Vietnamese Children’s Books

Last year Simon Haisell began a read-the-world adventure to explore writing from across the world. His first port of call was Việt Nam and with the help of acclaimed poet, novelist and translator Dr Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, he published a list on Instagram of over 60 works of fiction and non-fiction for adults and children written by Vietnamese and diasporic Vietnamese writers. Today we are combining their suggestions with those of Uyên Pham, a Vietnamese-American bookstagrammer who blogs under the name Books and Pho, who also published a list of 11 #ownvoices children’s books celebrating the Vietnamese experience. We’re delighted to share their recommendations with you.

Vietnamese children's books. Image Courtesy of Simon Hasill
Image courtesy of Simon Haisell

Picture Books

Diary of a Cricket by Tô Hoài, illustrated by Tạ Huy Long, translated by Đặng Thế Bình 

A Classic Vietnamese children’s story about a cricket going on an adventure. According to the Vietamese News, this book has been translated into more than 40 languages making it the most translated of all Vietnamese books. In the same article, Nguyễn Đăng Điệp, deputy director of the Literature Institute, is quoted as saying author Tô Hoài is “an author for children, adults, and people from all walks of life … He told stories of ordinary lives, Hà Nội stories, his own tales, and of changes in society, all with a tolerant and honest heart.”

My First Day by Phung Nguyen Quang & Huynh Kim Lien

Reviewing this book for Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, Klem-Marí Cajigas writes: “The text is poetically evocative, with beautiful turns of phrase; yet it is accessible to even very young readers. The moments of drama and even suspense in the text make it an engaging read aloud. The illustrations are truly sumptuous; the roiling waves of the Mekong River, an enormous python winding its way through the mangrove forest, bellowing water buffalo— it all makes for a book to pore over and read again and again.”

10 Khúc Đồng Dao/Nursery Rhymes From Vietnam by Tiny Wrist

A bilingual book of nursery nursery rhymes book in Vietnamese and English for both parents and children, featuring a variety of traditional Vietnamese rhymes about animals, family and folk games.

On the Tiny Wrist website, founder Tam talks about her inspiration for the book: “Books for kids are plentiful. But as a Vietnamese American Mom, I couldn’t find one that speaks to the Vietnamese part of my identity … I wish to change that for our little ones. Let’s make books that are both visually appealing and culturally interesting. Let’s make books that will be picked up, not because they are the only bilingual texts in the market, but ones that raise admiration and curiosity”.

The Doll by Nhung N. Tran-Davies, illustrated by Ravy Puth

A simple act of kindness welcomes two little girls, both refugees, to a new home generations apart. Reviewed on Kirkus, it is described as “a story inspired by events from the author’s life [where] a young Vietnamese refugee is welcomed to a new country with the unexpected gift of a doll.”

Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories
Written by Phuoc Thi Minh Tran, illustrated by Dong Nguyen, Hop Thi Nguyen 

**Winner of Creative Child Magazine 2015 Book of the Year Award**
**Winner of Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards 2015 Gold Medal**

From “a charming collection of fifteen tales as told by prominent storyteller Tran Thi Minh Phuoc. In it, Tran – Minnesota’s first Vietnamese librarian and an active member of the Vietnamese-American community – recounts cherished folktales such as The Story of Tam and Cam (the Vietnamese version of Cinderella), The Jade Rabbit, and The Legend of the Mai Flower.”

Thao: A Picture Book written and illustrated by Thao Lam

Even though it’s only four simple, familiar letters long, nobody can ever pronounce Thao’s name. She’s been called Theo, Tail, even Towel! But the teasing names–Tofu, Tiny, China Girl–are worse. Maybe it’s time to be someone else? Thao decides to try on a different name, something easy, like Jennifer.

Simple on the surface, this story inspired by Thao’s own childhood is full of humor, heart, and important ideas of diversity, inclusion, and cultural pride. The story will be instantly relatable to readers who have ever felt different. THAO champions being true to yourself and your background, and being empathetic towards others. It is a celebration of all that’s in a name and the power of owning your identity.

The Day I Woke Up Different Written by Andy A. Nguyễn, illustrated by Thi Đoàn

This book is about a child who is raised in a Vietnamese household and starts noticing the contrasts between their home life and American society outside of it. Standing out can often feel lonely. But, sometimes all it takes is that someone who understands and helps you realize that being different means being unique. And that’s a great thing!

There is also an instrumental piece composed by Phương Nam Đoàn to accompany the book.

Bao Phi, born in Vietnam and raised in Minneapolis, has written several picture books for children. Here are few suggestions:

My Footprints written by Bao Phi, illustrated by Basia Tran
Age recommendation: 4-8

In her review, Betsy Bird of the School Library Journal says “it has realistic situations, an imagination used for the ultimate good, magical creatures, tip top writing, and plummy art and you have yourself a story like few others out there today.”

A Different Pond written by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui
Age Group 5-9
This book was an Honor title in the 2018 Caldecott Medal and received a starred review from Kirkus.

