By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome V.T. Bidania to the WNDB blog to discuss her chapter book series Astrid and Apollo. The first four chapter books are out August 1, 2020!
Astrid is afraid of the dark and doesn’t want to go on her family camping trip. But her twin brother, Apollo, is excited. When they encounter scary things such as crawly bugs and the creepy dark, Apollo helps his twin through them. And when they encounter the scariest thing of all, Astrid might just be the one to save the starry campout.
It’s the twins’ first time fishing. Astrid and Apollo can’t wait to ride on their Uncle Lue’s fast boat and get goofy pictures with all the fish they catch. But Apollo keeps catching things that are not fish! When a storm brings them to shore, Apollo starts to feel like he’s a fishing failure. Can the twins turn the day around and help Apollo find the fun in fishing?
At the Hmong July Fourth Soccer Festival, Astrid and Apollo are excited to join their dad as he watches his favorite soccer team compete. But when they have to babysit their little sister, Eliana, too, they don’t know what snack she keeps asking for. To keep her from crying, they buy almost everything they see at the festival. Will they end up with a whole stroller full of yummy food?
Dressed in their traditional New Year clothes, Astrid and Apollo attend the Hmong New Year Festival. While at the noisy and jam-packed celebration, they accidentally become separated from their family and end up lost in the crowds. Follow along on their adventure as they try to find their way back to their mom, dad, and little sister, Eliana.
The Astrid and Apollo series of chapter books are among very few representations of Hmong American kids in mainstream children’s literature. Why is it important for Hmong children to see themselves in books? What were you most excited about contributing to this gap in literature?
Hmong people are rarely included in mainstream literature and are often left out of the Asian American experience. When we are visible in popular media, the representation is often negative or inaccurate. Or it tends to be a sad and struggling refugee/immigrant narrative. Many Hmong American children today are second-, third-, or even fourth-generation and might not relate to those stories and experiences. While we want Hmong children to understand our history as war refugees and know about the many, many hardships our people have faced, it’s also important for them to see themselves in happy stories. They shouldn’t have to associate being Hmong only with pain. This is why I wrote the series, so Hmong children can see themselves represented accurately and authentically. I’m excited for Hmong kids to read my books and finally see themselves having fun—playing, joking, laughing, participating in activities that kids usually participate in—and just being regular kids (because they are)!
I don’t think I could have published this series ten or even five years ago. For a very long time, I dreamed of writing realistic fiction chapter books starring Hmong children. But when I first started submitting my work, the response I received was often the same: There was no place in the market for my writing because no one would read Hmong stories. Everywhere I turned, this was the message I was given. At one point, I tried writing books not centered on the Hmong experience, but this didn’t feel entirely authentic to what I wanted to do. Eventually, I became so discouraged that I stopped querying. Then, because of organizations like We Need Diverse Books, the long-overdue shift for diverse representation began to take shape and more diverse books were publishing. About two years ago, I tried again and finally, found a publisher and an agent who see value in my stories. I’ve been writing for Hmong children for as long as I can remember and now I can share my books with readers at last.
Furthermore, in light of what is happening in the country and around the world at this very moment (Black Lives Matter protests, hate crimes against Asians from COVID-19, children being stolen from families at the border, injustices against Native peoples, Islamophobia, and more), diverse representation is more important than ever. All classrooms should have these books so that children will be able to read about characters from all backgrounds and who are not the blue-eyed blonds, forest animals, and fire trucks they are used to seeing.
Astrid and Apollo are twins and they have a younger sister, Eliana. Why did you want your protagonists to be twins and how does it change the family dynamic that they have a young sibling? How does Eliana factor into their adventures?
I originally wrote Astrid and Apollo as siblings with Apollo being a year older. When they evolved into twins, it worked out, especially with the art because I think they look adorably alike. Eliana is based on the youngest child in many families I know. I think the dynamics work well because, as the baby in the family, she often acts as the comic relief, and sometimes she helps drive the plot forward.
The illustrator on this series, Dara Lashia Lee, is also Hmong American. Was it important to you and your publisher to have a Hmong illustrator?
I am fortunate that my publisher prefers to work with Own Voices illustrators for their many Own Voices projects. It’s really important that details like Hmong food and clothing can be drawn accurately. Diverse representation can’t work if it’s not accurate. Additionally, I’m happy that my books created an opportunity for a Hmong artist to work on a Hmong-related project.
