Vy’s Special Gift by Ha-Giang Trinh, illustrated by Evi Shelvia is on sale now.
By Ha-Giang Trinh
When I joined the workshop Children During the time of COVID-19 organized by Room to Read in June 2020, I thought long and hard about what kind of stories I should write. There were many angles I could take, but which one should I take?
The pandemic’s consequences for children can be dire
Right after the first session where we shared the situation in our home countries, I realized something. The outbreak had made life difficult for many of us. But life had been even more difficult for those who were worse off. A survey in low-income communities by Room to Read shows that one in every two girls is at risk of not returning to school. COVID-19 has affected not only those children’s lives but also their future.
The unsettling reality hit home when I recalled seeing families on the streets in Vietnam struggling to scratch a living. Their children had often helped by selling lottery tickets after school. That was when there were no pandemics. Measures used to suppress the spread of the coronavirus have also suppressed the livelihoods of hundreds, if not thousands, of people and their children in my homeland.
The realization made me choose a rather realistic and melancholic approach for my story, Vy’s Special Gift. I had nearly 40 other ideas where the tone was more lighthearted. But I felt strongly that I should face the matter at hand in the same way that my heroine, and the young and vulnerable children who she represents, have to face.
Yet being dark wasn’t what I aimed for. I wanted to give a glimpse of hope that could inspire and help people pull through. Luckily, I didn’t have to look hard for it. It had already been there very early on as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Vietnam.
Vietnam is where grassroots efforts make a difference
There is a saying in Vietnamese that goes, “A whole leaf wraps a torn leaf.” People often add, “And a torn leaf wraps a crushed leaf.” That means helping those who are less fortunate in whatever way you can. It could be some food for those who need it or donations to people dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes and floods. These grassroots efforts have bonded communities and helped us get through tough times. And there is no exception when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Within one month from the outbreak, there had been multiple locations in Vietnam where people could donate rice for those who needed access to free rice. Some places even had machines giving out rice to comply with social distancing. These machines were invented and donated by local companies. This grassroots effort has eased the pressure to put food on the table for many low-income families.
This was a spark of the hope I was looking for. Only a spark, because when you look at it, there have been many children joining the long lines for rice rations. Some were with their parents because there was no one else looking after them. Some were alone so that their parents could work elsewhere. Their stomachs may be filled today, but tomorrow is uncertain. Getting by every day may become their new normal instead of going to school. Yet the spark of hope can flare, I think, from the children themselves to others around them.
During hardship, generosity is the hardest and also the easiest to show
We can’t do much about the fact that we’re born unequally. But we can choose to treat each other equally with empathy and kindness. Sometimes it’s more challenging to do so, especially when you’re in a difficult situation. You wouldn’t easily direct your attention to something else rather than improving your own situation. However, if there is something that multiplies and benefits both the givers and the receivers, that’s generosity. And it can be the smallest things there are, from the smallest ones of us.
Vy, the heroine of Vy’s Special Gift, was in the position of both the receiver and the giver. She was waiting in line to receive the free rice, and at the same time, she was giving the people around her something that would make their day brighter. She might be one of the “torn leaves” receiving help from the “whole leaves,” but she could give help to the “crushed leaves,” too.
I wanted to make Vy’s actions and other people’s reactions speak for themselves. This is where the magic usually happens. When we do something good for others, the action alone is enough, and sometimes, the reaction makes the deeds all the more fulfilling.
Vy’s Special Gift isn’t all about feeling good. We have a pandemic at hand and I had no intention of downplaying it. There was an important moment in the story where Vy’s generosity was tested. In one way or another, it’s the same kind of challenges we’ve been going through with COVID-19. I hope this underlines the preciousness of kindness during the pandemic. No matter how little an act of empathy is, or how little the doer is, it may be the key to us overcoming this rough time when we all do it.
Ha-Giang has been writing picture books, short stories, comics, and scripts for children for many years. She has a great interest in storytelling for young readers. Born and raised in the Mekong Delta, went to school and worked in big cities, Ha-Giang has conveyed the rich experiences and fresh perspectives she got in her stories for children.