustrations and rich, digitally rendered colors that glow in deep shades of yellows, oranges, reds, and greens. The art style fits the writing and smoothly expresses the story with heart. The vivid imagery employs all senses, drawing on memories of temperature, texture, flavor, sound, and seasonal changes. Colorful swirls of Tagalog words and their English counterparts create a visualization of the “foggy soup of strange words” (p. 5) that make spelling in English difficult. Maribel and her parents present as Filipinos in terms of appearance because of their dark hair and tan skin. In addition, her school is diverse in its student representation.

There is a gap in depictions of Filipino American experiences within children’s literature. Based on catalog searches from large public libraries, there has been a lack of authentic representation of Filipinos/Filipino Americans in picturebooks and graphic novels for young readers. However, Maribel’s Year is the high-quality, beautifully illustrated children’s story I have longed for as a fellow Filipina American who grew up in Southern California. I have been searching for mirrors all my life, and it is wonderful to witness the recognition and appreciation of more Filipino diaspora voices filling this need for future generations.

Other recent Filipino picturebooks include Sari-Sari Summers by Lynnor Bontigao (2023) and Holding On by Sophia N. Lee and Isabel Roxas (2022). These are heartwarming picturebooks by Filipina creators about girls and grandmothers bonding over food, music, and Tagalog while visiting each other in the Philippines.

Maribel’s Year is a creation by and about Filipinas. Michelle Sterling is a Filipina American author, photographer, speech-language pathologist, and children’s literature blogger on her website. Sterling’s mother and father immigrated from Ilocos Sur and Manila, respectively. She lives with her family in Southern California, where she was born and raised (Aquino, 2021).

The talented illustrator, Sarah Gonzales, is Filipina Canadian. A child of Philippine expatriates, she was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Alberta (HarperStacks, 2023). Maribel’s Year marks her debut as a picturebook illustrator. To view more of Sarah’s artwork, visit her website.


Aquino, G. (2021, June 25). Spring 2021 flying starts: Michelle Sterling. Publishers Weekly.

HarperStacks. (2023, May 9). Creators in conversation: Michelle Sterling and Sarah Gonzales.

Stephanie E. Mahar, Washington State University–Pullma

© 2023 by Stephanie E. Mahar

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WOW Review, Volume XV, Issue 4 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work by Stephanie E. Mahar at

WOW review: reading across cultures
ISSN 2577-0527