St. Paul publishes Karen/English children’s books

In an unprecedented outreach effort, the St. Paul Public Library has published two children’s books in the Karen language. The books will be available in St. Paul libraries as well as online. (images courtesy of the St. Paul Public Library)
In an unprecedented outreach effort, the St. Paul Public Library has published two children’s books in the Karen language. The books will be available in St. Paul libraries as well as online. (images courtesy of the St. Paul Public Library)
The Hen and the Badger recounts a traditional tale, using detailed illustrations by Betsy LePlatt that show an ornately decorated Hen and traditional Karen outfits, homes, and countryside. (image courtesy of the St. Paul Public Library)
The Hen and the Badger recounts a traditional tale, using detailed illustrations by Betsy LePlatt that show an ornately decorated Hen and traditional Karen outfits, homes, and countryside. (image courtesy of the St. Paul Public Library)
With bubbly, jubilant imagery crafted by Jingo de la Rosa, Elephant Huggy tells an original story of a traveling elephant who explores different parts of the world using different forms of transit. (image courtesy of the St. Paul Public Library)
With bubbly, jubilant imagery crafted by Jingo de la Rosa, Elephant Huggy tells an original story of a traveling elephant who explores different parts of the world using different forms of transit. (image courtesy of the St. Paul Public Library)

St. Paul has birthed what are perhaps the first bilingual Karen-English children’s books.

The two books, titled “Elephant Huggy” and “The Hen and the Badger,” are commissioned originals written by Karen-American St. Paul residents Win World and Saw Powder.

As Karen-language children’s books are scant, and St. Paul is the home of the largest Karen immigrant population in the U.S., the library made the move to publish the books out of a desire to better serve Karen children and families.

With bubbly, jubilant imagery crafted by Jingo de la Rosa, Elephant Huggy tells an original story of a traveling elephant who explores different parts of the world. The book uses color as a theme, which pays tribute to the importance of colors in Karen culture.

The Hen and the Badger recounts a traditional tale, using detailed illustrations by Betsy LePlatt that show an ornately decorated Hen and traditional Karen outfits, homes, and countryside. During the day, the two animals are friends, but by night, the badger is constantly trying to eat the hen and her chicks. The folk tale ends in a twist, with the hen eating the badger after he makes a fatal blunder.

From scratch

Pang Yang, community services coordinator for the St. Paul Public Library, says the publications came out of conversations that started two years ago, as staff were organizing storytime programming for the libraries for different cultural groups, with stories told in eight languages including Hmong, Karen, Somali, and Spanish.

“It was difficult to find materials (in Karen) that we could really use,” Yang explains.

She notes that some of the Hmong books they were using had been published by school districts, and came to realize that it was within the realm of possibility to produce and publish original Karen stories.

Though libraries generally try to avoid getting into publishing, Jill Boldenow, spokesperson for the library, says they made an exception because St. Paul has a large Karen population, whom the library system would like to be poised to serve.

“In this case, it was just so important to provide materials to children in this language,” she says.

Yang notes that there is also a significant Oromo population in St. Paul, and very little children’s material in that language — she says she could imagine doing a book in Oromo in the future, if the funding were available. There are also a limited number of Hmong and Somali books.

Karen are library users

With the help of some funding from St. Paul Public Libraries supporter Sandra Schloff, library staff had access to the resources needed to create Karen books. Schloff had donated specifically to bolster the library system’s storytime programming.

The library put out a call for submissions, and then began paring down the submissions. The winning submissions came from two Karen authors. Staff approached the authors, and teamed them up with illustrators, helping them edit the material for publication.

The books came to life in late December, when the finished products arrived. 2,500 copies of each book were printed.

Each copy contains both the English and Karen version of the story, so they can be read widely. With the Karen text alongside the English text, the books can also serve to help build bilingual literacy for Karen families.

Yang notes that Karen people are avid users of the library — “The Karen community really come into our programs. They want material, they want storytimes... it’s a growing community.”

Karen people are originally from Myanmar (also known as Burma), but many have been displaced by war and instability in the country, in which the country’s militaristic regime targeted Karen people and subjected them to forced labor, genocide, and other human rights violations.

Distribution

The books were handed out on Saturday, Dec. 20 at Arlington Hills Library, as well as at a Karen New Year’s celebration on Jan. 1, which was put on by the Karen Organization of Minnesota.

Library staff will also distribute them Jan. 30 at the Arlington Hills Community Center for Karen Family Day. Books distributed at these events are free. However, the titles will also be available for checkout through St. Paul Public Libraries and online from the Minnesota Digital Library. The books will also eventually be for sale on Amazon.com through a print-on-demand publisher.

38-year-old Win World, the author of Elephant Huggy, says he came up with the story to help bridge Karen people’s experiences with St. Paul and their lives in Myanmar.

He came to St. Paul six years ago after living in Myanmar and then a refugee camp in Thailand. He’s married and is raising two daughters.

A student at Hamline University, World is studying education in hopes of becoming a teacher.

He also works as an employment counselor to other Karen people, and as an Karen education assistant with St. Paul Public Schools.

He says he’s proud to see more Karen-language material born by his hand in St. Paul.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

 

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