As an active reader growing up, Vong “V.T.” Bidania got to know a lot of white kids and talking animals.
She loved the mystery-solving Boxcar Children (white), C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tweens (white), the Wrinkle in Time trio (white), and the allegory players of Charlotte’s Web (barn animals).
But then she found Of Nightingales That Weep, and it went beyond love. She checked out that Katherine Paterson novel again and again, because the young woman on the cover looked like her.
“Even though I’m not Japanese, that was the only Asian representation I came across.” Eventually, the cover started falling apart. “It may have been the only copy in the library.”
Years later, this past August, Bidania widened that representation. After leaving her hometown of St. Paul, getting an MFA in creative writing in New York City, and returning to the Twin Cities a few years ago, she’s become the author of four children’s books. Her Astrid & Apollo series, for ages 6 to 8, is now at Moon Palace Books, Wild Rumpus, Barnes & Noble, and on Amazon.
The chapter books star 8-year-old twins, a girl and a boy. Like the Pevensies and the Aldens, the Lees often uncouple from adults, though they adventure through more-familiar locales: outstate Minnesota wilds, a RiverCentre-like stadium packed for Hmong New Year, soccer fields like the ones in St. Paul’s Como Park—all colorfully illustrated by local artist Dara Lashia Lee.
And like many Hmong Americans, Astrid and Apollo live in St. Paul. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. Bidania has given a virtual keynote for St. Paul Public Schools and St. Paul Public Libraries, and has sat in on a virtual Astrid & Apollo book club of St. Paul middle schoolers.
Her COVID-safe collaborations haven’t let up—with bookstores, schools, libraries. In a video for the virtual Minnesota Children’s Book Festival in September, she read Astrid & Apollo and the Starry Campout after describing its real-life inspirations: full-body mosquito bites, Hmong sausages snatched up by forest critters. Mainstream kids’ lit rarely depicts Hmong Americans, so that’s been the focus of much coverage. But for Bidania, that isn’t quite it.
“I didn’t want to write books where the characters are constantly talking about their background,” she tells me, with a laugh, over Zoom. “Hmong kids don’t do that. Hmong people don’t do that.”
Seated in her house’s sunroom, the mom of two teenagers is also the owner of a new Morkie (which never interrupts, despite a preemptive apology—“She just turned nine; people think she’s a puppy, but she’s a senior!”). When I point out an acoustic guitar sitting behind her, she turns, almost surprised that it’s there, before embarking on a train of thought: It’s her husband’s, she doesn’t play, but her kids have played in band concerts, and that’s the plot of an upcoming Astrid & Apollo story, actually. (Before other interviews, she’s made sure the guitar was out of frame.)
Bidania is upbeat and straightforward, even when discussing publishing-industry biases. “You’re being given this message that your identity, your voice, your stories are not important, and do not count, and do not matter.” She’s recalling how it felt not to see herself in books. “No one should feel that way, especially not a little kid. And I felt like that all the time.”
It may not drive her stories, but “Hmong-ness” fills in the details. On a fishing trip, lunch is chicken boiled in lemongrass soup. An aunt sells papaya salad at a soccer event similar to the Twin Cities’ Hmong International Freedom Festival. While camping, Astrid’s Hmong name, Gao Nou, meaning “sun,” steels her against scary shadows.
The context clues can feel subtle. “Vong is very involved with helping to direct illustrations, to make sure that the designs on traditional clothing or wall hangings are authentic, or that a rice cooker will appear in a kitchen scene,” says Kristen Mohn, managing editor at Capstone Publishers. “She is careful to ensure the background brings together Hmong and American elements.”
Those details matter because we now know to what extent white kids and talking animals dominate. Half of about 3,000 children’s books published in 2018 depicted white characters, according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison study. Animals and other anthropomorphic things made up the second-most visible “demographic,” at nearly 30%. Only 7% of those books showed people of Asian Pacific descent.
“In light of everything that’s happening right now, with all this social and racial unrest in this country, and especially what happened with George Floyd right here in Minneapolis, kids have to see diverse representation in books,” Bidania says, fired up. “They have to see what’s a true reflection of their communities. They can’t just keep seeing these white characters.”
Bidania’s parents arrived in the U.S. around the time of the Vietnam War. Before that, they had fled Laos with Bidania and her four older siblings, and lived in a Thai refugee camp. As a social worker in St. Paul, Bidania’s father helped other immigrants resettle. He later opened a grocery store with his wife, who had been a stay-at-home mom. Bidania recalls Asian-owned businesses permeating University Avenue in the ’90s—a boom that didn’t last, she says, with many closing, including the grocery store.
She read middle-grade fiction into her older years, and still does. In part, it’s for the feverish self-discovery. “It’s that time in your life, when you’re around 8 or 9, when you’re just becoming more independent,” she says. “[Protagonists] usually have this intense longing or yearning for something. I for sure know this was the theme of my life when I was that age.”
As an undergrad, Bidania combined the University of St. Thomas’s journalism program with St. Catherine University’s creative-writing courses. At the New School, in the heart of Manhattan, she pursued an MFA in children’s and young-adult fiction.
“In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to write books.” But post-grad pitching proved unsustainable. For years, she says, her desire to write identifiably Hmong stories that weren’t about Hmong identity posed a dilemma to white publishers—“which are all publishers,” she asides.
