The Shelf Care Interview: V. T. Bidania

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Capstone.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Julia Smith talks to debut author V. T. Bidania, author of the Astrid and Apollo series, which kicks off with Astrid and Apollo and the Starry Campout. This title and three others (The Fishing Flop, The Happy New Year, and The Soccer Celebration) will be published simultaneously this August by Capstone.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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JULIA SMITH: Thank you for joining me today, Vong!

V. T. BIDANIA: Thank you for having me.

Tell us about your new series.

Sure, absolutely. So Astrid and Apollo stars eight-year-old twins, Astrid and Apollo Lee, who are second-generation Hmong Americans living in Minnesota. This means their parents were born in Laos, and they were both born here in the U.S. Readers will see them enjoying outdoor activities like camping, fishing, and attending the Hmong soccer festival and a Hmong New Year’s celebration. Minnesota is home to one of the largest Hmong communities in the country, so I wanted Astrid and Apollo to attend these special events that the community puts on every year.

That sounds like so much fun. Why did you feel it was important to write this series?

First of all, I just wanted Hmong children to see themselves represented in books, and I wanted to make sure that that representation is positive and accurate. Often times Hmong people aren’t really visible in mainstream media, but, on the rare occasions that we are seen, that representation tends to be a little bit outdated and often leans toward a sad and struggling refugee or immigrant. But a lot of kids today are second, third, or even fourth generation, so they’re removed from that refugee experience now, and they might not relate to those stories.

And while all those stories and the history of our people being war refugees are extremely important—and we want the children today to know and understand about the many hardships that we faced—it’s also important for them to see themselves in happy stories, in what is a more authentic representation of their lives right now. Because not every day for a Hmong child is going to be sad and traumatic and have pain. A lot of kids do regular things just like their non-Hmong peers. They go to school—well, maybe pre-pandemic. They go to school, have recess and homework, play outside—you know—goof off, laugh, and joke. They go on vacations with their families, have barbecues, and play video games. So, they have a lot of joy in their lives, too, and I wanted to write stories where they could see themselves doing those things. Because they shouldn’t have to associate being Hmong with just trauma and pain. They should see themselves doing what everyone else does, too.

I wanted them to see themselves in happy stories, because, if white kids can see themselves in happy stories, then why can’t Hmong kids see themselves in happy stories, too, right? So that’s why I wanted to write this series. And one thing I always think is that, for Hmong kids and anyone for that matter, You are the hero of your life, so why can’t you be the hero of your story? As I said, I just want Hmong kids to see themselves in stories and as the heroes of their stories, because in actuality, they are the heroes of their lives. So that’s why I wrote series. And especially right now, in light of everything that is happening in the country and around the world, it’s crucial that kids see diverse representation in their books and not just see the same old story about you know, I don’t know—the blonde girl wants to be a princess, or the redheaded freckle-faced girl with glasses who wants to be a superhero or score a soccer goal. Or even the furry forest animal who wants the lead in the school play. I think that kids right now need to see kids in characters of all backgrounds, all cultures, and all colors; and that’s partly why I wrote the series. I just want Hmong kids to see themselves represented in an authentic way, and I want all kids to be able to see diverse representation that’s also accurate.

That’s so wonderful! To that point, I noticed that this is an illustrated early chapter book series, and you do have a Hmong American illustrator. Was that decision something you were involved with? Did you express that you wanted that for your book?

One thing that I’m fortunate about is that Capstone, my publisher, seems to be pretty sensitive and understanding about things like that, and they prefer to work with #OwnVoices illustrators for their many #OwnVoices projects. I was grateful for that. And it’s extremely important to me to have somebody who’s also Hmong illustrate, so that they can get the details accurate, like the clothing and the food and even the faces—that was really important to me because diverse representation is no good if it’s not accurate, right? So, I was glad that we have a Hmong illustrator, and I was also happy that my series was able to create an opportunity for a Hmong artist to work on a Hmong project.

Absolutely. What inspires your writing or inspired you to be a writer?

A lot of things, but I guess I could tell you a few things that inspire my writing. Probably the most basic thing is a good story. I know that if I’m reading a good book, or if I hear an interesting story that moves me in some way or evokes some kind of emotion in me, that I suddenly feel really inspired to write my own story, or to continue working on something that I’m in the middle of writing. Good movies also inspired me to write. Just the other night, my husband was watching a zombie show on TV (and it was really scary!). I watched a little bit with him, and as I was watching it, I started thinking, This storytelling is actually really interesting. Because it was different from anything I’d seen before, the way the movie was breaking down each scene, each character. And I started thinking, What if I write a novel about Hmong teens during the zombie apocalypse, and I broke down the chapters, the same way that this movie was breaking down the scenes?

