Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

BookPage | Starred Review of ‘Simone’

Norah Piehl reviews Simone, a children’s book by Viet Thanh Nguyen and illustrated by Minnie Phan for BookPage

In Simone, Minnie Phan’s illustrations combine with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s prose to offer a vision of hope and healing in the wake of generations of displacement.

Pulitzer-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer) takes his first foray into children’s books with Simone, a thoughtful and emotionally intense family story set during the California fire season. Simone, a young Vietnamese American girl, is dreaming of floating in the ocean when she is awakened by her mother (whom she calls M&aacute, the only Vietnamese word she knows). A wildfire is approaching their town, and they’ve been ordered to evacuate.

Simone and her mother are prepared with go bags and an evacuation route—but even then Simone has to make tough choices: “I’ll be back for you,” she reluctantly says to the books and toys she can’t take. The pain of leaving things behind and the panic of vacating her home in an emergency remind Simone’s m&aacute of when floods forced her to evacuate her childhood home in Vietnam and abandon everything but her precious crayons. Despite the disorientation and chaos at the evacuation shelter, Simone’s m&aacute helps Simone find a path forward: “You don’t fight fire with fire, / You fight fire with water,” she says.

Minnie Phan’s hand-lettered text reinforces Simone’s first-person perspective, and Phan’s colored pencil and watercolor palette gorgeously interprets the book’s themes. Simone dreams in color, but when she awakens, the world is black and white, with the only remaining colors the red and orange of the flames. Likewise, her mother’s memories of Vietnam are blue, like the floodwaters that engulfed her home. Toward the end, as Simone and her new friends use artwork to remember their homes and to re-imagine their future, color returns to the pages. The illustrations combine with Nguyen’s words—“It’s up to us”—to offer a vision of hope and healing in the wake of generations of displacement.

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