Contributing writer Jade Hidle reflects on the role of reading in her own childhood, and speaks to Bao Phi and Thi Bui about their Caldecott Honor illustrated children’s book, A Different Pond.
When I was a young reader, books served a specific function in the relationship between my single mother and me. They kept me occupied and quiet. My page-flipping offered her hours to work, cook, sleep, and do whatever else she needed to do without worrying about me out in the dangers of our neighborhood. Reading was not otherwise a part of our lives. My grandmother was only able to access a second-grade education, so literacy was not part of our matrilineal culture–storytelling, yes, but books, no.
During weekend or summer visits to my dad’s house, one of our rituals was going to the bookstore where he would always indulge me with a picture book, then serialized chapter books such as Sweet Valley Twins or The Babysitter’s Club–all equally addicting and completely unrelatable to me, the daughter of a poor recent immigrant from Viet Nam. (Looking back, I could be down with TBC’s Claudia Kishi as a rare representation of an Asian American girl in young adult fiction, but I definitely did not share her experiences of being part of any club, or her sister’s model minority-compliant astronomically high IQ, or living in a house or any other bougie stuff like that.)
Chapter books led to the literary gateway drugs of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and that’s when the function of reading shifted. My books filling the once-empty shelves of our apartment became a visual measuring stick of the words I knew but my mother did not. Once when I was in high school, she got so pissed at me when she realized I had stayed up all night reading (the least of my shenanigans at that age). Through her eyes, reading was now a leisurely way to waste time when I should have been cleaning the house or cooking or working hard on something, anything. It seemed that every time I opened a book was an affront to her lack of a childhood with books and that doing so was my buy-in to American culture and all the things that white people wrote around and against us. Reading cleaved the distance between my mother and I, between Viet Nam and America.
So much of parenting gets negotiated from generation to generation, especially with immigration and translations of culture, and I struggle in determining what to keep and revise from my upbringing as the first American-born child in my family. When I gave birth to my daughter last year, one change I vowed was to make reading a positive experience, a ritual that would bond us rather than divide us. Reading and her Vietnamese heritage would not be positioned at odds with one another.
Back when I was swollen with baby, I built her library, grateful for the increasing diversity in children’s books, yet also feeling incomplete. I cleaned Amazon out of all the Vietnamese-English bilingual board books with their crude illustrations of white and black children performing the actions of narrative such as “I eat breakfast” (somehow all the kids in these books have a full-on trucker’s feast of eggs, sausage, toast, and juice–a bounty I did not taste as a kid fed from food stamps and the Naval commissary). All of these books left me wanting a text that would offer my daughter a glimpse of the complex history and multifaceted culture from which she was born.
In the absence of books that bridged this gap, I was ineffably excited when I heard of the release of A Different Pond, a beautiful collaboration between poet Bao Phi and graphic memoirist Thi Bui, that has since been recognized as a Caldecott Honor Book for 2018. I’d been introduced to both writers through diaCRITICS. I’d borne witness to the power of Phi’s spoken word poetry at USC and have since taught his work every semester, and reveled in the beauty of Bui’s The Best We Could Do, which moved me to tears when I was pregnant. Excited about this creative partnership, I asked Bao and Thi what they wanted A Different Pond to contribute to children’s literature.
Thi: “I wanted Vietnamese Americans to get to experience shared nostalgia, similar to what people felt for the Eighties watching the show Stranger Things, but with our specific ephemera, you know? Like the fish sauce in a mayonnaise jar, the hugging pillow, the hand-me-down clothes from the Seventies. People of color get erased from a lot of quintessential American stories, including the story of the working class. I wanted to reinsert them with a bit of the truth that I know.”
Bao: “It was a very simple idea: I wanted my daughter to have a book that told a story from a working class, Vietnamese American refugee experience. It’s not meant to be representational for all of us. Though many of her books are wonderful and we made an effort to get her books that are multicultural, multiracial, and multigendered, there seemed to be very little Asian American and Vietnamese American refugee books out there that also dealt with class. I’m hoping that there will be more and more stories to come.”
My daughter was only two months old when I eagerly opened the copy of A Different Pond that arrived on our doorstep. Although she was just a glassy-eyed writhing sweet potato at the time, my baby was rapt with attention when I opened the book for her. Her mesmerism was no doubt indebted to Bui’s beautiful artwork–hues of night and light that are rich yet subtle, faces warm through cold air, wide open yet intimately focused on this family. Her illustrations lend shape and color to a quiet moment that is full. My daughter and I were fully sucked in with how Bui’s drawings couple with Phi’s narrative that spotlights a child’s treasured moments with his father. The plot is simple: a father wakes up his son in the early hours of the morning to go fishing at a local pond. Yet in between building fire and baiting lines, so much more happens in the seemingly “empty” or “silent” moments.
