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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Picture books about immigrant families are certainly nothing new, but renewed attention to immigrant experiences has ushered in a prodigious crop of new titles, and few are as evocative or heartening as Bao Phi and Thi Bui’s A Different Pond.
It starts on a quiet, predawn Saturday morning, when a Vietnamese father wakes up his son for a fishing trip. They trundle out to the car, stop to pick up bait, and head to their favorite spot, and while this time they’re alone, they’ve often fished there with other people from a variety of backgrounds. It’s a routine experience for the boy and his father—and unlike casual fishing trips for sport, theirs is a necessity to get food on the table in their new, expensive country. But with subtle emotional cues and expressive artwork, Phi and Bui elevate their excursion into something deeply meaningful.
Beyond the mere fact of having more food to eat, their fishing trip becomes an opportunity for the boy to learn about his father’s life before coming to America. The word refugee never appears in Phi’s poetic lines, but hints at the reasons the father leaves Vietnam are weighty. Reminiscing about fishing in Vietnam, the father mentions a brother who died in the war. The image of that other pond carries lots of meaning for the boy, who brims with pride over his own contribution to getting food on the table and contemplates how fishing with his father connects him to the country of his origin.
Bui’s distinctive artwork, full of brushy line work and rich color, beautifully illustrates Phi’s lines, focusing intently on the expressive faces of the boy and his father and the vivid environments they live in—cool, midnight blue by the river while they fish, surrounded by leafy foliage and an understated yet still slightly ominous No Trespassing sign, and warm, sunshiny yellow when they’re back in the warmth of home and around the dinner table, enjoying the fruits of their labor.
Together, the words and pictures tell a thought-provoking story about the challenges many new Americans face, in a tone that is never preachy or purposeful. And while Phi and Bui are telling a specific story about a Vietnamese American experience, there are many touchstones to other cultural experiences in the narrative, which will resonate more widely with readers and, hopefully, generate some much-needed empathy with others.
We recently spoke with Phi, an award-winning poet and community activist, and Bui, a graphic novelist who’s won recent acclaim for her debut graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do (2017), about their debut picture book, their collaboration, and how their own experiences growing up as Vietnamese immigrants in America helped inform the book.
Can you tell me a little about your collaboration process?
BUI: I was dying for collaboration after working alone for so long on my graphic memoir, so I bugged Bao a lot for details about his family, his parents’ house, the old neighborhood, his early memories.PHI: I’m a fan of Thi, so I was thrilled when she said yes. I was happy to be able to work with such a talented Vietnamese American who would, in many ways, “get it.” We have different experiences, but there are commonalities in the Viet refugee experience. We exchanged a lot of emails, and I dug through old family photos. I tried taking pictures of places that reminded me of the old fishing spots, but it was so long ago that those places are either gone or I don’t know where they are.
I’m very struck by your art style. What were some of your inspirations? How was working on a picture book different from working on a graphic novel?
BUI: At this point, I sort of draw how I draw. That brushy line that tends toward dry brush is influenced by cartoonists like Jillian Tamaki, Craig Thompson, Edmond Baudoin, and Aristophane. For content, I was inspired by Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen (1970) and my own memories.
The size of the picture-book pages was a little intimidating. I’m used to drawing large and printing small for comics, which tightens up the lines. I also hadn’t worked in full color before A Different Pond. On the plus side, having drawn an epic graphic memoir that was over 300 pages, I was happy with how quickly I could finish a 32-page picture book!
There are some harsh realities present in your story—particularly the mention of the war that killed the father’s brother. How do you approach addressing such topics for a young audience?
