Like many Pilipinos who spent any part of their childhoods in the Philippines, I grew up in a neighborhood with a corner sari-sari store.
It looked almost exactly like the one owned by Lola Soling in Sari-Sari Summers, written and illustrated by Lynnor Bontigao. It sold everything from candy and snacks to comic books to single-serve sodas in a plastic bag with a straw.
“Every place probably has a version of a sari-sari store,” Bontigao said. “I love that it is distinct and specific but also universal.” Think of it as the Pilipino version of a New York City bodega or a precursor to 7-Eleven.
Sari-Sari Summers centers Nora, a young girl who spends summers helping at her Lola Soling’s sari-sari store. During a heatwave, Nora and Lola make refreshing fruit ice candy to sell. The sweet popsicle-like ice candy becomes a community favorite and brings all their neighbors to Lola’s store for the refreshing treat. There is a recipe in the back of the book.
Bontigao’s warm, nostalgia-tinted illustrations include Tagalog words that evoke the sights and sounds of a typical bustling city neighborhood in the Philippines. Kitchen scenes of Nora and Lola making the ice candy are particularly evocative of the intergenerational bridges built over the making and sharing of food.
Lola Soling was based on Bontigao’s own lola, who also owned a sari-sari store in the Philippines. Like Nora, Bontigao helped her lola at the store during the summer. Her favorite snacks were kropek (fish or prawn crackers), yema (egg custard candy), tortilla chips, and iced gem cookies.
“I also loved getting plastic balloons to play with,” said Bontiago. For those who are not familiar, plastic balloons come in a tube of sticky plastic. You would squeeze a ball of the plastic onto the end of a straw and blow into the other end to inflate the balloon.
Bontigao was inspired to share this glimpse of the Philippines after a 2019 illustration she posted on social media got such a positive response.
“The illustration reminded me of being at my lola’s sari-sari store, surrounded by candy, looking out and waiting for customers,” she said. “How wonderful it was to set [the story] within an iconic structure of daily Filipino life.”
Sari-Sari Summers is Bontigao’s debut picture book as author-illustrator. She just finished illustrating two other picture books, The World’s Best Class Plant by Audrey Vernick and Liz Garton (Putnam/PRH, May 2023) and Kailani’s Gift by Dorina Gilmore-Young (Waterbrook Multnomah/PRH, 2024).