In the story, the father tells his son stories about his fishing pond in Viet Nam, alluding to the war and a lost brother. The boy’s interest is piqued and he begins to see what is and is not there: “I look at the trees as we walk back to the car. I wonder what the trees look like at that other pond, in the country my dad comes from.” The young boy sees so much of his father that others cannot, would not–his English is a “gentle rain” even though the kids at school make fun of his “thick, dirty river” of an accent. And they share an unspoken understanding, evident when the boy declines his father’s request to bait a minnow and then assures himself, “He isn’t upset with me.” This is poignant for a children’s book because I think we underestimate how much time, energy, and love that young people devote to trying to understand and care for their parents, especially for those of us whose parents carry from their homelands histories unspoken.
Viet Nam bubbles up in that pond, crossing time and space, as the boy comes of age in providing for the family by catching fish. You can feel the pride of the young boy participating in this early morning ritual, to contribute to his hard-working parents. Notably, toward the end of the book the verbs shift to future tense as the boy watches his parents leave for work: “I know that later on they will both come home.” Here I related to the feeling of always waiting for my mother, of needing to reassure myself that her return was certain in a world where past and future felt very uncertain. In the book, the boy awaits his parents’ return from a day of hard work so that they can share a meal of the fish they caught, and in this moment it crystallizes that, although this family of refugees does not have a lot materially, they have a lot–history, ritual, each other, and the indefatigable work of building a life in a new country.
This is what all the books, in both languages, on my newborn’s bookshelf were lacking–that deep feeling of growing up working-class Vietnamese. Of course, this is not to say that we all grew up the same, but there is an ineffable understanding of seeing and being seen. When I asked Bao and Thi about what they hope diasporic Vietnamese families in particular take away from A Different Pond, they articulated that feeling:
Bao: “I hope they see an appreciation for the sacrifice and struggle that they went through and continue to go through. The Asian American experience in particular is one of erasure, one of dismissal, and I hope this book is a small step in intervening in that.”
Thi: “Pride, hope, remembrance, some pleasure. And the ability to pass on some of our history in this country to their kids, and share it with other kids as well.”
I was curious, then, about Bao and Thi’s experiences of sharing the book with the children in their lives.
Bao: “When I first read it to my daughter, she seemed kinda “meh” about it. Which is fine. But a week later, out of the blue, she asked me to come to her school and read it to her and her classmates. The school she goes to is more than 80% people of color, but the curriculum of education in the US often ignores Asian American history, and there have been times when my young daughter has shown confusion and hurt about this invisibility. It was moving to me that my daughter wanted her fellow classmates to hear this story.”
Thi: “I was visiting a friend who has three little boys, all Vietnamese American. Their dad pointed to the little boy in the book and asked them, ‘Who’s that?’ And they saw themselves in him.”
Indeed, that is the great power of A Different Pond–an offer of personal story to combat invisibility and assure young readers of their selfhood. I appreciated that Bao and Thi at the end of the book they shared brief biographical blurbs that go beyond the traditional children’s book author/artist bio. As a young reader, I felt that children’s books were divorced from the authors’ real lives. I wondered if they had real lives. Did Dr. Seuss live in such a whimsical world? (When I later learned about his anti-Japanese political cartoons, I didn’t read his rhymes the same way again.) And who the hell was this bearded giant grinning at me from the back cover of A Light in the Attic?
I asked Bao and Thi about the ways in which they drew upon their personal experiences as Vietnamese Americans in the story and artwork for A Different Pond.
Bao: “For many years I avoided writing much from my personal experience, but A Different Pond contains many elements of my actual experience. Many of the details of the fishing trip were informed by similar real life trips my father would take me on as a young boy, from the characters who sometimes came to the same pond, to the bait shop, to the stuff in the end papers that Thi beautifully illustrated.”
Thi: “Some of the drawings are based on photos that Bao shared with me. Other details are lifted from my own memories of family life and America in the early Eighties, since Bao and I are the same age and grew up in the same era, albeit in different parts of the US. Having just come out of drawing my own family for my memoir, I kind of superimposed my own dad onto Bao’s dad, and what came out is an amalgam. Sorry, Bác!”
Every time I reread A Different Pond to my now page-flipping nine-month-old daughter, I think of the memories that Thi and Bao have shared through their work and wonder what the baby will remember most from her childhood. I hope that reading will be one of many positive recollections. With that, I leave you with Thi and Bao’s most memorable lesson from their own parents:
Bao: “I was fortunate in that my parents told me a lot of things, even as I was younger, including some pretty traumatizing things about war and Vietnam, and I saw first hand the violence, discrimination, and bigotry they had to face in this country. I am thankful that they endured, thankful that they found a way to support us in this incredibly hostile environment.”
Thi: “My parents taught me that you can do a lot with very little. They’re not big on proverbs, so this is just a lesson I learned by watching them. What I actually hear in my head is Nina Simone singing that song from Hair, ‘I Got Life.’”
Jade Hidle holds an MFA in creative writing from CSU Long Beach and a PhD in literature from UC San Diego. She is a faculty member in the Letters Department at MiraCosta College. Her non-fiction has been collected in a book titled The Return to Viet Nam, released by Transcurrent Press. Her work has also appeared in the Columbia Journal, New Delta Review, International Journal of Comic Art, and The Ethnic Studies Review.