Interview: Vong Bidania

Hello, Vong! Thank you for stopping by the MG Book Village to talk about your debut chapter book series, ASTRID AND APOLLO! First, though, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Thanks so much for inviting me here, Jarrett! I’m a huge fan of middle grade books and therefore, a huge fan of MG Book Village. I am Vong Bidania (author name is V.T. Bidania) and I am the author of ASTRID AND APOLLO, which is a new chapter book series published by Capstone. ASTRID AND APOLLO stars eight-year-old twins Astrid and Apollo Lee, who are second-generation Hmong Americans living in Minnesota. This realistic fiction chapter book is the first series ever to feature Hmong American characters and I’m very excited to bring this much-needed representation to mainstream kidlit!

As mentioned above, these books constitute your debut. What was your journey to the printed page been like?

To be honest, it’s been a long and harrowing journey. I received my MFA from the New School many years ago—too many to say the number out loud—but once I started querying after graduation, I became extremely discouraged by rejections and didn’t write for a long time. I know all writers receive rejections, but mine felt particularly disheartening because the feedback I received was always the same. My manuscripts, which focused on the Hmong experience, “could never sell because there was no market for them” and “no one would read Hmong stories.” It was incredibly discouraging to repeatedly hear this and eventually, I stopped trying to get published.

A few years ago, after more diverse books were being published, I decided to try and submit my work again. This time I pitched one of many chapter book ideas that had been brewing in my head for years. I tried to be hopeful even though I had very low expectations. Surprisingly and fortunately, I found a publisher and then an agent who support my work. The chapter book I submitted is now ASTRID AND APOLLO. It’s been amazing to see the anticipation and excitement for the series—from readers and educators—and I’m happy to finally share my stories with the world.

I just really want Hmong children to see themselves represented; as a kid, I never saw myself in any books and I don’t want other children to have that same experience. Although I never expected my debut year would happen in the time of a global pandemic, the positive response so far has been so encouraging. I always knew there was a market for my stories even if I was told that market didn’t exist.

Can you tell us a bit about ASTRID AND APOLLO?

Readers will see Astrid and Apollo enjoying everyday adventures such as camping, fishing, and attending the Hmong July Soccer Tournament and the Hmong New Year Festival. Minnesota is home to one of the largest Hmong communities in the country, so it was fitting that the twins would reside here and participate in these special events that draw massive crowds to Minnesota every year. To me, the series is a celebration of Hmong kids and all kids in general. If you like reading about twins and siblings and families just having fun, this series is for you!

There’s a lot of outdoor activity in these books. Are you as outdoorsy as Astrid and Apollo?

Not in the least! I’m actually not an outdoorsy person at all, nor was I one as a kid. Here in Minnesota, there are lakes everywhere, which means there are mosquitos all over the place. I get mosquito bites all the time and I get sunburned easily too, so wearing a ton of sunscreen and covering myself with bug spray every time I step outside is a real pain. But many families who live in Minnesota love the outdoors and that includes a lot of Hmong families. I wanted to be sure Astrid and Apollo participated in the popular outdoor activities that so many Minnesotans enjoy. More importantly, I wanted the series to be an accurate representation of Hmong American children and families today. So while I am not outdoorsy, Astrid and Apollo are!

In ASTRID AND APOLLO AND THE STARRY CAMPOUT, there is a lot of talk about food – one of my favorite topics! In the book, we learn a bit about Astrid’s and Apollo’s preferences, but do you have a favorite Hmong food?

Sesame balls are my favorite treat in the whole world! Specifically, the kind with mung beans and coconut, which are excellent. Note that sesame balls are not specific to Hmong people and are enjoyed by people all over Asia. Sesame balls found in Chinese bakeries and restaurants—hello, yummy dim sum!—usually have red bean paste or lotus paste filling. Those are delicious too, but I love the Southeast Asian-style sesame balls that have yellow mung bean filling. Hmong delis and grocery stores sell these kind, which I prefer. And like Astrid, I am a fan of egg rolls. Hmong egg rolls are similar to Vietnamese egg rolls with thin, crispy outer layers and meat and vermicelli noodles as filling. Those are the absolute best!

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from the ASTRID AND APOLLO books?

I hope Hmong readers will see themselves, their families, friends, and stories reflected in the series. I hope non-Hmong readers will read the books and perhaps find that culture and race don’t have to be a barrier to relating to characters from a background different than theirs. I hope everyone will learn a little bit about Hmong culture, history, food, and language too (I include some Hmong terms in the books).

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add the ASTRID AND APOLLO books to their classrooms and libraries?

Hmong people are seldom represented in mainstream media or literature, but on the rare occasions that we are, the representation is inaccurate or outdated, and leans toward the painful, struggling war refugee narrative. The second- and third-generation Hmong children today are removed from that experience and might not relate to those stories. While it’s important that Hmong children know and understand our history and hardships, it’s also important that they see themselves in happy stories. It’s especially important that they see themselves as the stars of stories, and that their non-Hmong peers see Hmong children as lead characters and stars too. Diverse representation is more important than ever at this moment in history, and all kids deserve to read books with characters from diverse backgrounds. I hope you will share ASTRID AND APOLLO with your students so everyone can finally see Hmong children in authentic, happy stories and as the stars of stories.

What else are you working on now?

I’m finishing up the next set of books in the ASTRID AND APOLLO series coming Fall 2021. I’m also working on a middle grade novel that’s part historical fiction, part magical realism, which I’m very excited about, and I have some picture books in the works as well.

When can readers get their hands on the ASTRID AND APOLLO books?

All four books in the series publish August 1 and are available wherever books are sold. To get signed copies, please order from Moon Palace Books and Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis.

Moon Palace Books

Wild Rumpus

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

Readers can learn more about me at my website: http://www.vtbidania.com. I also have some fun launch events coming up that you can find more about here:

https://www.vtbidania.com/school-visits-events

Please reach out to me anytime here:

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/vtbidania

Twitter/Instagram: @vtbidania

Thank you, Jarrett!

V.T. Bidania was born in Laos and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. When she was five years old, she wrote her first story about a frog that jumped over a pond and completed it with a crayon illustration. She has been writing ever since. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and received a Mirrors and Windows Fellowship from the Loft Literary Center. She once worked on a martial arts movie and can be seen in a one-second clip where she is fighting for her life—literally. She lives outside of the Twin Cities with her family.

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