Click the link for reviews of two other books that won 2014 Scholastic Asian Book Awards.

A recent Time magazine article mentioned that we are “living in a golden age of young-adult literature, when books ostensibly written for teens are equally adored by readers of every generation.

“In the likes of Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen, they’ve produced characters and conceits that have become the currency of our pop-culture discourse – and inspired some of our best writers to contribute to the genre.”

I couldn’t agree more, and am very glad that publishers Scholastic Asia has chosen to champion young adult writing in our region through its biennial Scholastic Asian Book Awards (Saba).

Here, we review the three winners of the 2014 cycle who have had their manuscripts published.

And if What Things Mean by Sophia N. Lee, the 2014 Saba grand prize winner, is the shape of literary things to come from our part of the world, we certainly have a lot to be excited about.

str2_sabawhatR_cover_FORONLINEGood books typically tackle universal themes; the best ones do this while gently teaching us meaningful things about other communities and cultures.

The traditional coming-of-age story is uniquely expressed in What Things Mean through the quiet yet steady voice of Olive, an unusually tall, “big-haired, brown-skinned, clumsy” and pickle-loving 14-year-old from a family of “cream- coloured beauties who are all popular and good at sports”.

Set in a neighbourhood in modern Manila, the story traces how Olive’s relationships with her mother and family members transform as she tries to uncover the truth about her birth and a father that no one wants to talk about.

Even as we relate to her teenage angst, feelings of being an outsider, self-consciousness about her dark skin, and life with a typical three-generation Asian family, we learn interesting new things about Filipino life – food, pastimes, terms of endearment for family members, architecture and common street scenes.

Photo: Scholastic Asia

Photo: Scholastic Asia

Lee’s writing is crisp and contemporary, the story simple but sophisticatedly packaged in a form that feels fresh and original, not forced. Everything about the book – from its cover to the way its content is presented – conveys this overall feeling.

Olive’s journey of self-discovery is sectioned off into sharp succinct chapters that will speak easily to young readers from the Facebook generation (or even to busy adults looking for a light local read to relieve their teenage nostalgia).

I really like how each chapter is represented by a specific word and starts with a dictionary style definition of the said word. This novel approach reminds readers of the many interesting ways in which a single word can be used (some meanings still managed to surprise me!).

It also underlines the overarching theme of how one thing can sometimes mean very different things to different people, as emphasised aptly by the last chapter on “Olives”.

Even though the ending could have benefited from a little more depth, I loved how the book closes on a note of positivity and acceptance.

What Things Mean

Author: Sophia N. Lee
Publisher: Scholastic, fiction