What Astrid and Apollo Mean to Me and Why Representation Matters

Image of Astrid and Apollo for Author V.T. Bidania Essay On Why We Need Representation in Children's Books
Photo of V. T. Bidania

V.T. Bidania

What Astrid and Apollo Mean to Me and Why Representation Matters

April 26, 2021

Whenever I think about Astrid and Apollo, I can’t help but think of my childhood. Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of toys to play with, so I had to rely on my imagination. My siblings and I assembled cardboard boxes to make toy furniture. We connected chairs to create trains. Couches were hills and the dinner table was a mountain we would climb and leap from. When we landed on the floor, we waved our arms in circles and swam back and forth in an ocean of carpet.

I still remember giggling breathlessly from the climbing, leaping and swimming. I remember wiping the beads of sweat—but not the happiness—from my face. These memories are glorious. They remind me of an innocent, joyful time. They remind me of the house I grew up in. They remind me of home.

When I wasn’t playing, I read books. Like the makeshift toys in my house, books and stories filled every corner of my mind. Like magic, I embarked on voyages to explore the worlds I read about. I’d travel to another planet through a wrinkle in time, or visit my talking pig and spider friend on the farm. I’d unwrap a chocolate bar to find a golden ticket, or step into a wardrobe to emerge in a snowy land. But as much as I loved, lived, and breathed these adventures, no amount of wishing, dreaming, or imagining could ever make the characters in these books look like me.

I was so used to never seeing myself represented that after a while, I no longer searched. Every now and then, if I did spot an East Asian person in a book, I vividly recall my heart beating just a little faster and breathing just a little more deeply. I never dared to look for Hmong people in books—that fantasy was too good to be true—so seeing an East Asian character was the next best thing, even if it seldom happened.

When I decided to write books for children, Hmong representation was at the forefront of my mind. I wanted to write fiction and I wanted to write books like those I adored as a kid. Only, my characters would be Hmong children, their siblings, and families. I would write about Hmong heroes and heroines. My books would reflect the specific and universal experiences of Hmong people. But it would take well over a decade before my writing would get published; the rejections I received often said the same things: there is no place for Hmong stories in the market and books with Hmong people will not sell.

Capstone was the first publisher who believed in my chapter book idea starring Hmong children. This idea became the Astrid and Apollo series. Sometimes it’s still hard to grasp that Astrid and Apollo is actually out in the world. Finally, here are characters that look like my family—and me! Finally, here are stories that mirror my own. Finally, Hmong children get to be celebrated on the page.

For a long time now, I’ve been thinking about all the reasons why representation in literature, children’s literature in particular, is so important. Yes, young readers need to see books with characters who look different from themselves and if they are from marginalized backgrounds, they need to see themselves represented. Yes, readers need to see books that positively and accurately represent their diverse communities. Yes, this will help to create empathy and understanding of the world we live in—and at a time like now when Asian hate crimes run rampant in the country, this is crucial.

I also think kids need to see themselves on the page for this reason: inside their hearts and minds, children are overflowing with stories. Their imaginations are jam-packed with ideas, adventures, and their own journeys. To never see their experiences reflected when they have stories bursting to come out is why it hurts so much to be excluded from books.

My hope is that because of Astrid and Apollo, now Hmong children everywhere can see that their stories and voices are just as valuable as everyone else’s. I hope that other children—regardless of their background—will identify and connect with Astrid and Apollo too. I hope that all children will read these books and feel the delight I felt as a child when I played using nothing but my imagination.

What does Astrid and Apollo mean to me? Like my childhood memories, Astrid and Apollo feels like home.