Friday, March 1, 2024

Hanh Bui Discusses How Her Refugee Experiences Fueled Her Writing


By Suma Subramaniam

I'm thrilled to welcome Hanh Bui to the SCBWI Blog today.

We're eager to learn about your new book, Anh's New Word, illustrated by Bao Luu (Macmillan, 2024). Could you tell us what it is about?

Anh's New Word is inspired by my grandmother and Miss Marilou, my first American teacher, at a refugee camp. In 1975, my family and I immigrated to the United States seeking asylum and a new beginning. Fort Indiantown Gap served as temporary housing during the resettlement of thousands of Vietnamese refugees. Miss Marilou's kindness when I was most vulnerable has had a lifelong impact on my journey. This is a story about a child overcoming her shyness and worries to learn her first English word. I wrote this story as a tribute to Miss Marilou and all teachers for the important work they do in support of children.

   Hanh Bui is on the top right back row along with her three brothers in the side yard of her first home

Does writing picture books from your life give you a different perspective about similar issues kids face today? If so, how? 

Writing picture books based on my refugee experiences allows me to share with children and families with similar challenges that there is goodness in our world--there are helpers and allies. Representation is important in order for all children to know that they are not alone and their experiences matter. In today's world with so much divisiveness, I hope my stories will foster empathy for the experiences of others and inspire kindness as we reflect on our common humanity.

In middle school, Hanh Bui wrote a story that her teacher helped make into a book. It was titled THE WAY TO FREEDOM and was about her refugee experience. She was featured in the Lancaster Sunday News during National Children's Book Week.

What is your writing process like? 

I keep an idea's journal where I jot down story ideas. I'll write down my thoughts in my journal to develop later, but some ideas linger in my thoughts beckoning me to write them. If an idea comes to me when I'm away from home, I'll log those ideas in the notes' app on my phone. I always write a complete first draft without worrying about edits or story structure. I'll think of a blurb for the premise of my story. The first draft is all about just letting the story flow from within. Then I'll take a break and come back to my manuscript with fresh eyes to make cuts of scenes that aren't relevant to the heart of my story. I'll revise and revise until I feel my story is complete and ready to share with other trusted writer friends and my agent. Based on the feedback I receive, I'll make edits or add layers needed to make my story more meaningful and engaging. 

What was the most challenging part of writing your stories?

Revisions are the most challenging part of writing my stories and knowing when a story is complete. When I first started my journey as a writer, a mentor told me to "embrace revisions".  I am glad that I learned this important step early on because it has prepared me for the many rounds of revisions I've done for myself and with the editors of my books. The process of making a story into a book is truly a collaboration. I am grateful for the team who has helped me create the best version of my stories to share with readers.

Hanh Bui at 9 years old with her aunties and brother. They were so happy to have a home of their own in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

What would you like to say to your readers who are wondering if their voices and visions for their lives matter?

I would encourage my readers to be proud of their experiences and heritage which are uniquely theirs. When they believe in their own voice, they can move forward with confidence so that others will feel their words. I hope by sharing my books, I will empower readers to become storytellers too. 

Inspired by her first teacher at the refugee camp, Hanh Bui pursuied a master's degree in Early Childhood Education and taught second grade before becoming a full-time mother to three children. She also served as a Development Officer for Senhoa Foundation in support of women and children who survived human trafficking in Cambodia, and has served on boards supporting children and parents in building community. Hanh's commitment to celebrating her heritage includes giving presentations in school visits about her refugee experience to children studying immigration as part of their school curriculum. She serves as co-chair of the Equity and Inclusion Team for the Mid-Atlantic region of SCBWI, and has been featured in Highlights For Children magazine, Next Avenue, and Forbes. She is the author of THE YELLOW Ao DAI and ANH's NEW WORD. You can learn more about Hanh and her books here: 

Suma Subramaniam is a recruiter by day and a children's book author by night. Her picture books include Namaste is a Greeting (2023 Crystal Kite and 2023 Northern Lights Book Award Winner), She Sang for India (2023 Northern Lights Book Award Winner and 2022 NYPL Diverse Voices Book), The Runaway Dosa, and more. Suma is also the contributing author of The Hero Next Door (Finalist-Massachusetts Book Award). Her poems have been published in Poetry Foundation's Poetry Magazine, What is Hope?, and other anthologies for children. She lives in Seattle with her family and a dog who will do anything for Indian sweets and snacks. Learn more at

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