The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 9, No 2 (2005)

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Children's Books For and About the Hmong

Karen Nelson Hoyle


Karen Nelson Hoyle has degrees from St. Olaf College and a Ph.D from the University of Minnesota. She is the Curator of the Children's Literature Research Collections (including the Kerlan and Hess) at the University of Minnesota Libraries. As a professor, Hoyle teaches courses for upper level and graduate students in the History of Children's Literature for the Department of English. Hoyle has lectured at conferences and in conjunction with exhibits nationally and internationally, including in Denmark, Germany, Japan, Norway, the Philippines, Russia, Spain, and Sweden. She served as president of the Children's Literature Association and as chair or member of the ALA's Batchelder, Caldecott, Newbery and Wilder Award committees. Currently she serves on the boards of Minnesota Library Association Foundation and U. S. Board of Books for Young People. She now writes and speaks about immigrants in American children's books.


Children's books for and about the Hmong follow a pattern of the same literary development as those of previous immigrants and refugees who came to the United States of America (U.S.A.). However, their oral language was written down and codified for the first time only recently, in the 1950s. The Hmong arrived in this country only a quarter century later, beginning in large numbers in 1975.

The Hmong had been living in the hills of southern China, Laos. Vietnam and northern Thailand and had helped the U. S.A. during the Vietnam War. Known for their yearning for free living, they wanted to get out from under the communists taking over their homeland. The Hmong fled to Thailand where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees improvised camps, but the Thai government restricted their length of stay. Soon they left for other countries. They became newcomers in Australia, Canada, France, and the U. S. A. Distributed among states somewhat evenly when they arrived in America, they followed their leaders to Colorado, Iowa, Oregon, Montana and Wisconsin, but gravitated especially to the Fresno area of California and the St. Paul area of Minnesota. Currently there are 40,000 in the St. Paul area, with another 6,000 more expected to arrive in 2004-05 for family reunification. Women, with their incredible dexterity with needlework, became electronics employees, while some men became truck drivers and gardeners. Children went to school; books about them followed.

A chronological pattern of publishing occurs for each immigrant group. In a succession, there are hand-made improvised materials, then non-fiction materials including dictionaries and history and culture books, then books by Americans that introduce the community to the newcomers. Immigrant groups retell native folktales in English and create picture books. Finally, newcomers commandeer their ethnic presses.

With the Hmong, Americans first improvised hastily to get information to and from educators and health and social service professionals. These books and booklets might be simple ditto and photocopy or hand-made books.

Publishers produced non-fiction books to explain the language, history and customs of the newcomers to teachers and other interested community people. A bilingual dictionary also became necessary. Dolly Brittan's The Hmong (1997) is a twenty-four page easy-to-read book with an index and a pronunciation guide, such as "Miao (mee-OW), which is the Chinese term for Hmong." It is in a series of six books, "Celebrating the Peoples and Civilizations of Southeast Asia." Another non-fiction book contains photographs of the Hmong in traditional dress. They carry on their daily life and celebrate holidays in Robert Cooper's The Hmong; a Guide to Traditional Lifestyles (1998).

Well-intentioned Americans wanted to introduce the newcomers to the community of readers. Folktales were told to American authors and recorded in English. Linguistics professors, some of whom had lived among the Hmong and knew the language, were interested in recording the spoken language, especially in the genre of folktales. The academic Charles Johnson, from the Linguistic Department at Macalaster College in St. Paul, edited Myths, Legends and Folk Tales From the Hmong of Laos (1985). The first edition was produced simply with no colorful cover, as was made for the later 2nd edition (1992), also published by the department.

Some co-authors credited the Hmong-American contributor as the first named author. Remarkable was Blia Xiong's retelling of a folktale adapted by Cathy Spagnoli and illustrated by Nancy Hom, Nine-in-One-Grr Grr (1989). Its title reflects the plot about a raven who antagonizes a tiger and then is fearful that she will have nine cubs in one year. The art is similar to Hmong stitchery and remains in libraries from its initial publication in 1989. However, other authors did not give Hmong-Americans that honor. A University of Colorado professor gets top billing for Norma J. Livo and Dia Cha's Folk Stories of the Hmong; People of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam (1991). These folktales provide insight into the culture. Nine years later, Dia Cha is listed as primary author on an activity book, Teaching with Folk Stories of the Hmong, an electronic resource.

Peggy Matthews, a teacher of Hmong children in Northern California, wanted them to remember their stories, so she retold one entitled Farmer Boy (1994). She considered this publication a "pattern" that others could follow. The book is illustrated by a Chinese American woman, Kayee Chau. Chau was born in Canton China and attended art schools there and at Otis Larson Art Institute in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the usual colorful Hmong decorations appear as gray half-tones. The description of the farm youngster notes that he wears "a black suit, a red belt, a wide brimmed hat, and carries a water pipe. He also carries a long sharp knife." This is somewhat stereotypical, as this could be characteristic of any Hmong farmer.

