top of page

From Words to Bilingual Picture Book

Updated: Aug 3, 2022


Dr. Linh Phung, Eduling International, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

(First published by the Materials Writers Interest Section of TESOL International)

Books are mirrors so that children see themselves represented and feel they are valued in society. Books are windows through which children see the diverse world and their place in it. Books are also sliding glass doors inviting children to open and, through their imagination, step into a different space created by the author. (These metaphors come from Bishop (1990) when discussing diversity in children’s books). In the US context where I live, children’s books still lack the diversity in races, cultures, and languages spoken so minority children may not see themselves reflected and have a harder time developing confidence in who they are. Therefore, as a Vietnamese American mom raising a Black daughter in the U.S., I decided to publish Tug of Words: Trò chơi kéo co ngôn ngữ (English-Vietnamese bilingual version) and Tug of Words (English-only version) to tell a story about our family and contribute to the diversity of children’s literature.

In addition, I also wanted to contribute one more book in Vietnamese to the pool of resources in the U.S. to help my daughter and children like her learn and speak Vietnamese as a heritage language. When it comes to heritage language maintenance and development, it has been well documented that families commonly express difficulties in accessing printed materials in monolingual settings like the U.S. or Canada (Ahooja et al., 2022; Zhang & Slaughter-Defoe, 2009). With these motivations and support from family, friends, and colleagues, I finally brought the idea of a bilingual picture book into fruition in early 2022. This article shares my self-publication process with teachers and materials writers who are considering this venture.

From Ideas to Words: I Write for Love and to Tell a Story

Since I had my daughter Hallie, who is now nearly four years old, I started to write for her. The first poem that I wrote was based on the famous poem “Where I Am From” by George Ella Lyon. Then, I wrote another one mixing English and Vietnamese to document the emergence of Hallies’ first words: from mẹ (mommy) to hoa (flowers) to tắc kè (chameleon), wawa (water), and moon. Before Hallie turned three, I wanted to write something featuring differences in our family and the push and pull of our interactions. The idea turned into a poem that I first titled “The Opposites Games” in English. I shared the poem, and one of my writer friends encouraged me to publish it as a picture book. I followed the suggestion and decided to start the process of self-publishing the book.

Translation and Wordsmithing

From the English poem, I started the English-Vietnamese translation, trying to maintain a similar meaning, rhyme scheme, and rhythm in both languages. This requires multiple rounds of revisions in both directions, including changing words and even removing lines and stanzas. At one point, I enlisted the help of a Vietnamese professor and poet, who gave me valuable suggestions in the last two stanzas of the Vietnamese poem. For a language teacher and writer, choosing words or wordsmithing can be an enjoyable process, but asking friends and colleagues to read and give feedback will certainly help to make the wording stronger.

In the end, I think the two versions maintain the purity of love and joy that I intended to convey and the many stories embedded in each line of both poems. There’s a story about my multiracial family, a story about my daughter’s curly hair and caramel skin, which sounds trivial, but may have great implications for her future, and a story of Hallie’s unprompted and unexpected claim of being a daughter and friend to me, her adoptive mom, making it one of my most cherished moments of motherhood. It also features the presence of Vietnamese culture in a tug game of my childhood. The process and product of this project are both enjoyable, which may be an important consideration for writers contemplating a similar project.

Illustrations Bring Colors and Life

I was introduced to an illustrator from San Diego, Sylvie Pham, thanks to my volunteer work with Stories of Vietnam, an organization with the mission to support Vietnamese children in the US to learn about the Vietnamese language culture by printing and shipping free Vietnamese-English books nationwide. I shared the manuscript in both English and Vietnamese to her and we worked closely together, picture by picture, to illustrate the book. It took her more than three months to deliver 29 pages of vivid, colorful, and loving illustrations, which fit the sentiment of the book perfectly and expand on the meaning of my written words. Overall, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of quality illustration for a picture book. It is also usually the biggest cost, apart from offset printing, for a project like this. As a tip, apart from relying on referrals, authors may look for freelance illustrators through such websites as Behance and Fiverr, but careful consideration needs to be made.

Worthwhile Endeavor

One may say that what I did was merely a passion project, but to me, it was a worthwhile project. The book is like a grain of sand, adding to the diversity of children’s books and the pool of English-Vietnamese materials for children like Hallie and others.


Ahooja A., Brouillard, M., Quirk, E., Ballinger, S., Polka, L., Byers-Heinlein, K. & Kircher, R. (2022) Family language policy among Québec-based parents raising multilingual infants and toddlers: A study of resources as a form of language management. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development.

Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3).

Zhang, D. & Slaughter-Defoe, D. T. (2009). Language attitudes and heritage language maintenance among Chinese immigrant families in the USA. Language and Curriculum, 22(2), 77-93.

Dr. Linh Phungis an experienced ESL teacher, researcher, published author, and creator. As the founder of Eduling International, she recently released an app called Eduling Speak, which connects learners from any location in the world to talk in pairs during the performance of tasks on the app. She’s also the author of a picture book for ages 0-6 titled Tug of Words: Trò chơi kéo co ngôn ngữ available on Amazon. Her publications and research have been focusing on task engagement, international student experience, gamification in language teaching, and other SLA topics.

102 views0 comments


bottom of page