“A Different Pond”‘s Bao Phi and Thi Bui in Conversation

Thi Bui and Bao Phi.
The poet and illustrator of the Caldecott Honor children's book discuss growing up Vietnamese American and why they became artists.

A Different Pond, a children’s book about a Vietnamese American refugee family in Minnesota, recently won a Caldecott Honor. The book is written by Bao Phi and illustrated by Thi Bui. Below, they talk about what the award means, the real struggles of being an artist, and their perspective on Asian American media.

—Momo Chang

Firstly, congratulations on the Caldecott Honor for A Different Pond! What does the Caldecott mean for you and for A Different Pond?

Bao Phi: It’s a terrific honor, specifically for Thi! The Caldecott recognizes primarily the illustrator, and this is a very well deserved nod for her.

Thi Bui: The Caldecott is one of the few things about children’s literature that I knew before getting involved in this world. I remember the stickers helped me pick out good books from the library when I was a kid and didn’t have an adult there guiding me. It’s such an honor to have that helping hand connecting A Different Pond to more kids from now on.

Can you tell us how the two of you first met or how you came across each others’ work?

BP: I had heard about Thi through various community members, and was a fan. I was so thrilled when our publisher, Capstone, asked her, and she said yes.

TB: All the cool poets I know are friends with or fans of Bao! I read and loved the manuscript before I knew it was Bao’s. When I found out, it was a very simple decision to say yes.

Writer Bao Phi and Illustrator Thi Bui Win Caldecott Honor for “A Different Pond.”

When did you realize you wanted to create a children’s bookand this age and medium in particular for this storyand what was your inspiration?

BP: For me, being a father who read to his daughter every night. I want her to learn about families from all walks of life, from different cultures and races and non-gender conforming families. I noticed there was very few children’s books that addressed working class Asian American issues, and more specifically, Viet American refugee stories seemed very rare. A lot of the Asian themed books seemed to be more about folktales than the lived experience of Asian Americans.

TB: A colleague of mine once explained to kids that what an artist does is notice or figure out what’s missing, and then they make it. I love me some folktales, but usually not Vietnamese ones, and I think it’s because growing up, they usually made me feel like something else was lacking. Bao hit the nail on the head in identifying the aspects of my lived experience that didn’t feel acknowledgedthe working class realities, the quiet sadness, and the understated resilience that really formed my values as a child growing up in immigrant America.

What do you hope people get out of reading A Different Pond?

BP: I think Chad Everett said it best in his essay, Windows and Mirrors.

TB: I was thinking about parents who read books to their children, as well as the kids who might be reading A Different Pond on their own. I hope that some of them are seeing themselves in it, and that other folks can appreciate a window in. Honestly though, it’s a message in a bottle. We put all the love and meaning into it we could, and what meaning people get out of it when it reaches them has so much to do with their own circumstances and headspace that all you can do is just hope it does something, anything.

Why were each of you drawn to the creative fields of writing, illustrating and expression? Was there a particular moment when you said, “I want to be a poet or illustrator?”

BP: I had been reading books and writing since I was very, very young, but I didn’t start in poetry until high school. I was a young, artistically inclined Vietnamese refugee raised in the hood that was beginning to learn and be involved in social justice movements, trying to make sense of racism, classism, many of the -isms – at the same time as the first Persian Gulf war, Reagonomics, the crack epidemic, police brutality. Poetry was an affordable, available avenue to voice my opinions. Back then I didn’t think I was entering a “field” or “career.” I was just writing and performing poems. I didn’t think you could get paid for it or anything.

TB: I think I have always wanted to write and draw, but it took until pretty recently for it to feel like a viable option to make a living at it.

Author and illustrator Thi Bui, left, with her mother, at CAAMFest 2017. Photo by Gabe Chewy.

For Thi: Artistically, how did you find your style of illustrating? Do you use brush, pen, pencil, watercolor, etc?

TB: I spend less time drawing than I probably should, so what comes out tends to be the best I can do rather than the by-product of a robust studio practice. I used the watercolor brushes and sumi ink that I had been using for my comics work in The Best We Could Do. I had been drawing Vietnamese people for awhile so I mostly kept the same style. Because Bao and I are the same age, I could treat this story like a parallel to my own, happening in another part of the US but at the same time. What was different was working in full color for the first time. I was worried about messing up original art pages, so I colored digitally and experimented a lot with colors and textures to figure them out.

Who inspires you? Are there mentors or people you looked up to, growing up, or currently? Are there other artists, writers, filmmakers, etc. who we should be looking to?

BP: Absolutely. I love the arts, and there are way too many artists I respect and owe thanks to, to mention here. That would be an entire article in itself. Special shout out goes to David Mura, Diego Vazquez Jr, and Diane Glancy. Tons of Minnesota children’s lit people have been supportive of me as well.

TB: Everyone inspires me. I follow pretty much every artistic Vietnamese person I meet who also seems to be trying to make the world a better place. In my memoir I thank three women who helped me learn how to research, write, and draw: Dipti Desai, a professor in art education at NYU, the writer Fae Myenne Ng, and the sculptor Jane Rosen.

How do you see Asian American mediawhether film, TV, books or artchanging over the years?

BP: You know, it’s 2018, and I was watching Altered Carbon, a new Netflix sci-fi show, and it’s Asian-guy’s-soul-trapped-in-a-lead-white-male’s body. We got a long way to go. But I will say, there seems to be not only more Vietnamese American writers nowadays, but also a *diversity* of Vietnamese American writers, both aesthetically and representationally.

TB: These are funny times. You can be surrounded by amazing, trailblazing Asian American writers and artists one day and the next day, you’re the only Asian American in the room and someone on TV is telling a racist joke you heard in the 80s. I think we still need to be angry and loud and very, very visible, because there’s a long way to go and there’s always a backlash. But we can also be sneaky and just, you know, overwhelm people with our prolific diversity and extreme tenaciousness.

Do you have any advice for people going into the creative field? And for people who want to publish children’s books?

BP: If you’re a poet, have a job that will pay the bills. Seriously. There’s very little money in poetry. Write poetry only if you need to, and do it because you want to. For children’s bookswhat story do you have to tell, that is unique, but has a broad appeal?

TB: Make art for the love of it and for the people you love. In this country, it’s not an industry that rewards most people with a living wage. Have a day job so you don’t have to sell your integrity in the work that you love. But once you do crack open the opportunities that exist, value yourself and your work. Talk to other people in your field. Find a supportive community and lift each other up.

What are ways in which folks can support poets, writers, illustrators and artists?

BP: You can support us by buying our work, paying us for our time and visits, and understanding our struggle. When an artist comes to you with a book, or a talk, or a reading, their work is not simply within the confines of that visit. That visit represents hours upon years upon decades of work—editing, progressing, maintaining, growing. If you look like an ice skater, do you assume what they present in that 2 minutes in the arena is all they are? Of course not—they’ve drilled for hours to be able to get there.

TB: Don’t wait for them to become famous or classics to get behind them. Support the new artists and writers you come across as they’re working to achieve recognition. That’s how you’ll help diversify and transform our culture through the arts.

Do you envision more children’s books for you down the line?

BP: I hope so!

TB: Heck yeah.