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[Monday Reading] Thi Bui’s Evocative Art in her Graphic Novel Memoir “The Best We Could Do” and Bao Phi’s “A Different Pond”


It's Monday! What Are You Reading

Myra here.

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community.

Before I share my reviews this week, a few updates! We are hosting a Literary Voyage Around the World Reading Challenge for 2018. Do join us and sign up here in our Announcement Page which also contains detailed guidelines if you so decide to participate.

We will be giving away the following book prizes quarterly (with special thanks to Pansing) for those who have committed to reading the world along with us!

I hope you do decide to join our Literary Voyage Around the World Reading Challenge 2018. It’s bound to be fun fun fun!

This post is unique as I am pairing a picturebook and a graphic novel together. Both stories depict the Vietnamese-American refugee experience.

A Different Pond

Written By: Bao Phi Illustrated by: Thi Bui
Published by: Picture Window Books, 2017
ISBN: 1479597465 (ISBN13: 9781479597468)Borrowed from Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

I did not expect this book to affect me the way it did, but it was like a zing through my heart. By and large, it is a simple story about a boy and his father going fishing very early in the morning.

While for many people, fishing may be a recreational activity, or even a kind of ‘sport’ for others – for this family, it is a necessity. The fish that father and son would catch would be the family’s meal for dinner.

There were also a few lines that spoke to me deeply, particularly in the use of language as the young boy took a different kind of pride and acceptance with the way his father spoke English:

A kid at my school said my dad’s English sounds like a thick, dirty river.

But to me his English sounds like gentle rain.

Too often, narratives depict second-generation immigrants to be ashamed of their parents, or apologetic, and even on occasion, a bit defensive given how distinct their family’s linguistic or cultural patterns may be from their adopted country. I never had that sense in this beautiful picturebook that was resonant, honest, and simple but never simplistic in its telling. It was unadorned, and there you find those rare glimpses of beauty between father-and-son that tug at the heartstrings.

Based on poet Bao’s experiences as a young child growing up in Minnesota who came with his family as Vietnamese refugees in 1975, this is a searingly-quiet portrait of a family struggling to survive in a foreign country. It is an ode to untiring work, perseverance that did not aim to prove a point except merely to survive, and remarkable grit allowing a family to grow and thrive in a place where everything seems unfamiliar, yet at the same time, home.

The Best We Could Do

Written and Illustrated By: Thi Bui
Published by: Harry Abrams, 2017
ISBN: 1419718770 (ISBN13: 9781419718779)Literary Awards: Reading Women Award Nominee for Nonfiction (2017). Borrowed from Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

If I was taken by Thi Bui’s art in A Different Pond, this graphic novel memoir completely blew me away. While I borrowed this book from the library for our current reading theme, this is one title that I definitely have to buy and own for myself.

The story begins with Thi Bui giving birth to her son in the United States. She chronicled her difficulties as a first-time mother as she grapples with the responsibility of being a parent, and at the same time looking back on what she had been as a child. Her motherhood provided her that space to regard her parents in a different light, unflattering and glaring on occasion, but also gentle and embracing at the same time.

In her attempts to find something within her to give to her hungry, wide-eyed, exploring son, she found herself going back to her own childhood, examining her country of birth and her family’s history as it was inextricably interwoven into Vietnam’s history as a country.

What I knew about the Vietnam war could perhaps be summed up with what I know about the play Miss Saigon, whose lead role was performed by multi-award-winning Filipina, Lea Salonga. I didn’t know what it truly meant for their country to be occupied by the French, and to have been torn asunder between Communist China and the United States whose benevolent and well-meaning intentions were riddled with thousands of dead people in the streets.

There were a few illustrations that I simply could not stop looking at. It reminded me so much of rural Philippines, my mother’s city, and the many full-moon nights close to the sea and my uncles’ fields/farms, I could almost smell the night air and taste the moon:

Perhaps what struck me the most as well was how Thi characterized how voiceless the Vietnamese were when seen from the Western news’ depiction of the war, and what was ostensibly going on in their country:

What she has accomplished here is more than just a personal or a family memoir – it is a homage to her country of birth, Vietnam, its beautiful people, its ravaged and war-torn cities. Through this heartbreaking illustrated narrative, she is able to finally provide a voice to the disempowered, the voiceless, the silenced ones – including her parents who struggled to make the best of what they had, given their circumstances. This is a must-read.
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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

15 comments on “[Monday Reading] Thi Bui’s Evocative Art in her Graphic Novel Memoir “The Best We Could Do” and Bao Phi’s “A Different Pond”

  1. Thanks for sharing these graphic novels. I’m always looking for new ones to explore and recommend to my students.


  2. A Different Pond Sounds powerful. The moon illustration in the second graphic novel is breathtaking.


  3. A Different Pond is a favorite, Myra, simply beautiful in its presentation and the many layers it holds in the story. If still teaching, I would certainly use it with my older students. I’ve seen The Best We Could Do at my library, but have not checked it out yet. Thanks for the wonderful reviews!


  4. The graphic novel is definitely something I’d been wanting to read since I first saw it on display. I’m glad it’s earning lots of raves.


  5. Pussreboots

    The Best We Could Do has been on my wishlist for a while now. Come see what I’m reading.


  6. I simply must get A Different Pond – it has just the point of view that I want my kids to read about.


  7. I am tempted to join your challenge just by the beautiful graphics alone. So pretty!

    Excellent reviews as always, Myra. I am especially looking forward to the memoir now (it has been on my list since before it came out). I’m going to see if I can’t get my hands on it after my break.


  8. Thank you again for the beautiful pairing and for introducing me to books I didn’t know.

    Happy reaidng this week 🙂


  9. Why Did You Lie looks interesting to me!!


  10. Lovely illustrations! The Best We Could Do looks tempting. Thanks for sharing…and for visiting my blog.


  11. Stunning. Absolutely stunning. I need both of these, as soon as possible.


  12. I really enjoyed reading A Different Pond, especially the sweet simplicity of it. I definitely need to find The Best We Could Do! It looks like an awesome graphic novel! Have a great week!


  13. I have been hearing about A Different Pond, but have not read it yet. Thankfully winter break is coming in 7 days.


  14. Pingback: [Saturday Reads] My 2017 in Books, Reading Stats, and Best Books Read in 2017 Across Genres – Gathering Books

  15. Pingback: [Saturday Reads] Graphic Memoirs by Female Writers – Gathering Books

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