In March 2021, my nine-year-old daughter was making “Stop Asian Hate” signs for a rally I was taking her to that raised awareness of anti-Asian racism. While she was trying to wrap her mind around this issue, one of her favorite activities was playing a multiplayer online game where she could care for virtual pets and hang out virtually with her IRL friends. Around this time, my six-year-old son had asked me not to pack sticky rice with dried shrimp in his lunch anymore because his classmates were making fun of this Vietnamese food. Alongside this food drama, the activity that brought the biggest smile to his face was creating building block sets of combat mechs.

I was writing what would become the Nguyen Kids series at that time. Observing my kids, and remembering when I was a kid, it did seem like everything happened at once, good and bad, big and small.

To write compelling stories for young readers, my goal is to reflect kids’ IRL experiences, and that means writing about “all the things.” My intention is to integrate the siblings doing what all kids do—play, hang out with friends, go on adventures—and situations (out of their control) that may make them feel uncomfortable and question themselves. Incorporating aspects of my Vietnamese cultural heritage is also very important to me, as culture is a factor of identity. I strive to write stories that are reflective of some readers’ lived experiences and identities and that are relatable and entertaining to all readers.

In book one of the Nguyen Kids, The Secret of the Jade Bangle, nine-year-old Anne Nguyen deals with her ballet teacher directing racial microaggressions at her. In Book 2, The Power of the Pearl Earrings, Anne’s eight-year-old sister Liz is excluded at school because her classmate behaves in a sexist way towards her. Unfortunately, kids often experience these types of situations in their own lives, especially kids from historically marginalized communities. For that reason, it was important to me to include themes of social injustice in every book in the series in age-appropriate ways and with accessible language and vocabulary.

Each book in the series is told from the perspective of a sibling expressing themselves in an unfiltered and immediate way. These are characters who make mistakes, talk negatively about themselves, become unsure about how to act, and have fears and regrets. They describe their emotional reactions, both immediate and lingering ones. While some readers may not have experienced these kinds of situations directly, my hope is that they will be able to relate to the feelings. Have they ever felt like there are knots in their stomachs, their palms are sweaty, and they just want to go and hide? Young readers often feel the “icks”—”Something is not right”/“I don’t like this”—without having the words to express them yet. I hope that reading about kids who express these feelings openly creates a way to better understand unfamiliar, and sometimes difficult, experiences.

In all the books in the series, one kid asks another kid, “You okay?” as a way of reflecting empathy. I have read stories about kids bullying each other, kids being mean to each other, and siblings fighting. While these are authentic experiences for sure, it’s also authentic for kids to be kind, for them to be friends and allies, and for siblings to care about each other. It was important to me to show that. I want to write stories that convey all the things—the range of emotions and experiences kids have that are often not acknowledged by adults.

It’s a sad truth that the world doesn’t wait for kids to be a certain age or reach a certain level of development before traumatic events occur. So as a parent, I crave stories that explore issues such as racism, sexism, discrimination, and hate in thoughtful ways. Then my kids may be able to recognize and begin figuring out for themselves how to deal with these situations as they grow and develop. This is the power of stories. I appreciate how young readers are open and curious and feel deeply. As an author, I want to tell the stories that young readers will read and reread, think about and talk about, and say, “I feel seen!”

Linda Trinh is a Vietnamese Canadian author who lives in Winnipeg. The Nguyen Kids is published by Annick Press.

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