Astrid and Apollo have four books published at once, with their adventures camping, fishing, celebrating soccer, and enjoying the Hmong New Year. Is there anything you can tell us about upcoming books and some of the adventures you hope to see these two go on as the series continues?
The next books in the series will publish Fall 2021 and will show Astrid and Apollo celebrating their birthdays and spending time with their grandmother at the farmers market, among other things. I hope readers will follow along and get to know and love these characters. I sure do!
Are there any authors, kidlit or otherwise, whose work inspires you? What books did you grow up reading? Did you have a favorite chapter book series as a kid?
I’ll try and narrow down my list of kidlit authors whose work inspires me. I will read anything by Erin Entrada Kelly, Rita Williams-Garcia, Stacey Lee, Gene Luen Yang, Jasmine Warga, and Elizabeth Acevedo. I recently read Any Day with You by Mae Respicio and From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks, and I’m in the middle of I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day and Midsummer’s Mayhem by Rajani LaRocca right now, and I love these novels too.
I grew up reading the books that most authors in my generation did, such as Charlotte’s Web and other books by E.B. White, A Wrinkle in Time, The Narnia Chronicles, A Little Princess, Nancy Drew, most of Katherine Paterson’s novels, the Ramona books and anything else by Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume’s books, and the list goes on. I also read books that I probably shouldn’t have at my young age. I took my older sister’s copies of Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord and The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck and read those in secret. They weren’t really kid-appropriate but they took place in China and I was craving anything semi-related to my Asian background so I devoured those novels in just days. I was a huge fan of the Betsy-Tacy series and The Boxcar Children.
The books include sections at the back such as information on Hmong people and culture, popular Hmong foods, glossaries, and reading prompts. Why did you want to include these? Is there anything you haven’t been able to include in a book in the series that you’d like to include as the series continues (such as Hmong games, fashion, folklore, etc.)?
Many of Capstone’s chapter book series include these sections, so I was excited to share details about the Hmong people that many readers might not know. I was a little disappointed we had to cut an activity section from the back of the books though! We ran out of space because I had too many facts and Hmong terms I wanted to include. Something tricky that came up was the use of Hmong words in the text. At first, my editor and I weren’t sure if we should spell the words in Hmong, or phonetically in English because they would have been difficult for readers who have no knowledge of the Hmong language to sound out. This would have been especially challenging for beginning readers. In the end, we went with phonetic spellings and provided the Hmong spellings and pronunciations under the Hmong Terms section.
There are so many things I would love to write about in the books, from Hmong folklore, games and history, to traditions and ceremonies. Wait and see!
What books do you see the Astrid and Apollo series as being in conversation with? Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming kidlit books?
Other early reader chapter books like Sadiq by Siman Nuurali, Meet Yasmin by Saadia Faruqi, and The Amazing Life of Azaleah Lane by Nikki Shannon Smith would appeal to readers of Astrid and Apollo. These Own Voices series are also published by Capstone and would be great for readers to read along with Astrid and Apollo, particularly Sadiq, which is about a Somali American boy who lives in Minnesota too. I know that if Sadiq were to go to school with Astrid and Apollo, they would instantly be friends. These characters remind me very much of actual students I knew when I worked in the Minnesota schools.
I highly recommend Christina Soontornvat’s middle-grade novel, A Wish in the Dark. This stunning book takes place in Thailand. Southeast Asians are not often represented in kidlit so it was refreshing to read a story set in Thailand, which is next to my home country of Laos. I haven’t been able to visit Laos yet, but I’ve traveled to Thailand with my parents several times throughout the years and it holds a special place in our hearts because it is so close to Laos. This novel perfectly captures the spirit, energy and beauty of Thailand. I would tell anyone who wants to read a magical book set in Southeast Asia to read A Wish in the Dark.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
Question: What is the dream project you want to work on?
My answer: I’ve always thought of writing an epic Hmong folk tale-inspired novel spanning centuries about reincarnation. This would probably be young adult and involve some romance. That’s my dream novel but I have too many other chapter books and middle grade books I want to write first!
V.T. Bidania was born in Laos and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. When she was five years old, she wrote her first story about a frog that jumped over a pond and completed it with a crayon illustration. She has been writing ever since. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and received a Mirrors and Windows Fellowship from the Loft Literary Center. She once worked on a martial arts movie and can be seen in a one-second clip where she is fighting for her life—literally. She lives outside of the Twin Cities with her family.
Alaina Leary (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.