Educators at several St. Paul schools with large Hmong populations struggled to find materials in their own language and with portrayals of Hmong culture and history.
So May Lee Xiong and Bounthavy Kiatoukaysy of Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School began writing their own and having them published by St. Paul Public Schools. “Zab and Txiv Huab Tais” is about a trickster and a king. “Noj Mov Tshaav Puam” depicts what people eat at a Hmong market — purple sticky rice, deep fried chicken, papaya salad; it is a version of a traditional American book with pizza and ice cream.
“There is a huge need within that area of instruction,” said Xiong, a dual immersion coach. “Within the Hmong community there is not a ton of materials, especially for little kids.”
With 51 percent of America’s public elementary and secondary school children from racial minority groups, educators and parents have raised concerns that the books aimed at them still mostly feature white characters. The national conversation about bringing more diversity to children’s books has taken on additional complexities in the Twin Cities, where children of Somali, Hmong, Karen and Ethiopian immigrants and refugees form large communities that are not well-represented in most of the U.S.
Books reflecting their languages and culture can be hard to find even abroad. Xiong said several teachers went to Laos and Thailand but struggled to find books written in Hmong, even when the characters were Hmong; the language’s written form only dates to the 1950s, when it adapted the Roman alphabet.
The St. Paul Public Library took the unusual step several years ago of publishing books that catered to the growing number of Karen refugees, a persecuted ethnic minority from Myanmar, formerly Burma, that came to storytime programs. Karen authors in St. Paul, Win World and Saw Powder, wrote “The Elephant Huggy” and “The Hen and the Badger” in Karen and English. The library followed with “Teach Me to Love,” a children’s book about adult and baby animals by Denise Brennan-Nelson written in the Ethiopian languages of Oromo and Amharic.
Push for diverse characters
This year the library is working to publish a work of Karen folktales and another book of Karen songs.
“It was very important for us to produce and publish books in these languages that were oppressed so they can see the symbolism: Your language is valuable, your language is important, your language is rich, and you can share that language with your child,” said community services coordinator Pang Yang.
Teacher Mariam Mohamed has struggled to find books for her students at Dugsi Academy, a St. Paul charter school serving children of East African descent. Though she praised popular Somali folktale books such as “Dhegdheer” and “Wiil Waal,” she wanted to see more about the experience of Somali kids growing up in America. But she saw that black characters in books were usually African-American rather than African immigrants.
Mohamed wrote “Ayeeyo’s Golden Rule” about a Somali-American girl who overcomes bullying at school. She drew from her upbringing as a young immigrant who wore a hijab in a mostly white school where other Somali students were scarce. Mohamed found solace in reading books growing up but noticed that they didn’t reflect her experiences of struggling to fit in with a foreign accent and clothes.
Most of the girls in her classroom at the Dugsi Academy wear hijabs and related to the protagonist Ayeeyo, according to Mohamed. At the request of students, she’s working on a book about a Somali-American boy grappling with peer pressure. Her books are in English.
“I’m not writing just for students of color,” said Mohamed. “African children, white, black, all children deserve to learn about their peers’ experience.”
Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin calculated that out of 3,703 children’s books it received last year, 402 were about Africans or African-Americans, 52 were about American Indians, 309 were about Asian-Americans and 251 were about Latinos. Center librarian Merri Lindgren said that in the past five or so years, diversity in children’s books is staying at the top of conversations in the industry.
“There is certainly lots of room for growth in publishing in those areas and a huge demand for it,” said Lindgren. She added: “Sometimes you have to go beyond just the books you might find at Barnes and Noble and you need to find books that smaller publishers are putting out.”
Minneapolis-based publisher Lerner Books is working on a range of racially diverse books. Last month, it published “Let ‘Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion,” the story of an African-American cowboy, and “I Am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon.” In October it will publish “A Map into the World,” a picture book by Kao Kalia Yang featuring a Hmong-American girl who seeks out beauty in the world around her and forms a connection with a grieving elderly neighbor.
“We’ve been increasing our publishing on some of those topic areas,” editor in chief Andy Cummings said regarding the region’s refugee population.
Preserving the language
The St. Paul school district, which has two Hmong dual immersion schools, sees value in not just telling cultural stories, but telling them in the native language.
Phalen Lake Assistant Principal Sue Vang said that when she went to see her uncle in Laos a decade ago, he told her, “We’re hoping when our language is gone, you people in America will be able to conserve the Hmong language for us,” and noted that people were moving into cities where children learned to speak Lao, not Hmong.
“Ten or 20 years from now, I don’t know how much of that original language will be left, so if it’s not captured in print I think it really will be lost,” said Xiong, the Hmong author.
She and Thao, a community culture specialist, have come up with nearly 300 titles for the school district over the years, soliciting ideas from the Hmong community about proverbs, folktales, poetry and other stories for children. They’re working with illustrators to release a dozen new titles this year and sharing them with a group of teachers for revisions. Xiong said they’re also trying to do digital versions that children can read on iPads.
They’ve thought about representation in other ways, too. One book about an orphan girl who finds silver and gold is based on a Hmong folktale with a male protagonist. They changed the gender because they wanted students to see more girls as characters.
“Students see themselves in these books,” said Vang.