Serendipity and Storytelling: Poet Bao Phi Finds Warm Welcome to Children’s Picture Book World

All around them, shots fired at aircraft that burst into flames. Bao Phi’s family held their breath as they waited for their plane to rescue them from war-torn Vietnam. Against all odds, the plane took off and carried the family out of danger. But when they finally made it to America, the struggle didn’t end.

Phi with his mother and father, South Minneapolis, the mid-70s

“Literature is very important in Vietnamese culture, and Viet literature was important to both my parents.”

“I was raised in a refugee family living in an urban, poor, and working-class area among American Indian kids and kids from all backgrounds and from all over the world. We were all in survival mode,” confesses Phi, an award-winning poet and new children’s book author. “Survival mode for me included hanging out in—or some may say, hiding in—libraries, particularly the Franklin Avenue Library, which was about six blocks from our house in the Phillips neighborhood. It was there that my love of books really flourished.”

Drawn to fantasy and adventure—such as The Hobbit, Greek mythology, Arthurian legends, and illustrated bestiaries—it was a natural progression for Phi to try his hand at comic books in grade school. “Sometimes when my mom and dad would take me to work (since they couldn’t afford a babysitter), I would sit in the break rooms with a packet of lined paper and a pen and go at it. Most of the stories were fantasy stories about dragons and elves or terrible attempts at humor to make my classmates laugh.”

“I write because that’s how I make sense of the world, or at least try to make sense of it. It’s also how I engage with the world, how I strive to contribute to make it a better place. Even if it’s in a small way, of a couple of people reading a story or poem that really resonates with them. It happens to be my strength. It might be the only thing I’m really good at, if I’m good at anything at all. It’s how I contribute.”

As Phi grew, so did his writing interests. In fact, by junior high school, he was trying his hand at poetry. “The first poem I remember writing was about tennis. I wrote the poem, rhyming couplets, to kind of show off that I could write anything I set my mind to. It was terrible.”

In high school, Phi’s horizons expanded even more as a number of national and world events took center stage in the news: the Persian Gulf War, AIDS, drug use, gang violence, police brutality, and income disparity. It was a time of renewed interest in social justice movements, the cultural arts, and youth organizations. Phi found his inspiration in these, and continued to hone his voice through speech team activities and writing poetry.

Bao Phi with his daughter, Sông

As an adult, Phi still finds inspiration in world events, cultural issues, and social justice movements. In addition to his work at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, he uses his voice to express himself as an award-winning spoken word artist. In 2011, he expanded his platform for expression with the publication of a poetry book for adults called Sông I Sing (Coffee House Press).

In 2017, Phi released his second book of poetry for adults, Thousand Star Hotel (Coffee House Press), as well as a children’s picture book A Different Pond (Capstone Young Readers/Capstone). What inspired him to try work geared toward younger readers? In one word: Fatherhood.

“The inspiration for writing A Different Pond primarily came from becoming a father, and reading books to and with my child every night. There are so many wonderful books for children, but it was challenging to find a book addressing Southeast Asian refugee life in America. I also wanted to pay tribute to my parents, and community members of their generation. When you become a parent yourself, the hard work and sacrifice of your own parents become so clear.”

Phi with his father, daughter, and a library bound copy of A Different Pond

It is one thing to write a children’s book and another to get it published. For Phi, though, the publishing opportunity practically fell into his lap. “I was still working on it when I wrote a Loft holiday blog post about gifts for book nerds. It just so happened that my daughter and I were enamored with a picture book called Here I Am (Picture Window Books/Capstone, 2015). So I wrote a blog post review, which I never do, about that book. I got an email a few days later from the publisher, Capstone, who asked if I wrote children’s books. By complete coincidence, I had been working on A Different Pond. We met, they took a look at it, and a few months later, they bought it. It felt like serendipity. It landed at the right place. The process felt very collaborative, very holistic. I thinkA Different Pond would have been very different if it landed somewhere else. I’ve been spoiled, working with illustrator Thi Bui and the good folks at Capstone.”

Left: Author Bao Phi; Right: Illustrator Thi Bui

From the beginning, A Different Pond has been met with high praise and has received prestigious accolades, including the Charlotte Zolotow Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, and a Caldecott Honor. With such an overwhelmingly positive response to his first children’s book, it seems reasonable to assume Phi may feel great expectations for future work. He agrees, “Yeah, no pressure or anything!” Nonetheless, he is already working on a new title.

“The first book I remember falling in love with was a picture book about dinosaurs gifted to me by an elderly Lutheran grandma, Gladys. She also made killer brownies.”

“My next children’s book with Capstone is about a little girl who imagines being a bunch of different animals and creatures to avoid her hurt feelings after being bullied. My daughter really encouraged me to base my next children’s book on her (translate encouraged as demanded). She specified that the character should be based on her, but not have her name, because she’s too shy. How she deals with bullying is a combination of her experience, as well as my own, when I was her age.”