Another thing that inspires my writing, I would say, is poetry. Now, I don’t write poetry myself, I find it far too intimidating and really challenging. But I think it’s a really powerful art form. So, I love reading it because it really helps me with my prose. And nowadays, I’m just reading a bunch of verse novels because that really inspires me, as well.

So, I guess that’s what I would say inspires my writing. Good stories, good books, good movies, good storytelling, and beautiful language—all of these things compel me to create and write. And it’s always my hope that I can write something beautiful, too.

How would you say that libraries have played a role in your reading or writing life?

Libraries had a huge impact on my childhood because, as a kid, I was incredibly and painfully shy. I barely talked when I was at school; I hardly spoke to classmates or teachers. But I loved books because I love stories. So, of course, my favorite place in the world was the library. Because in the library, I could be quiet, I didn’t have to talk, and I could read, which is what I really wanted to do—and the librarians were always very kind to me. So, you could say that libraries were my oasis back then, because they were the only place in school where I felt comfortable and safe and like I could just be myself. They were also the place where I was surrounded by books and where I found books, read books, and checked out so many books to bring home. They weren’t very diverse but still, I read so many books. And I think that’s part of reason why I wanted to become a writer, because I read so many books at such a young age.

Today, I still like going to the library to check out books—sometimes way, way too many books—and to perform research and just to write. So, I would say that libraries played a huge, significant role in my reading and writing life, and looking back on those years, I’m not sure how I would have made it through all those years of elementary school if libraries did not exist. They were my salvation.

When you’re not writing—and I heard you just say you love to still check out books—what do you like to read?

I read a ton. To be quite honest, it’s been pretty difficult to concentrate or focus on reading and writing during the pandemic, but still, I keep buying all these books on my Kindle. And I have tons of books in my queue. I would like to say I have narrowed down my list, but it is still just way too long. Some of my favorite authors are Erin Entrada Kelly and Rita Williams Garcia. I love work by Stacey Lee—she does a lot of historical fiction—as well as Christina Soontornvat’s books. Some of the books that I read recently that I still think about, and just really adore, are From the Desk of Zoe Washington, by Janae Marks; Any Day with You, by Mae Respicio; and Almost American Girl, by Robin Ha, which is a graphic novel. Right now, I’m in the middle of I Can Make This Promise, by Christine Day. I’m not even done with it yet, but I’m so excited because I heard that she has a new book coming out! I really love all their work. I also have read a bunch of verse novels, as I mentioned.

That’s great! I think we have time for maybe one more question. And I guess this is just sort of starting with an observation, but it’s so great that these books include culture notes that feature Hmong vocabulary and highlight, with illustrations, different food that the families are eating. Did you plan to have those sorts of informational sections flanking your story in each of the volumes? Was that an important part of the story for you?

First of all, those sections in the front and back matter of a lot of the Capstone chapter-book series, they do have those sections already. I didn’t really have to think about what would go where. But as I was writing the stories, a lot of the details, cultural details or specific details about Hmong food or things like that, just came organically. I didn’t really have to plan to make sure that I mentioned a dish here and snack there or anything that. It’s just kind of organic, because, you know, I think about my life and I don’t intentionally plan to eat Hmong food this night and drink that. So as far as the story, those things just came naturally.

I do have to say that in addition to the Hmong facts that we have and Hmong terms and, of course, most important, the Hmong foods, there was a section that we cut out, which was an activity section, because there just wasn’t enough space. We had too many facts! And I think my list of foods was way too long. But the books did originally have a section where kids can complete some activity that related to the plot. Maybe I’ll put them up on my website! For the most fun book, the one where they go to the soccer festival, there was a recipe. The others were things like making a little tent or making a little fishing rod.

Well, I have to say that they were all integrated very well. It didn’t ever feel like you were teaching the reader; they were just organically part of the story and the information was there for the readers who wanted to then seek out more. So thank you; it was such a fun little series and I’m happy to get to talk to you about it right now. And it’s your debut, right? I should have said that right off the bat. I think everyone has a lot to look forward to, with these books and your future ones.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Capstone, publisher of V. T. Bidania’s Astrid and Apollo series. And be on the lookout for Astrid and Apollo and the Starry Campout and its companion titles, available August 2020. Happy reading!

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About the Author:

Julia Smith is a senior editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. She is a graduate of the MLIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is also an aspiring aerialist. Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaKate32.

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