Several folktales were highlighted for their similarity to stories familiar to the Westerner. For example, in Ai-Ling Louie's Yeh Shen; a Cinderella Story from China (1982) there is a significant shoe. It was illustrated by Chinese-born American Ed Young whose later book won the prestigious Caldecott Award for the most distinguished art in children's books. The artist verified that he based his drawings on the Hmong or Main people. However, the art does not incorporate typical "pa nap" [=pan dou'; story cloth] into the illustrations.

A later Cinderella story was adapted by Jewell Reinhart Coburn, with Tzexa Cherta Lee, entitled Jouanah, a Hmong Cinderella (1996). Jouanah must work with housekeeping in the beginning of the story, similar to Cinderella in the western tradition, but she also is assigned outside chores. Illustrator Anne Sibley O'Brien frequently draws books with Asian settings, as she worked as a designer in Korea.

Another story is a romance made familiar by Shakespeare, interpreted in classical ballet and popularized in West Side Story. Rosalie Giacchino-Baker does a retelling in The Story of Mah; a Hmong "Romeo and Juliet" Folktale (1995). In this folktale story, a couple meets in the forest and pledge troth, but the woman must succumb to a marriage arranged by her parents. However, the man dies, followed by the woman's death. There is no explanation of how each died and no suggestion of suicide.

Four books — The Ant and the Elephant, The Hmong People and the Turtle, The Orphan and the Rich Boy and The Stepmother and the Three Children — are school books printed in identical format in 1994. They are proposed by the publisher to be read in the Look-Listen method of shared reading, the English speaker pointing to the words in English as a Second Language learner follows along silently. They are written by Vangtou Xiong X Toyed and illustrated by Gerri Graber-Wilson. Each concludes with a moral, such as "Anyone who lives without leaders and rules will not be protected," and have sections "Fun with Words" and "Fun with Pictures."

The photographer Randy Snook acknowledged five Hmong-Americans who assisted him in staging the photographs for the book Many Ideas Open the Way; A Collection of Hmong Proverbs (2002). The twenty proverbs are interpreted by children wearing traditional dress and involved in appropriate activities. Four of them are as follows.

"In the thick jungle, one tree is the tallest; in a group of cousins, one person is the smartest."

"In the thick jungle, one tree is the biggest; in a group of cousins one person is the leader."

"Fish follow the river; no rivers ever follow the fish".

"Tangled hair: see a comb to unsnarl it.
Complicated dispute: ask an elder to solve it."

American-born authors also gathered information about refugee experiences, real life stories, and retold them as fiction. Pegi Dietz Shea is responsible for two books. For The Whispering Cloth (1995), the illustrator is an American, Anita Riggio, but the embroidery incorporated into the book is given credit to a Hmong-American; the title page notes "Stitched by You Yang".

Shea's second book about this subject is longer. Tangled Threads; a Hmong Girl's Story was published in 2003. It is narrated in first person by Mai Yang, beginning with the setting of an unnamed refugee camp in Thailand to moving to an unnamed town in the U. S.A. The American author lives in Rockland, Connecticut. She visited a refugee camp in 1989 and has a number of Hmong-American friends.

Intended for younger children, Elmira K. Beyer's My Lee Comes to America (1997) is described on the back cover.

My Lee and her family came to the United States after the fall of Viet Nam. The new language and ways of life were very strange. To find happiness in their new home, the family had to decide what to keep of their old ways and what to change.
In this book there are a number of episodes reflecting what Americans know about the Hmong culture. On page two, the reader learns about the Xiong clan. In its seventy-four pages, the author moves forward an ambitious plot. Episodes include the protagonist's arrival in the U. S. A., respect for elders, experiencing graffiti on houses, difficult adjustment to school life, school library with book by a Laotian-American author, the grooming of cousin to become Hmong American leader, friendship with African American Lashanda, and clashes with parents, including work life at home, trying to balance washing dishes, studying embroidery, and learning to play the violin.

My Lee adjusts to her new environment. Social worker Mr. Hudson from school visits her family. A shaman sacrifices a chicken at the back door in order for a neighbor to receive western medical treatment. The protagonist compromises by wearing gym clothes under her school clothes because she can't undress in front of others. The family moves to a new house, thereby forcing the girl to leave her familiar school, a teacher who befriended her, and her new-found friend. The cover art by J. Ellen Dolce is inaccurate and misleading, for the girl has light brown hair instead of black; there are no interior drawings to describe her further as a Hmong American.

Michelle Edwards, then living in St. Paul, Minnesota, observed her own children attending an elementary school and becoming acquainted with Hmong-American children. She captures contemporary life of the Hmong girl, Pa Lia in a book she both wrote and illustrated, Pa Lia's First Day (1999).

