Suni Lee’s Hmong-American culture — read and learn!

Minnesota is celebrating
Suni Lee’s gold-medal Olympic victory,
along with the rest of the nation.
I hope her victory leads many to learn more about the Hmong people,
and today I’ve got a few books to start you off.

The Most Beautiful Thing, written by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Khoa Le
published in 2020 by Carolrhoda Books

Minnesota-author Kao Kalia Yang’s exquisite portrait of her Hmong grandmother envelops us in tenderness, warmth, honor, and abiding affection.

Yang’s vivid childhood memories glow like burnished brass as she tells of her Hmong upbringing, of caring for her grandmother, and of the ways this dear, elderly woman in turn enriched her life. Grandma’s stories of a tremendously difficult childhood in Southeast Asia etch empathy into little Kao’s heart, and her aged smile provides Kao with a lasting definition of beauty.

I am so deeply grateful for this gorgeous story from a member of Minnesota’s Hmong community. The rich, dignified, evocative artwork from Vietnamese artist Khoa Le infuses the pages with elements of Hmong culture, Asian homelands, and deep love. A gem for ages 5 through adult.

For adults interested in reading more, you might try Yang’s award-winning book, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, which was published by Coffee House Press in 2008.

Her second children’s book, Yang Warriors, which is based on her own experiences in a refugee camp as a child, is also available. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Published in 2021 by University of Minnesota Press.

Mali Under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home, written and illustrated by Youme
published in 2010 by Cinco Puntos Press

Malichansouk is a young Laotian-American woman who was forced to flee with her family to Thailand when she was 5 years old. Although this account is not specifically about the Hmong people, it shares a parallel story of love for a Laotian homeland and the difficult flight for refuge in Thailand.

Mali’s beautiful homeland was embroiled in war that had crossed the border of Vietnam into Laos. A dangerous, arduous walk, a nighttime crossing of the Mekong River, and even a jail cell when her family was arrested upon arrival in a safe, but foreign land – all of this is part of Mali’s experience.
The lovely, sweetness of her once-peaceful Laotian home is also embedded in her memory.

Here is her story, told briefly and appropriately for young children ages 4 and older. The colorful, bold illustrations wonderfully capture Mali’s Lao homeland and culture, including page borders that showcase Laotian textiles and designs. A sprinkling of Laotian words and script are also included. It’s a great first window into the refugee experience and the Lao culture.

Dia’s Story Cloth: The Hmong People’s Journey of Freedom,
written by Dia Cha, stitched by Chue and Nhia Thao Cha
published in 1996 by Lee & Low Books in cooperation with the Denver Museum of Natural History

Those of us in the Twin Cities remember well the arrival of thousands of Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia to our bitterly cold state back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Most of us knew almost nothing about them let alone the heroic roles many had played on behalf of our own nation. Now we have several Hmong state senators, hundreds who have earned doctorate degrees, and a gold-medal Olympic gymnast — yet many still do not really understand all that this people experienced.

This story of one 15-year old’s terrifying journey out of Laos to Thailand and eventually to the United States, dramatically informs us about their sweet life in Laos destroyed by war, the terrors and losses endured, the harrowing journey made, while simultaneously highlighting the incredible artwork of Hmong embroiderers.

The book is illustrated with photographs of an immense, detailed story cloth stitched by the author’s aunt and uncle in a Thai refugee camp. Share this painful story with ages 9 and up. The lengthy, fascinating afterword tells more Hmong history and craftsmanship.

We’re so happy for Suni,
and grateful for the presence of the Hmong community among us.