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A Mixture of Humor, Marvelous and Loneliness

March 13, 2014

Literacy Asia

Thuy Com is a picture book author/illustrator who recognizes both children’s need to be taken seriously and adults’ need to be enchanted. In the spirit of the beloved author C.S. Lewis who once said, “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest,” Thuy does not see a necessary distinction between old and young readers when it comes to creating beautiful and imaginative work.

“Whether the picture books are intended just for kids or not, in my own view, that depends on the reader. Would you like to be made to laugh, to confess, to be comforted? Sometimes, age is just a number.” And like her heroes (Jon Klassen, Maurice Sendak, and Dr.Seuss to name a few), Thuy aims to respect the emotions and intelligence of all her readers. “Kids also have their pains that are immeasurable in the years of maturity,” she says. 

Despite her obvious talent, her dream of becoming a professional picture book creator seemed unlikely in Vietnam, where children’s books are not viewed as financially lucrative enough by publishers. However, Room to Read, in its efforts to establish an engaging body of literature for children in their native language, has had the opportunity to partner with Thuy to create beautiful books that give children (and adults) the opportunity to discover joy in reading.

Room to Read discovered Thuy through a story competition. While still a student in university, Thuy submitted a story that would later become her first published book. With the support and training of Room to Read, Thuy has been able to sharpen her skills as an author and illustrator. Today, at age 23, she is one of a half dozen professional picture book creators in Vietnam and truly a pioneer of the craft in her country. Her Room to Read published works include, The Baby Giraffe & the Sun, Green's Green Day (authored and illustrated), Little Wolf and the Wind, Water and Sun, and Square Bear (illustrated).

Picture books, as distinguished from illustrated books, rely almost entirely on rich imagery to tell a story. This particular format is instrumental to nurturing early literacy ability through aiding the development of oral language skills and vocabulary, not to mention the importance of kindling an excitement and love for reading at a young age. Furthermore, the picture book can be an invaluable tool for parents who want to encourage their children to read, but are illiterate themselves. By creating picture books that are engaging at any age, Thuy is playing an important part in building up literacy and education in Vietnam. So, how does she do it?

Thuy describes her creative style as “a mixture of humor, marvelous and loneliness.” Humor, she says, is the easiest way to reach readers--both young and old. However, you will find it difficult to make others laugh unless you know how to laugh yourself, she adds, “besides, I have deep dimples so I like smiling to show them off.”

The “marvelous” element to Thuy’s work adds a bit of Lewis-Carroll-esque nonsensical delight. “To me, marvelous means fresh feeling,” she says. With baffling captions such as “Have you ever had to constantly remind yourself that your cat is not actually a cat and you shouldn’t treat your cat like a real cat?” and visual curiosities like a Piet Mondrian styled house, simple surprises and bewilderments make up part of the charm of Thuy's work.

The "loneliness" that Thuy brings to her stories is actually more about comfort and connection. “It is loneliness because I want my work to have some space for readers to enter and fill the gap,” she says. “For kids, picture books can be great friends who understand them deeply. They are very patient, non-judgmental, and do not complain. Like when Dr. Seuss writes ‘You are you. Now, isn’t that pleasant?’ Children can take comfort from these friends’ words in the moments when they are most needed.”

The encouragement to like being who you are, and the patient, non-judgmental messages in Thuy’s work are not just platitudes for children. Thuy sees this kindness as a part of her own creative process.“Unless you love what you make, others will find it hard to welcome them. Of course they are not perfect and have a multitude of flaws, but I think if we hate something we created, we kill our excitement in creating. Be nice to your work if you want to create better stuff.” With uncommon wisdom, this young artist very practically rebukes the ruthless and unforgiving inner-critic that is so ubiquitous among creative types (and almost everyone else for that matter). 

At Room to Read, we believe that developing literacy is about so much more than just knowing how to read. It’s about enabling the next generations all over the globe to take us into a brighter future through their confidence, compassion and creativity. Brilliant creators like Thuy Com are helping us do just that. Who knows, maybe us grown-ups will learn some of that along the way too.

Learn more about our work in Vietnam.