Guest Post: Libraries and Librarians Enrich Lives Far Beyond Books by Hanh Bui
Today, we are pleased to host Hanh Bui, author of two upcoming books for children. Hanh reached out to me about possibly saying something about the debut some refugee children owe to libraries. I figured she could say it far better than I ever could.
As a refugee child, my family and I did not have a home library or extra money for special outings. But libraries were free, safe, and welcoming. When I first visited a library in America and could not speak English, the librarians patiently helped me learn how to use the card catalog. My first friend in my new neighborhood had shown me her Frog and Toad book, and I was delighted to find a copy in the library. Even though I couldn’t read the English words, I loved the illustrations. After all, frogs are lucky in Vietnam. I did not know at the time that one was a frog and the other, a toad. I thought they were both frogs and believed that the book was doubly lucky. And as newcomers, I felt we needed luck.
When I showed my grandmother the books I borrowed from the library, she was so surprised that I could take books home without paying for them. She loved the art in the Frog and Toad books just as much as I did, and smiled thinking of the lucky frogs. I practiced reading aloud to her as best as I could, then translated the story into Vietnamese for her. As I brought home more books, she wanted to be sure I did not misplace any, so she sewed a special sack from a pair of worn Levi’s jeans that belonged to my grandfather. While I was visiting the library, my grandparents spent their weekends making our first house in America a home. My grandfather painted the walls blue to remind us of the oceans of Nha Trang, the place where I was born. My grandmother planted her favorite herbs and vegetables in our new backyard garden just like she did in Vietnam. Even when we were apart, my denim library sack helped me to feel connected with both of my grandparents.
Starting over in a new country had its challenges. Sometimes I was teased for the way I looked or bullied for the way I spoke English. Some children at school taunted me for wearing the same clothes over and over again. Most of my clothes were donated or purchased from the thrift store. The library was a safe haven from the hardships of being different. The librarians saw me, not my secondhand clothes or that I was quiet and shy. I may not have remembered all of the librarians’ names, but I recognized kindness. We shared a love of books which is universal. Mrs. Miller, a classmate’s mom, also volunteered at the library. She always greeted me with a warm smile and a stack of books she thought I’d enjoy reading. Often among the books was a Frog and Toad or a fairytale princess book. She also introduced me to books with playful puppies, beautiful butterflies, and sensational sea animals, as well as biographies about courageous girls like Helen Keller. My world was made bigger and richer with my visits to the library.
I had two composition books, one for the English words I wanted to learn and one for drawings. I jotted down English names of the children I saw in books to practice pronouncing later. I also spent hours sketching images from the books I borrowed from the library. I especially loved drawing princesses and crafting my own paper dolls of these characters. I designed new ball gowns and pretty Vietnamese áo dàis for the dolls. Most of the princesses I saw in books had hair the color of sugarcane stalks. Snow White was the only character I saw in books with dark hair like mine. I often associated things I liked with the foods I missed from my homeland. Snow White’s hair was shiny and smooth like my favorite black grass jelly dessert.
Many of the books I borrowed lacked diverse characters, but I learned how to read from the simple, repetitive text and enjoyed the characters’ adventures. Today, I am grateful to see more books written and illustrated by diverse authors and artists with protagonists from all different cultural backgrounds and experiences. The work of librarians and teachers is more important than ever, especially as we are facing increasing challenges from book banning and must advocate to have our stories shared. It is my hope that all children can see themselves and their experiences represented in the books they read. Librarians are allies for book creators of all backgrounds and help to make books accessible to the children who need them.
I hope my words of gratitude will let librarians know that their work is important and may also be life-changing. Personally, the librarians who kindly helped me throughout my youth nurtured in me a love of books and broadened my world beyond my humble beginnings. If I wanted to travel to a faraway enchanted fairy tale land, all I had to do was open a book and enter a world of endless possibilities. Now as an adult and a children’s book author, I feel it is my responsibility to continue to support our librarians and libraries. I cannot wait to see my debut picture book, The Yellow Áo Dài, in the hands of children and on library bookshelves. I will always be grateful to Mrs. Miller and the librarians who laid the foundation for my love of books and my life’s work.
About the Author
Inspired by her first teacher at the refugee camp, Hanh Bui pursued a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education and taught second grade before becoming a full-time mother. She also served as a Development Officer for Senhoa Foundation in support of women and children who survived human trafficking in Cambodia, and has served on boards supporting children and parents in building community. Hanh’s commitment to celebrating her heritage includes giving presentations in school visits about her refugee experience to children studying immigration as part of their school curriculum. She serves as co-chair of Equity and Inclusion Team for SCBWI, Mid-Atlantic region and has been featured in Highlights Children’s Magazine, Next Avenue and Forbes. She is the author of The Yellow Áo Dài (Spring 2023)and Ánh’s New Word (2024),both forthcoming from Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends.
Filed under: Guest Posts
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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