Have you been busy calming your young people’s new school or classroom jitters? In my senior citizen circles, this duty falls to grandparents as well as parents and school staff. It can be even more frightening or puzzling for students new to a country as well as a school—and more complicated for the families and other adults who want to help them. (These difficulties are now exponentially worse for folks affected by President Trump’s immigration policies mandating zero tolerance and family separation.) Today I look at two picture books and a graphic novel full of wise, loving insights into the problems and joys of immigrant generations within families. While these three recent works are about Vietnamese and Thai immigrants to the United States, their sharp observations extend beyond any one ethnicity or particular national borders.
Drawn Together (2018), written by Minh Le and illustrated by award-winning Dan Santat, is a gorgeous, heart-warming picture book. Vietnamese-American Le and Thai-American Santat call upon their own experiences of being unable to converse with grandparents who did not speak English to spotlight how communication between generations may occur in other ways. The loving grandfather in this book may not be able to offer school advice, but he and his elementary-aged grandson do come to a profound understanding. They bridge their language gap through making art—a resolution capsulized in what we finally realize is this book’s punning title.
At first, wordless, full-color panels show through the pair’s slumped figures and sad faces how awkward they feel during an afternoon visit. Their cultural differences are epitomized in a two page spread by the very different lunches they eat as well as the first words they speak. Not reading Thai script, I assume that—when the boy asks, “So. . . what’s new, Grandpa?”—this gentleman is asking something similar. A comparable lack of communication occurs when they sit down to watch TV. It is when the bored boy pulls out his paper and colored markers that the two finally connect. Grandfather brings out his own inkpot, brush, and sketch pad to reveal “a world beyond words” where they metaphorically “see each other for the first time.” The boy draws himself as a colorful wizard while the grandfather inks himself as a traditional Thai warrior as they joyfully depict themselves together battling and defeating a fierce dragon. Santat then shows them racing across a bridge towards one another, each assuming the previous colors of the other, as they next realize—“happily . . SPEECHLESS” in a smiling hug—that words no longer need be a barrier to communication. (Le’s cunning word play is again evident, with “speechless” now used in its positive sense.)
Vietnamese-American Le, noting his tale “resonate[s]. . . across cultural experience,” was pleased to have Santat “translate” this story in personally meaningful ways with Thai imagery and script. In an interview, Santat explains that this was his first effort to depict his own culture and that he lavished time and effort in learning and using traditional ink-and-paintbrush techniques. Readers of all ages will appreciate the visual richness here, with those detailed black-and-white drawings complemented by kid-colorful block images, both styles merging to convey the book’s satisfying, sumptuous “messages” about family and art. A brief, kid-friendly video showing Santat at work on Drawn Together will further delight its appreciative readers.
Picture book A Different Pond (2017) has won multiple awards for its Vietnamese-American creators, author Bao Phi and illustrator Thi Bui. This quietly luminous, poignant work is semi-autobiographical, focusing on a typical event in Phi’s boyhood in 1980s Minneapolis (now my own hometown). Unlike the unquestioned affluence depicted in Drawn Together, where a large-screen TV and ample food and art supplies are shown, Phi’s immigrant family was working-class and hard-pressed for cash. The grandson in suburban Drawn Together is dropped off and picked up by his mother in a shiny car. Bao Phi’s mother, though, rides a bicycle to her multiple, inner city jobs. And the central event in A Different Pond is an early morning fishing trip Phi and his father take not for sport but for food. As his father explains in the book, “Everything in America costs a lot of money.” This is particularly true for immigrants with low-paying jobs, a situation familiar also to illustrator Bui. On the book’s frontispiece, she dedicates the book “For the working class. . . .” while author Phi writes that it is “For my family, and for refugees everywhere.”
