I can’t say that these are newly published stories. All of them have been out for a while. But I’ve come across them over time, and I’d like to highlight them here together. They all share the topic of crossing cultures at a young age (well, one is about a 22-year-old)—and they’re all skillfully told.
Thanhha Lai was born in Saigon, Vietnam, coming to Alabama with her family following the end of the Vietnam war. In Inside Out and Back Again, she writes about her experiences through the story of a fictional 10-year-old named Hà. After losing her father in the war, Hà, along with her mother and brothers, travels by boat to a tent city in Guam, then makes her way to the American mainland, where she encounters the difficulties of fitting in. Written in 2011, Inside Out was named a Newberry Honor Book and won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
In 2012, she followed up with Listen, Slowly, about another girl facing cross-cultural issues. Mai is California born, the daughter of Vietnamese parents. When her grandmother travels to Vietnam to find out the fate of her husband (he disappeared during the war), Mai reluctantly follows and learns about her family’s, and ultimately her own, story. This book won its own accolades, honored as a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. But Lai doesn’t count her writing accomplishments as her greatest achievement. On her author page, she says that “most importantly” she has started the not-for-profit Viet Kids, which purchases bicycles for poor students in her birth country.
Jung was born in Korea, and at the age of five was adopted by the Henin family in Belgium. Now a graphic artist, one of his creations is the graphic novel/memoir Couleur de Peau: Miel. The title is French for “Color of Skin: Honey,” which is written in his adoption papers. In 2012, he turned his story into an animated documentary, interspersed with real footage, including scenes from his trip as an adult back to Korea. Titled in English Approved for Adoption, it’s a raw (PG 13-ish) look at Jung’s life—that ultimately has a positive message.
Before his adoption, Jung stayed for several months at Holt International’s Ilsan Center, along with other children, orphaned and abandoned as a result of the Korean War. About the film, Jung tells Holt, “I’m adopted, so I tell that story, but the different thematics—identity, uprooting—it’s universal. It’s a story about relationships.”
Linda Sue Park and Salva Dut
Linda Sue Park was born in Illinois, the daughter of Korean immigrant parents. As an adult she moved to London, where she taught ESL and married an Irish man she’d previously met in Dublin. She currently lives in New york and is now a successful author of children’s and teen’s books, including A Single Shard, for which she was awarded the Newberry Medal in 2002.
In 2010 she wrote A Long Walk to Water, telling the true story of Salva Dut, along with the fictional story of Nya, a girl living in South Sudan. Salva is from Sudan, one of the “Lost Boys” of the country’s civil war. At the age of 11, he joined thousands of others who escaped to refugee camps in neighboring countries. Eleven years later, he was selected to come to the US as a political refugee, and was taken in by a family in Rochester, NY. When he later heard that his father was alive in Sudan, he traveled there to see him, finding him sick from drinking contaminated water. After returning to the US, Salva founded Water for Sudan—which became Water for South Sudan following the vote for independence. As of this month, the organization has drilled 300 wells in the world’s newest country, where “millions of women and children trek for up to eight hours a day to collect water from marshes, ditches, or hand-dug wells where water is often contaminated with parasites and bacteria.”
(Billie Louwen, “Approved for Adoption,” Holt International Blog, April 29, 2014; Thanhha Lai, “Author,” Thanhha Lai; “Water for South Sudan Transforms Lives,” Water for South Sudan)
[photo: “Child’s Globe,” by John Cooper, used under a Creative Commons license]