Planet Picture Book

My First Book of Vietnamese Words

This illustrated ABC rhyming book provides readers with an introduction to Vietnamese language and culture.

I was particularly intrigued by My First Book of Vietnamese Words when I was researching picture books for Vietnam. It’s no mean feat to introduce a new language to a reader and I wondered what the end result would look like. And, I’ll admit that (yet again) the book cover may have influenced my purchase! It’s gorgeous.

The content of this ABC picture book is structured around the Roman alphabet with each page dedicated to a single letter. Each letter introduces readers to one Vietnamese word, such as Ao (pond), Ông (grandpa) and Xuân (spring). The equivalent word in English is provided in the same simple four-line stanza and both words are bolded to ensure clarity of understanding. For example:

‘C is for Cú./ The owl flies at night,/’

A glossary of all the Vietnamese words featured is provided at the end of the book and a basic introduction to the Vietnamese language and pronunciation at the beginning. I definitely need to spend some time figuring out the right sounds, though, especially for the vowels.

Along with the new words, author Tran Thi Minh Phuoc treats us to beautiful snippets of information about Vietnamese culture. So, we learn that soup made from swallows’ nests is a special Vietnamese dish, and that if you let a dragonfly bite your belly, you’ll be able to swim. Or my favourite: When Vietnamese children lose their teeth, they throw the bottom teeth on the roof and the top ones under the bed for the Tooth Mouse!

Readers of this picture book really will be transported to another land, not just through the words, but through the enchantingly fresh illustrations by Nguyen Thi Hop and Nguyen Dong. A Vietnamese boy playing a bamboo flute sits astride a buffalo in one image; in another, a young Vietnamese woman in a sampan plucks lotus flowers from a lake. Young, happy Vietnamese children feature throughout, eating rice flour balls, flying kites, playing drums or cuddling up to mum and grandma. There is a real sense of harmony and joie de vivre – a love of nature, family, food and festivities – that leaves me with a big smile on my face every time I read this book.

My First Book of Vietnamese Words is a gentle, joyful celebration of Vietnamese language and culture. Simply written and beautifully illustrated, it is suitable for even the youngest of children, but adults too will want to linger on every page.

The Book
My First Book of Vietnamese Words
by Tran Thi Minh Phuoc, illustrated by Nguyen Thi Hop and Nguyen Dong (Tuttle Publishing, 2017)

This title received a 2017 Freeman Book Award Honourable Mention for Children’s Literature.

The author
Tran Thi Minh Phuoc is a librarian, author and respected storyteller, who is recognised for bringing her knowledge and experience of Vietnamese culture to the wider community. In the early-eighties she left Vietnam, the country of her birth, on board a crowded boat and spent 10 months in a refugee camp in Malaysia before arriving in the United States. She lives and works in Minnesota.

The illustrators
Nguyen Thi Hop and Nguyen Dong are veteran illustrators and husband and wife. Among the many titles they have illustrated are Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories, also by Tran Thi Minh Phuoc, and Each Breath a Smile by Sister Susan (based on the teachings of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh). They began their careers in the South Vietnam of the 1960s.

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