In A Different Pond, author, Bao Phi, and illustrator, Thi Bui, both Vietnamese Americans, create a necessary and impactful story that is both a tribute to their working-class new immigrant childhoods and a valuable #OwnVoices contribution to children’s literature. The story is anchored in a purposeful fishing trip a father and son take to secure food for the family. Rich colors and a creative use of panels provide intimate portraits of the duo.
This accessible first-person narrative, told from the child’s perspective, unfurls like an intimate memory.
The story engages myriad social themes gently, enveloping them in the primary story of a father and son’s unique bond. But that doesn’t mean they are buried. Issues of war and death, poverty and hunger, immigration and xenophobia, are presented with sophistication and dignity.
The story begins with father and son quietly preparing to exit their home in the middle of the night. The two will go fishing to secure dinner, a trip they have taken before. On their car ride, the boy-narrator introduces an experience of xenophobia, noting that his father’s accent reminds his peers of “a thick, dirty river.” However, he doesn’t let this interpretation stand, asserting that to him it “sounds like gentle rain.”
The challenge of feeding one’s family is subtly explored when father and son stop at a bait store to purchase minnow and the “bait man,” himself at work in the middle of the night, asks why they are out. The father explains that he has begun working a second job on weekends and must catch fish for the family’s meal before he goes to work. In another instance, the boy-narrator describes his father’s hands as callused.
A sense of loss is captured when the father reminisces about fishing at a similar pond as a child and the boy asks if he fished with his brother. The father turns away at the mention of his brother. The boy-narrator confides: “Dad tells me about the war, but only sometimes. He and his brother fought side by side. One day, his brother didn’t come home.”
Father and son share a quiet intimacy gorgeously portrayed by Thi Bui. In one image they are represented facing the lake, father has one hand on a fishing pole and another on his son’s back, sweetly portraying their relationship.
When they arrive home the rest of the family is awake. The boy and his mother clean the fish before his parents must go to work, leaving the young boy in the care of his older siblings.
As the child sits on his couch waving good-bye to his father, who rides off to work on a bicycle, he shares that he is sad, but not too sad. Then he imagines the dinner his large family will share and is proud of his contribution.
Socially relevant, artistic, and lyrical, this book belongs on everyone’s bookshelf. A Different Pond is a story that needs to be told and both writer and illustrator render it with specificity and depth. This is an immigrant story like none I have read before and I am so glad books like this are available for young people.
(I am not the only one raving about it. A Different Pond is a 2018 Caldecott Honor Book).