BUI: Having grown up in similar circumstances with a similar background, these realities don’t seem particularly harsh to me—they just are. If you decenter an easier life as what’s normal, you can portray a less easy life more truthfully. I have always thought it was awful to go through trauma as a child and then have to present it to people as though you are the odd one. It seems to me that those children would very much have a desire to be seen and have their experiences counted—not paraded or overly emphasized as the cornerstone of their identity, but just acknowledged as part of their lives and something they have to deal with on a regular basis.PHI: I’m a father now, and I’ve been reading stories or telling stories to my daughter for years. As she’s grown, she’s become a part of this world: the lack of Asian American history and issues both in classrooms and the Western consciousness; police brutality and Black Lives Matter; deportation and xenophobia; the fact that we live on indigenous land; that there is a racist and sexist in the highest office in this country. There is no fairy tale we can tell to shield her from all of this, and maybe we shouldn’t. So the question is how are we honest with her without scaring her. How do I tell her about these things that have happened to our family, and are therefore part of her history? I don’t know if I have a solid answer, but the best we can do is be intentional.
HUNTER: How did you land on fishing as the central activity of the story?PHI: I wrote a poem about my father taking me fishing when I was young. The poem wasn’t quite there, but I thought it was an important story to tell. He and my mother worked so hard, faced so much discrimination, suffered so much loss, and we kids were not easy to raise. I wanted to honor that struggle, and the fishing story was a window into it.
HUNTER: Both of you were born in Vietnam and came to America when you were very young; what was it like working on a project so connected to your own experiences? Was your process any different from other projects you’ve worked on?
BUI: Having just finished a graphic memoir, this was kind of nice for me because it was a little less personal! It was a little trickier because I have a desire to get things right with someone else’s story, so I ended up doing a fair bit of visual research around Bao’s family and the Philips neighborhood in Minneapolis.PHI: For many years, I didn’t write many poems about my life—I wrote a lot of persona poems, polemics. As I grew older and became a father, there was an urge to write down the things that formed who I am. They say trauma is passed down genetically. How else will my daughter understand this part of her? How can I grow as a person if I don’t examine my pain, my regrets, my shame, my complicity in harm? So my new book of poems, as well as A Different Pond, is a struggle to both confront and critique and celebrate certain moments in my life. It’s a lot of pressure, because you want to do justice to these complicated stories while not exploiting them. But I think that’s a good pressure.
Sampling Phi and Bui
A Different Pond. 2017. Capstone, $15.95 (9781623708030). K–Gr. 3.
Further Reading: Cultural Recollections
Below is a selection of books that explore the immigration experience and the balance between one’s former and current homes.
Good-bye, Havana! Hola, New York! By Edie Colón. Illus. by Raúl Colón. 2011. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $16.99 (9781442406742). Gr. 1–3.
As a six-year-old, Gabriella isn’t sure what revolution means, but when it begins to affect her family, her parents relocate to the U.S., where it seems like everything is different. A fictional story based on Edie Colón’s own coming-to-America experience from Castro’s Cuba.
I’m New Here. By Anne Sibley O’Brien. Illus. by the author. 2015. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (9781580896122). K–Gr. 3.
Three new American students navigate their first day of school. Guatemalan Maria struggles with English but loves soccer. Writing is difficult for Jin, from South Korea, but he finds that sharing his language with another student helps. Meanwhile, Fatimah, from Somalia, is having trouble fitting in and is afraid of making mistakes.
Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land. By John Coy. Illus. by Win Young Huie. 2016. Carolrhoda, $19.99 (9781467780544). PreS–Gr. 2.
Moving photos capture immigrant families in a variety of contexts—attending school, lounging at home, performing back-breaking labor, laughing with family, blending in with their new communities, and holding onto old traditions. Meanwhile, Coy’s words link each page’s photos together, emphasizing common experiences of newcomers to this country.
A Thirst for Home: A Story of Water across the World. By Christine Ieronimo. Illus. by Eric Velasquez. 2014. Bloomsbury, $17.99 (9780802723079). Gr. 4–6.
Tears, rain, puddles: water keeps Eva Alemitu connected to Emaye, the mother she left behind in Ethiopia, as Eva adjusts to life in the U.S. In this hauntingly bittersweet tale Ieronimo imagines the heartbreak of a mother and daughter forced apart by hunger and poverty.
Sarah Hunter is the Books for Youth Senior Editor at Booklist.
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