Thirteen new children’s books in Vietnamese were just published by Cal State Fullerton’s Community Literary Project. The books were written and illustrated by local students and focused on the theme of “Community.” The authors were chosen during a writing contest held in 2019 for kids aged 13-17 in which entrants were given such writing prompts as “What are some of the activities in in your community?” and “What are some of your dreams and aspirations that you have for your community?”
“We were very intentional in making sure that the topics that we identified are relevant to some of the challenges that are facing the community — issues like intergenerational communication, perspectives on gender equity and the expectations for children within the Vietnamese community,” said Natalie Tran, College of Education professor at CSUF and director of CSUF’s National Resource Center for Asian Languages.
“I think hearing these issues coming from our young members of the community is really critical because they represent the voices of the community that oftentimes are silent,” Tran said. The Community Resource Project is part of NRCAL, an organization formed to generate resources for teachers and students in less commonly taught languages.
“I wrote about ways that people in different age ranges could help in our Vietnamese community,” said Evelyn Nguyen, 14, who placed first in her age group with her book “Làm Sao Để Giúp Cho Cộng Đồng,” which loosely translates to How to Help the Community. “There are kids that could think, ‘Oh, I’m just a kid. I can’t be a great impact in our community.’ And that is not true at all.”
Nguyen made sure to give a shout out to her younger sister Madeline, 13, whose book “Ước Mơ Giữ Gìn Tiếng Việt Cho Cộng Đồng” (Dreams to Keep Vietnamese for the Community) was also published.
“My book is about how I’m able to help the community while my sister’s book is more about her dreams about the community,” Evelyn Nguyen said. “It’s really cool because we kind of coordinated our books together unintentionally. I didn’t share my ideas with her, and she didn’t share ideas with me, but somehow we coordinated.”
Leah Metters, a 2019 CSUF graduate in illustration and entertainment art, illustrated four books this year including Evelyn Nguyen’s. Metters illustrated four books in the first version of the Community Literacy Project in 2017, and she’d do it again, she said, because she loves that the books are kid-generated.
“I really wanted to help bring their stories to life because these kids get to say that they made a book and that the book was illustrated,” Metters said. “They get to hold it in their hand and see how it looks. I hope each kid gets the feeling of accomplishment that they created something amazing.”
Metters, who is African American and does not speak Vietnamese, worked from translated versions of the books, but she did learn a little bit of the language. Vietnamese has a lot of diacritical marks —
the lines and symbols like accents that go over letters. “I know now how simply even removing one can make the whole meaning change,” she said, remembering a mislabeled phrase she had used in a drawing of a lunch box. “I had the accent on there wrong, so instead of reading lunch box, it was a bad word.”
Proceeds from the sales of the books go back into supporting and expanding the Community Literacy Project, Tran said. The goal is to be able to do this on a regular basis as well as expanding the project to other underrepresented languages including Korean and Khmer.
Tran stressed that this is truly a community project, and it couldn’t happen without parents supporting their children in exploring their Vietnamese American identities. For Tran, the depth of what this project really does for the community became clear to her when the kids got a chance to read from their books on a local TV station.
“There, in that moment of hearing these kids who were born here in the U.S., wrote the book in Vietnamese, and were sharing it with the audience — to me, that opened up the future,” said Tran. “This is possible. We can have this. Children can be biliterate. They don’t have to compromise their Vietnamese so that they can be American. You can have both. You can be Vietnamese American — in a true culturally and linguistically rich way. That was the aha moment for me. Like, yes, we can do this!”
Titles can be ordered for $10 each on NRCAL’s website.