Finally, the newest development is books and publications by the Hmong-Americans themselves as they take charge of their folktales, picture books, and the ethnic press. Mai Neng Nous edited Bamboo Among the Oaks; Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans (2002). Hmongland Publishing Company, headed by Yuepheng, announced its first publication in May of 2004. Their first release was Dr. Gary Y. Lee's Dust of Life; A True Ban Vinai Love Story. Somewhat autobiographical, it describes the incredulity of a man when a young woman declined the hand of a Hmong man she had seemed to love; in the revealing of her story, she had been raped earlier and thought it would bring shame to him.

An ethnic press in the language of the people continues in its impact. In St. Paul, Hmong Times; The Newspaper of the Hmong Community with articles in English and Hmong is in its seventh year and is issued monthly. Another development is the Hmong bookstore founded by a woman on University Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota. The store is named Hmong Arts, Books, and Crafts, and also sells books about other parts of Asia.

The Minnesota Humanities Commission embarked on a project to publish a group of books with three languages in columns--White Hmong, Green Hmong, and English. Among these are Nine-in-One-Grr Grr and Dia's Story Cloth. Dia's Story Cloth seems to be a group project. It is written by Dia Cha, stitched by her aunt Chue and Nhia Thao Cha (a man). Joyce Herold, Curator of Ethnology at the Denver Museum of Natural History, wrote a compendium. A large-size edition has White and Green Hmong dialects along with English and is a joint project of Lee & Low Books, the Denver Museum of Natural History, and Minnesota Humanities Commission.

Works Cited

Beyer, Elmira K. My Lee Comes to America. Unionville, NY: Royal Fireworks Press, 1997.

Brittan, Dolly . The Hmong. New York: Powerkids Press, 1997.

Cha, Dia. Dia's Story Cloth. New York: Lee &Low, 2002.

Coburn, Jewell Reinhart with Texans Cherta Lee, adapt. Jouanah, a Hmong Cinderella. Illus. Anne Sibley O'Brien. Freemont, Ca: Shen's Books, 1996.

_____. Ntsuag Nos: Ib Tug Cinderella Hmoob. Jean Moua, Tr.

Cooper, Robert, Editor. The Hmong; A Guide to Traditional Lifestyles. Singapore: Time Editions, 1998.

Edwards, Michelle. Pa Lia's First Day. San Diego, Harcourt, 1999.

Giacchino-Baker, Rosalie. The Story of Mah; a Hmong "Romeo and Juliet" Folktale. El Monte, CA: Pacific Asia Press, 1995.

Johnson, Charles, Ed. Myths, Legends and Folk Tales from the Hmong of Laos. 2nd ed. St. Paul, MN: Macalaster College Linguistic Department, 1992.

Lee, G[ary]. Y. Dust of Life; a True Ban Vinai Love Story. St. Paul, MN: Hmongland Publishing Company, 2004.

Livo, Norma J. and Dia Cha. Folk Stories of the Hmong; People of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Englewood, Co: Libraries Unlimited, 1991.

Louie, Ai-Ling. Yeh Shun; a Cinderella Story from China. Illustrated by Ed Young. New York, Philomel, 1982.

Matthews, Peggy. Farmer Boy. Covina, CA: Pacific Asia Press, 1994.

Moua, Mai Neng, Ed. Bamboo Among the Oaks; Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 2002.

Shea, Pegi Dietz. Tangled Threads; a Hmong Girl's Story. New York: Clarion, 2003.

----------. The Whispering Cloth. Illus. Anita Riggio. Stitched by You Yang. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press, 1995.

Snook, Randy. Many Ideas Open the Way; A Collection of Hmong Proverbs. Freemont, CA: Open Way, 2002.

Toyed, Vangtou Xiong X. The Ant and the Elephant. Illustrated by Gerri Graber-Wilson Spokane, WA: Vanger Books, 1994.

---------- . The Hmong People and the Turtle. Illustrated by Gerri Graber-Wilson Spokane, WA: Vanger Books, 1994.

---------- . The Orphan and the Rich Boy. Illustrated by Gerri Graber-Wilson Spokane, WA: Vanger Books, 1994.

---------- . The Stepmother and the Three Children. Illustrated by Gerri Graber-Wilson Spokane, WA: Vanger Books, 1994.

Xiong, Blia. Nine-in-One-Grr Grr (Cuaj Tug-Ib-Xyoos Mlaug Mlaud ). Adapted by Cathy Spagnoli. Illustrated by Nancy Hom. San Francisco, CA: Children's Book Press, 1989.

 

Karen Nelson Hoyle


Volume 9, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, 2 April, 2005

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"Children's Books For and About the Hmong"
© Karen Nelson Hoyle, 2005.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680