Tuesday, March 5, 2019


Written by Bao Phi

Illustrated by Thi Bui

(Capstone Young Readers, 2017)

A Different Pond is a tale of an early morning fishing adventure involving a young boy and his father. Through the main text, a particular illustration and an author’s note, we learn that the story is set in 1982 and the characters are based on the author’s own family, Vietnamese refugees who settled in Minneapolis. The story is told from the boy’s point of view. The fishing expedition is to bring food to the table rather than for sport. The family is struggling, with the boy’s father working several jobs and the mother riding a bike to work as the boys’ older siblings are entrusted to take care of him during the day.

Children will easily connect with early morning trips of their own as they hear the story. Early in the story we see the young boy yawning and trying to wipe the sleep from his eyes. There is something special about an outing that involves just father and son, especially when we learn that the boy is one of many children in the family. There are realistic touches that make fishing not as romanticized as it can be in other stories. For instance, when the boy’s father asks if the boy wants to put the minnow on the hook, the boy thinks, “I want to help, but I shake my head no. I don’t want to hurt that little fish, even if I know it’s about to be eaten by a bigger one.” Moreover, when the boy helps put a caught fish in the bucket, he makes a funny face as the fish feels “slimy and rough at the same time.”

There are some beautiful writing flourishes in the story, such as when the boy compares the nighttime stars to freckles and when he asks about his father’s brother who fought in the war and “didn’t come home”. While the father sometimes talks about his brother, this time he just looks away. Bui’s illustration beautifully captures the moment.

My only quibble with the text is when the young boy says, “A kid at my school said my dad’s English sounds like a thick, dirty river.” I cannot imagine a young peer offering such a complex simile. A more direct putdown would be more realistic and potent. (The boy himself thinks of his father’s English as “gentle rain”.)

The book is a great example for writers to learn the writing concept of “show, don’t tell”. How do we know the family is poor? The text refers to a “bare bulb” in the kitchen, mentions the boy’s father getting another job, includes his father’s lament: “Everything in America costs a lot of money” and mentions the callouses on the man’s hand and his broken teeth that flash when he smiles. The illustrator’s note mentions her intentional decision to have very few Vietnamese items displayed in the home. “[T]he empty spaces hold meaning, too.” (The comment invites another careful look at the pictures throughout the book.) Another illustration worth discussion shows the family’s parked car and the boy and his father heading to a pond in an area with a sign that reads: POSTED – NO TRESPASSING – KEEP OUT. It begs the questions, Do you think the father saw the sign? Why would he ignore it? Why would there be such a sign in the first place?

In all, this is a lovely, quiet book that can take the backdrop of a fishing trip and evolve into a rich discussion of family ties and the immigrant experience. The author’s and illustrator’s notes, as referenced already, are as important to shedding light on the story as the main text and pictures themselves.

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