Bao Phi’s cash-poor family is rich in other ways. His gentle father’s steadfast kindness yields a smile rather than anger when the boy cannot bear to hook a minnow for bait. Bao Phi instead is praised and feels proud for efforts he can contribute. Father and son talk together comfortably about fishing in Vietnam. Neighborhood acquaintances interact in friendly ways with the pair, and the hard-working parents unite at night over family dinners with all five kids. They tell stories as “Mom will ask about their homework. Dad will nod and smile. . . .” It does not matter that, as the adult Phi poetically recalls, “A kid in my school said that my dad’s English sounds like a thick, dirty river. Because to me his English sounds like gentle rain.” Education is regularly valued and supported in this close-knit immigrant family—throughout the year, as well as on those momentous opening days.
Illustrator Thi Bui uses cool blues to depict the quiet pre-dawn hours of this fishing venture, when father and son skirt past a “No Trespassing” sign, carefully holding hands as they climb down to the river to catch the family’s dinner. With minimal, distinct lines, Bui subtly depicts a variety of strong emotions on faces and in body language. In less skilled or thoughtful hands, such minimal renderings might have been one-note cartoons. She uses warm yellows, reds, and oranges to show the warmth of family life inside the Bui family apartment. In an interview, Bui explains how she included typical Vietnamese refugee elements, such as fish sauce stored in an old jar and a no-frills grocery store calendar, to personalize the family’s minimally-furnished apartment. Such typical elements also adorn the book’s end papers. I myself especially like the book’s final page, which shows the sleeping boy, colored with the book’s indoor, golden tones, surrounded by the cool blues of the “faraway ponds” of the family’s shared dreams.
Thi Bui is both author and illustrator of her remarkable graphic family history, The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir (2017). Nominated for multiple national awards, this moving saga of the Bui family’s escape from war-torn Vietnam in the 1970s and their life in the U.S. will be appreciated by readers teen and older. Its framework of the adult Bui’s birthing and parenting her first child, together with the politics and mention of wartime violence, make this saga less engaging for tweens. Its life lessons—communicated in black, white, and subtle gradations of orange—are complex and sometime sad ones.
Unlike the contented son in A Different Pond, Thi as a girl dreamed about escaping her life. Generations of family violence and abandonment had shaped her father into a bitter man. Her mother’s personal goals had been set aside to meet their growing family’s needs in wartime. As the war escalated, their background as teachers endangered the pair rather than helping them in what is in now North Vietnam. Father Bui’s strengths combined with those of Thi’s mother enabled them to flee Vietnam and survive as refugees, but they paid a high price. Among other losses, their degrees were useless in the U.S., and the pair took on multiple minimum-wage jobs.
As the adult Thi writes of her parents near the end of this book, “They taught us to be respectful, to take care of one another, and to do well at school. These were the intended lessons. The unintentional ones came from their un-exorcized demons. . . and from the habits they formed over so many years of trying to survive.” These words appear on a page alternating a large close-up of child Thi’s sad face with an image of her studying and then mid-distance views of her solemn parents, their separate, weary images in frames yoked together by a mysterious trail of smoke. Their children’s success in school is never enough to please these parents and calm their fears. Their harrowing experiences escaping Vietnam as “boat people” and then living in a refugee camp have left indelible psychological marks on them and, to a lesser extent, their children.
The Best We Could Do ends on a hopeful note, though, with Thi Bui coming to understand and value her mother still more and accepting that her relationship with her psychologically-damaged father will remain limited. The author/illustrator concludes this insightful, moving memoir with an image of her now 10- year old son, one harkening back to her own girlhood dreams of escape. Both figures are shown as swimmers. While young Thi only dreamed of being free, she thinks her son can actually “be free.” Her family’s intergenerational chain of emotional harm, exacerbated by being refugees, finally has been broken.
As you absorb news accounts of refugees seeking safety in the U.S., or as you work to calm new school year jitters for the youngsters you know, using your own life lessons to guide them, perhaps thoughts of the refugee stories reviewed here may offer some illumination . . . for yourself and others. Perhaps your family has its own immigrant or refugee stories to draw upon. A library-based website I recently discovered may offer further resources. It lists kid and teen books (not necessarily graphic ones) about refugees by more than 100 communities of origin as well as by book setting and theme.