This year, I’m returning to Vietnam, a journey I could only imagine till now. Come with me through stories for children I’ve been reading over so many of years with children in story programs and with adults learning English. I include folktales, a contemporary story about a child who paddles a sampan across a lagoon to get to school in the Mekong Delta, to a story of recent history about a mother wishing safety for her child as they flee by boat.
A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui, Capstone, 2017.
Bao Phi is from the newest generation of writers. He came as a child with his family who migrated to the U.S. after the American war in Vietnam.
A Different Pond by Phi, who is also a poet, is illustrated by the amazing graphic artist and writer, Thi Bui. Bao Phi tells a story of a small Vietnamese-American boy’s ritual of fishing early in the morning with his father. They’re catching food for supper before the father goes to work, one of his two jobs. The text and illustrations capture the boy’s respect for his father. They show his growing skill in their ritual, his fear, and the tight web of their family as they learn to survive in the U.S. This story is a model for writers who seek to tell their own migration story. The author selects one ritual vital to the life of a migrant family and allows the emotion and the story to flow from it.
My Footprints by Bao Phi, illustrated by Basia Tran, Capstone, 2019
Bao Phi returned to Capstone Publishing with a second book, My Footprints. A little girl with her two Vietnamese moms, think of the strongest animals they can imagine. Thuy wants to be THAT strong when she’s bullied. Together, they become a phoenix. “Thuy sees their shadows curl into long blue feathers.” She and her moms “hold hands with Thuy in the middle, then spread their arms wide so that together their shadows form a great wingspan.” Then Thuy makes up her own magical creature all “different shades of pretty.” In the lovely, child-silly climax, Thuy creates a creature of her own. She steps into her own powerful footprints.
My First Day by Phùng Nguyên Quang & Huynh Kim Liên, Make Me a World, imprint of Random House, 2021.
The author/illustrator team live and work in Ho Chi Minh City. My First Day is a fantastical yet universal experience, told in sweeping panoramas of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. A small boy paddles a sampan through the river on his way to his first day at school. “I paddle out into the floodwaters, past yesterdays and all the things I didn’t know.” His journey is through mangroves, past crocodiles, under sky that is a “crayon box of colors.” The boy meets up with laughing children paddling their own little boats to arrive at their school on the banks of the Mekong.
Wishes by Múón Thi Van, illustrated by Victo Ngai, Orchard Books, 2021.
“The night wished it was quieter. The bag wished it was deeper. The light wished it was lighter.” With such simple lines giving emotion to inanimate objects, Van tells the deep fear and emotion of a mother boarding a boat with her little girl and a baby, having left all they love at home. Van helps young child readers imagine the courage to continue the voyage.
Con Cóc là Cậu Ông Trời (Toad is the Uncle of Heaven)
“The toad’s legacy goes like this: In a time long forgotten, Heaven made a drought so vicious, so brutal, that the lakes and rivers were sucked dry.” This line is from a version of the tale found on the site of DiaCritics, the Diasporic Vietnamese Artist Network .The Toad is the Uncle of Heaven is the story of a toad who is considered ugly by the other animals, but he shows his great worth to them in the time of the terrible drought. The tale warns about being judgmental, and also explains why toads croak before a big rain.
Jeanne M. Lee retold the tale and many, many other tales from Vietnam and Cambodia including I Once Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told.
For those a bit older:
The Buddha’s Diamonds by Carolyn Marsden and Thây Pháp Niêm, Candlewick, 2008.
Niêm and Marsden help children understand the Buddhism of Vietnam. The book is a retelling of a talk Niêm gave at the Deer Park Monastery in California. “One Sunday, Thây Pháp Niêm told the children how his Vietnamese village had been destroyed by a cyclone – and how this devastating experience opened him to a deep encounter with the Buddha.” Niêm’s childhood experiences form the basis of The Buddha’s Diamonds. A year after the storm, Niêm escaped post-war Vietnam in a small boat and made it to safety. He later became a Buddhist monk.