Comments from the Caldecott Awards website say: “An early morning fishing trip between father and son provides food for that evening’s dinner and time to reflect on a similar pond in Vietnam. Bui’s evocative thick black ink brushstrokes with graphic novel panels create a cinematic experience, powerfully capturing facial expressions, mood, and quiet moments. Based on the experiences of both the Vietnamese American illustrator and author, this story depicts the immigrant experience as well as universal themes of family, love, and survival.”

Hello, Mandarin Duck! written by Bao Phi, illustrated by Dion MBD
Age group: 5-8
What happens when a beautiful little mandarin duck ends up alone and looking lost on a street of an unfamiliar town? Well, two twins – Hue and Hoa – together with the kids in the neighborhood make sure that all turns out well for him. Released in March 2021, Kirkus describe this book as A joyous and inclusive primer on how communities can unite to welcome newcomers.” You can watch an introduction to the book on YouTube from the Music Museum Online.

The First Journey by Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien

The authors of this book won the 2015 Scholastic Asian Picture Book Award for this book. The First Journey, follows An, a young boy who crosses the Mekong Delta for the first time on his way to school, encountering floods, snakes and a mysterious forest with a giant crocodile. Cited in the Saigoneer, the authors write abot their inspiration for the book: “Children’s books in Vietnam now have a large market, however it lacks diversity. In Asian cultures, parents tend to buy illustrated books that teach children to be obedient, not something that gives them imagination or [makes them] adventurous…. “It’s about the freedom of imagination we get in a children’s picture book”.

In a Village by the Sea by Mượn Thị Văn and April Chu

In her review on Books4YourKids, Tanya says: “I love the simple, circular story of In a Village by the Sea, but it is Chu’s illustrations that draw me in and keep me returning to this beautiful book”. Recommended by Maureen Tai on Twitter.

Chicken of the Sea by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Ellison Nguyen

This book has been written by Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen and his six-year-old son Ellison Nguyen. Ellison was inspired to write the story after meeting Thi Bui, the illustrator of one of his favorite picture books, “A Different Pond” – see above! Find out more here.

Finally in this section Quế Mai also recommends books by Minh Le, in particular LIFT and Drawn Together.  Check out his website for more information.

Image taken from Minh Le’s website

Middle Grade

Open the Window, Eyes Closed, by Nguyễn Ngọc Thuần, translated by Truong Tiep Truong (Tre Publishing House) – Winner of the 2008 Peter Pan Award presented by IBBY Sweden and the Göteborg Book Fair.

Bookworm Hanoi describes the book as follows: “For the first time in Vietnam, a children book talks about tragedies, even deaths, in an uncompromising style and yet with such compassionate love. The writer’s Vietnamese peers themselves have sung the work as another The Little Prince … The book has been unanimously praised since its first publication in 2002. The author, who was a painter professionally, became a celebrated writer overnight. Written for children, it’s been the children book most widely read by grown-ups ever since.”

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhà Lại
Age Recommendation 9-12

As described in the blurb, “Inspired by the author’s childhood experience as a refugee—fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama—this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child’s-eye view of family and immigration.”

This book was a #1 New York Times bestseller, a Newbery Honor Book, and a winner of the National Book Award. It also received a starred review from Kirkus who described it as “an enlightening, poignant and unexpectedly funny novel in verse”. Read the full review here.

Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lại

A California girl born and raised, Mai can’t wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War.

In her starred review in School Library Journal, Jennifer Rothschild says “The sights, smells, and tastes of Vietnam’s cities and villages come alive on the page, without overwhelming a story filled with a summers-worth of touching and hilarious moments, grand adventure, and lazy afternoons. With a contemporary time setting, this compelling novel shows the lingering effects of war through generations and how the secrets our parents keep can shape us.”

Young Adult

Thanhhà Lại has also written for young adults as well with Butterfly Yellow also receiving numerous awards and stared reviews.

Butterfly Yellow tells the story of the final days of the Việt Nam War, when Hằng takes her little brother, Linh, to the airport, determined to find a way to safety in America. In a split second, baby Linh is ripped from her arms—and Hằng is left behind in the war-torn country.

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

Released in September 2020, The Magic Fish is a graphic novel aimed at teens and young adults. Writing on the website Comics Bookcase, Zack Quaintance writes: “In its pages, readers will find a complex and emotional tale, which in summary is about a young boy who is the son of Vietnamese immigrants. He wants to come out to his parents, but does not know the words in the language to do so. It’s incredibly poignant and emotional, and Nguyen uses a vast and towering amount of narrative and visual talent to tell the story by weaving in a series of slightly-tweaked fairy tales that speak to the events in the current day.” Recommended by Maureen Tai on Twitter.


Please let us know if there any more books for young readers from Vietnam or by Vietnamese authors which you would recommend. We’d love to hear about your favourites at #worldkidlit on social media!