Inaugural Viet Book Fest Shares Children’s Books by Vietnamese Authors and Illustrators

Photo courtesy of VAALA

Maya Lê Espiritu will serve as Q&A moderator for the inaugural Viet Book Fest. She's a third-grade teacher from Oceanside and children’s book storyteller on social media.

The Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA) is presenting its first-ever Viet Book Fest, from 3-4 p.m. every Saturday in October.

The online book fest could be considered substitute programming for VAALA, the Orange County-based nonprofit organization that produces the annual Viet Film Fest. That festival was supposed to run this weekend, Oct. 9-11, but was canceled this year due to COVID-19.

However, the Viet Book Fest has actually been in the works since last year.

“Our board came up with it in 2019 as a new program,” said Christine Tran, managing director of VAALA. “We recognized that ‘letters’ is an important part of our name.”

With the help of Anat Schwartz-Meron, a tech-savvy doctoral student at UC Irvine and a “Humanities Out There” fellows intern, the book festival was rescheduled for this month, and the timing couldn’t be better.

During the Viet Book Fest, VAALA is offering four pre-recorded children’s book readings, followed by a live Q&A with the authors and illustrators, moderated by Maya Lê Espiritu, a third-grade teacher from Oceanside and children’s book storyteller on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, where she’s got 199,000 followers.

“I’m very honored to be the moderator of the first inaugural Viet Book Fest,” said Lê Espiritu, who blogs about children’s books on maistorybook.com. Her handle on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok is also maistorybook, which utilizes her Vietnamese name, Mai.

“It’s a great way to connect with the Vietnamese community and share what I’m passionate about,” she said.

Tran Thi Minh Phuoc, author of “Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories,” kicked off the first reading Oct. 3 with illustrators Nguyen Dong and Nguyen Thi Hop in attendance. Tran is Minnesota’s first Vietnamese librarian and an active member of the Minnesota Vietnamese American community. She has won many awards for her children’s books.

Photo courtesy of VAALA

Author Minh Lê sings a copy of his graphic novel “The Green Lantern: Legacy,” which he will read from on Oct. 10 during the Viet Book Fest.

On Saturday, author Minh Lê will read from his graphic novel “The Green Lantern: Legacy,” which tells the story of a young boy becoming a new hero. The DC Comics book is illustrated by Andie Tong.

Lê will also read from “Drawn Together,” a story about language barriers between a grandfather and his grandson, brought to life by Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Dan Santat.

Image courtesy of VAALA

A page spread from “My Footprints,” a children’s book written by Bao Phi and illustrated by Basia Tran. Bao will read from his book on Oct. 17 during the Viet Book Fest.

On Oct. 17, Bao Phi, a two-time Minnesota Grand Poetry Slam winner and National Poetry Slam finalist, will read his award-winning story, “My Footprints.” It’s a coming-of-age story of Thuy, a young Vietnamese American girl with two moms, plus her experiences with bullying and the power of imagination.

On Oct. 24, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen will read “Chicken of the Sea” with his son and co-author Ellison Nguyen, accompanied by illustrator Thi Bui and her son Hien Bui-Stafford. This collaboration between two generations of storytellers and artists tells the story of chickens leaving their boring farm for an adventurous pirate life.

Image courtesy of VAALA

The jacket cover of “Chicken of the Sea,” written by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Ellison Nguyen, and illustrated by Thi Bui and Hien Bui-Stafford.

“I think there’s space and an opportunity for children’s literature that is reflective of our Asian American experience,” said Nguyen, who won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel, “The Sympathizer.”

“This story is about chickens who are born on the farm who decide to run off and become pirates. For Asian Americans, it’s an important book, because we don’t have to always talk about Vietnamese and Asian American stuff. We’re free just like those chickens to pursue our dreams.”

Photo courtesy of VAALA

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen high-fives a child during a book signing for “Chicken of the Sea.” Pictured to Nguyen’s right is his son, Ellison.

On Oct. 31, VAALA will host a Halloween party with the book fest’s authors, illustrators and artists. The event will include a DJ, a singer, a raffle, games, a scavenger hunt and dance time. Attendees will be encouraged to dress up in costumes, especially favorite characters from the books.

Organizers will be fundraising for VAALA’s community arts programs. Items of interest will include autographed copies of the children’s books.

The readings will be broadcast over Zoom and Facebook Live. The Zoom meetings, $5 each, will be interactive and participants will be able to see each other and ask questions live. The Facebook Live broadcast will be free but will not be participatory.

The Halloween celebration on Oct. 31 does not have a set donation cost. Attendees may donate what they see fit.

“There’s a need out there for more children’s books by Asian American authors and writers,” Tran said. “But it is surprising to see there’s so much material out there already.”

Lê Espiritu added: “Overall it’s an inspiring event for anyone who aspires to be a writer or anyone in the community who wants to pursue their dreams.”

For more information, visit vaala.org or the Viet Book Fest’s Eventbrite page.

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].