A classroom of third-graders at St. Paul’s Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion Academy sat on the carpet, listening to a story.
“My eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea are a revolution,” read Gia Vang.
Vang, a former KARE 11 news anchor who now anchors the weekend program for NBC Bay Area, had come to deliver books full of Asian characters to the third-grade classroom.
When she concluded the reading of Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, by Joanna Ho, she asked the class what they liked about it.
“I like how at the start it says that this girl has different eyes,” said one Asian girl in the front row. “But we all have a good eye shape, and it doesn’t matter what it looks like.”
“Just because you’re different from other people doesn’t mean you’re weird,” added another child.
“We’re going to leave this book with you guys,” Vang said. The children gasped and pumped their fists in excitement.
Vang’s reading marked the first Minnesota book delivery for the Very Asian Foundation, which Vang co-founded with St. Louis news anchor Michelle Li. The two initially connected after the Atlanta spa shootings targeting Asian women in March 2021.
Then, in January 2022, Li received a racist voicemail from a viewer unhappy that she had described her Korean tradition for New Year’s Day—eating dumpling soup—on a television newscast. The viewer criticized her as “very Asian.”
The two Asian news anchors quickly jumped on the phrase, turning it into a hashtag and T-shirt slogan, and eventually the name of a foundation and movement. Through the foundation’s May Book Project, they curate lists of books by Asian authors and donate them to schools. The idea came from Asian American students in Missouri who wanted more representation of Asian characters and stories in their school libraries. They contacted Li for support.
“We knew that one of the pillars of what we were going to do was support the next generation,” Vang said.
Now in its second year, the foundation has developed curated lists of recommended books for different age groups. They have donated books to schools in New Jersey, Seattle, Chicago, and California.
Kao Kalia Yang, an award-winning local author, recommended two St. Paul Public Schools—Jie Ming and Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School—for the foundation’s first Minnesota donation, Vang said.
Riley Mooney, the third-grade teacher whose classroom hosted Vang and Li’s visit, said her students have a wide range of reading levels. Because of the school’s Mandarin immersion focus, third grade is the first year students receive English reading instruction. She said she was “super excited” for the book delivery for her classroom, and said the presentation helped engage the students.
“Kids love new books,” she said. “They’re going to want to be reading these new books that came in today. And it’s nice to see texts with diverse characters who they can relate to.”
On the carpet, one child had found a book—Here I Am, by Patti Kim—full of illustrations, but not words.
“She’s telling me a story she made up,” announced the child’s friend. “And I love her story. It’s really creative.”
Before the children could explain their story, they were herded together for a group picture.
“Say cheese!” a photographer said.
But the class had their own idea of what to say for the camera.
“Kimchi!” said one of the teachers.
And the child who told her own story chimed in: “Asian!”
‘We don’t have a lot of those books’
Bao Xiong, the Hmong dual language coach at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School, introduced Vang and Li to second- and third-graders gathered in the library’s Hmong hut later that afternoon.
“They have this really cool program where they give free books to kids who need culturally relevant books,” she told the students. “So, it has characters that look like you and me, they have experiences like you and I have, they eat some of the things that we eat. And in our library, have you noticed: we don’t have a lot of those books, right?”
Vang, taking her seat, joked about missing the Minnesota snow in California. She introduced the book, Watercress, by Andrea Wang.
“Why does it have gold and silver medals?” a child asked, alluding to the Newbery and Caldecott stickers on the cover.
“They like it a lot,” Vang said. “It’s a really good book.”
Vang and Li asked the kids what kind of books they liked to read, and whether they saw characters who looked like them in books. Not really, a few kids said.
“We really hope to change that,” Li said. “We think it’s important to see yourself in books.”
Phalen Lake has been home to a Hmong dual language immersion program for elementary students since 2011. Ninety-two percent of students in the school are Asian, and a majority are Hmong. The library is home to many books translated into Hmong, and Hmong history books, like a biography of General Vang Pao. There are also some dated oral history materials—like DVD interviews of prominent local Hmong community members.
Xiong, the school’s Hmong dual language coach, said she picked out a variety of books from the Very Asian Foundation list: a picture book about Kamala Harris; the Astrid and Apollo series about Hmong siblings; Pahua and the Soul Stealer, a novel students had been asking for; and Aru Shah and the Tree of Wishes from the Rick Riordan imprint.
Not all students in the elementary school are reading longer chapter books, but for those who are, the library selection is limited.
May Lee Xiong, the school’s principal, said that when the school started its Hmong dual language immersion program, “We ordered everything we could.” But at that time, there were not many Hmong books available.
Principal Xiong recalls that when she was a child attending St. Paul Public Schools, she did not even want to talk about the food she ate at home. She lied and pretended she ate hamburgers and pizza at home, rather than chicken and rice. Books like Watercress that reflect students’ families and foods can help students feel confident.
“It’s not just the story in the book, it’s what it brings out in the kids,” she said. “When books like that reflect them, they can feel free to share who they are.”
Two weeks ago, the author Kao Kalia Yang visited Phalen Lake to read to students. Principal Xiong recalled how a student picked up a copy of her book, Yang Warriors, after she left.
A staff member asked the student why he picked that book.
“Because she’s Hmong like me,” the student replied.