“‘Oh, we love your writing!’” she recalls hearing. “‘But your stories aren’t marketable.’”
More often, they wanted what authors of color have termed “trauma porn.” But Bidania didn’t want to write a heart-rending account of racism. “I wanted to make sure that the representation was updated and, most of all, that Hmong children would see themselves in happy stories.”
At the same time, she adds, laughing, “I was thinking I needed to do something else, because I have a lot of student loans.”
Her attempts at non-Hmong characters (still kids of color, usually Asian) didn’t feel authentic. So, she set writing aside and found other work—in children’s-book publishing, even in graphic design for kids’ apparel.
New York’s diversity had intoxicated her, so she couldn’t imagine leaving the East Coast. With her husband and kids, she settled down in New Jersey. In Minnesota, meanwhile, her parents were getting older, and she started to feel a pull.
“It was a huge, huge culture shock.” Moving back to the Twin Cities meant returning to where she’d endured racism every day from childhood until age 22. She now allows herself to consider the oft-touted perks of building a family in Minnesota. But she can’t escape the pitfalls. “It’s just a lot of microaggressions on a regular basis that I had to get used to.”
In the Twin Cities public school system, she found work helping English Language Learners. Hmong kids wanted to tell her about video games and family vacations. Just like that, they upended a stereotype she knew too well: “of the sad refugee immigrant struggling with adapting to American culture and facing hardships.”
Later, she worked at an elementary-school media center. Being around books started to feel like enough for her. Until, that is, she noticed something weird going on in the folklore section.
Students regularly fought over a series of small packets. Stapled together, tattered, the packets were almost illegible after probably decades of photocopying. Their pen-sketched illustrations shriveled next to the bold, Disney-bright Snow White and Cinderella books nearby.
“Oh, we have some of those at my house” she remembers thinking. “They’re just Hmong folktales written in very basic English, with poorly done drawings.”
And the kids were obsessed. “They checked them out like crazy—and not just the Hmong students, but the white students, the Black students, the Latino students, the Somali students.” The stories were exciting, if a bit violent. (“Like, a tiger kills an entire family, and everyone dies.”) But they were in terrible shape.
“I was thinking, ‘These kids deserve better books than that.’”
Around this time, authors were taking up Bidania’s cause nationwide. We Need Diverse Books reared in 2014, pressuring publishers to see, hear, and print writers of color. (Many of Bidania’s favorite kids’-lit authors have furthered the movement: Erin Entrada Kelly, Rita Williams-Garcia, Christine Day, Janae Marks.)
Inspired, she updated the Hmong folktales—“more kid-friendly”—and submitted to North Mankato-based Capstone Publishers, since they don’t require pitching through an agent.
Maybe it was the changing culture. The Twin Cities—home to the country’s largest urban Hmong population—must have helped, too. “On the East Coast, the Hmong community is not very big,” Bidania reasons. Either way, she finally got a “yes.”
Since the door was open, she slipped in another pitch at the bottom of a follow-up email—this one a dream of hers from about five years before.
“Usually you hear back from publishers, like, six months later, maybe two to three years”—but she heard back within 20 minutes: Capstone would love to see realistic fiction about Hmong kids growing up in St. Paul.
In new work slated for August of 2021, Astrid and Apollo will celebrate their birthday together. They’ll compete in Taekwondo, visit a farmers’ market, and play in the school band. Until then, Bidania has a more mature story in mind.
She’s been thinking about mining harder parts of her St. Paul past, for readers 8 to 12—though not as nonfiction, as some have suggested. “I can’t do memoir stuff. I just…” She collects her thoughts. “I think I’m still trying to process all the trauma that I had as a kid growing up here, with all the racism that my family faced, and that I faced.”
The fictional chapter book would follow two Hmong refugee brothers as the older seeks a hero. They may encounter challenges similar to what Bidania faced: name calling, a fire set to the backyard.
“But that’s not the point of the story,” she says. “It’s not going to be another one of those identity immigrant struggle stories. It’s about this boy—he’s trying to find out, What is the meaning of a hero?”
With her pen name, V.T., Bidania tells me she wanted to avoid confusion (Vong is a male name—“it’s like Bob”). But she also wanted to generate ambiguity. “I don’t want people to wonder about this author at all. I just want them to read the stories,” she says, of her maiden-name initials. “They’re like, ‘What the heck is that?’ And then they just read the book.”
At this point, I acknowledge the irony—that I’m writing an article identifying who she is—and ask whether young Hmong readers could benefit to learn about Bidania’s triumph over odds. Maybe, by knowing her story, they could claim her as a hero and think, “I can be a writer, too.”
Bidania considers this.
“I guess I don’t even think so much that someone would say, ‘Maybe I could do that,’” she says, “but maybe somebody could read it and think, ‘I can relate to that, I’ve felt that way, I’ve felt like there isn’t anything out there like this, and kids should see themselves.’”
Her writing recently made a 35-year-old friend of hers cry. In Astrid & Apollo and the Starry Campout, Astrid catches a whiff of shrimp paste while walking past another Hmong family, where a mom smashes something in a bowl. “She’s making papaya salad,” she tells Apollo.
Bidania’s friend asked, “Why didn’t I see something like that when I was 8?”