There once was a woman named Ka Vang who had hair like polished black granite and a love for stories and many things Hmong.
And so she wrote a story in the Hmong folk tale tradition about a dragon and a little Hmong girl who grew up in a place called Frogtown in St. Paul, a launching point for generations of immigrants.
Only, unlike the folk tales her mother told her as a child, Vang’s story not only celebrates her heritage, but also may help toward bridging the academic achievement gap between Caucasians and children of color.
Recruiting authors and illustrators to create culturally relevant books to keep children reading is the idea behind the Reading Together Book Project spearheaded by the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans and supported by Minnesota taxpayers through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Thanks to that program, author Vang paired up with book illustrator Aimee Hagerty Johnson to produce “Shoua and the Northern Lights Dragon,’’ a chapter book geared for third grade and older children. So did May Lee Yang, who wrote “The Imaginary Day,’’ which was illustrated by Anne Sawyer-Aitch.
“If people see themselves reflected in a book or movies or music, they’re more engaged,’’ says Vang in explaining why she wrote her story about a little Hmong-American girl who — not unlike its author – struggles to preserve her heritage yet yearns to rise above traditional gender roles in the Hmong culture.
The more engaged children are, Vang continues, the more they read and the better readers they become. We all know how important reading is to learning.
The 2012 literature project, which resulted in the publication of 1,700 soft-cover books of each title, was designed to reflect the culture, heritage and pride of Asian Pacific Minnesotans, explains Casey DeMarais, director of programs at the Minnesota Humanities Center.
The books were donated to elementary school classrooms earlier this year, but copies are available print on demand through Lulu for about $5 a copy.
The winning writers and illustrators for the 2013 Reading Together Project will be announced soon. Their books are expected to be available in August.
Vang’s writing centers on her Hmong- American experience. From her work: “I am the extraordinary Hmong… rice paddy eyes…hair long, black, like the Mekong….”
She came to the United States from Laos with her family when she was 5, beginning her career as a journalist with the St. Paul Pioneer Press and elsewhere, but now at 37 is blossoming as poet, playwright and spoken artist as this Twin Cities Public Television video demonstrates:
To open a book and “see somebody with the same face” is important, stresses Vang.
That contrasts with her own upbringing when American publishers produced the works of the majority white culture. And though she cherished E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web’’ and other classics, she and other children of color longed to see faces like theirs in children’s literature, she says.
Publishers now realize the importance of diversity. In Minnesota, for instance, the Hmong make up the largest Asian population, about 27 percent of all Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, according to a U.S. Census report released last year.
Opened her eyes
Though a great reader through her childhood, Vang says it took reading “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts” by Maxine Hong Kingston for a literature class at the University of Minnesota to open her eyes to the experience of being an Asian-American woman.
“It filled me with a sense of completeness and pride. It validated my world view of being an Asian woman whose voice had not always been heard at times in my life,’’ says Vang, who spent most of her life in Frogtown, an area of St. Paul near the state Capitol, but now lives in Eagan.
In her story, Vang incorporates the Hmong folk tale tradition to teach right and wrong and culture.
She tells me how her ancestors left China, where her people had been forbidden to use the written language so instead incorporated written symbols in their art and clothing. She says her personal history plays into her current position as diversity programs director in the Office of Diversity and Equity for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System as well as her writing.
“She writes with the voice of the child in the story. It speaks directly to the children,’’ says Judith E. Mitzuk, a reading specialist at Frost Lake Magnet School of Technology and Global Studies in St. Paul where Vang recently spoke to students and conducted writing seminars in connection with her book.
Every child in the third through sixth grade received a copy and it was clear that in that school, which has a large number of Hmong students, the book was “extremely powerful,’’ Mitzuk attests.
Children “take pride in someone who looks like them, sounds like them. It’s a message that no matter who you are culturally or racially, we need to stand firm in who we are,’’ Mitzuk said.