Interview with Doan Phuong Nguyen
on her middle grade debut, Mèo and Bé
I was so excited to interview the author of middle grade novel, Mèo and Bé, releasing on May 25, 2023. One look at the description and I was hooked. This book is sure to become a childhood favorite that will live in hearts for years to come. Read my interview with Doan Phuong Nguyen to learn more about this beautiful and gripping story and the woman who wrote it.
Let’s Talk Inspiration
Ines: Doan Phuong, the description of this story alone tells me that readers will be in for an emotional ride, one that will tug at all the heartstrings. Can you tell us how the inspiration for this story came to you?
Doan Phuong: Mèo and Bé is definitely an emotional ride and it definitely tugs at my own heartstrings. It was hard writing such difficult scenes because I wanted to protect Bé from the horrors of war, but alas, she had to go through the hard scenes to find a happy, hopeful ending! There were so many tears as I wrote this, and I hope readers will feel the same.
This novel was inspired by my adopted aunt’s childhood. She was abused and mistreated by her stepmother as a young child, and also abandoned by her biological mom. Fortunately, she was able to find a happy family when my paternal grandmother adopted her. But the seed of my aunt’s painful childhood tugged at me, and I knew there had to be a story in there. As I started writing, my aunt’s story became greatly fictionalized, but the emotion of being left behind was still there. My father and my Vietnamese grandparents (when they were still alive) have told me many stories of life during the Vietnam War, and I wanted to write a novel that told a mostly unwritten perspective from the war – of what regular life might have looked like for some people, and some of the horrors that children may have experienced during the war.
Many of the settings in this novel—from Bé’s home to the city where she ends—are based on my own family history, my grandparents’ home, and the city where I grew up in Vietnam. I hope all of these elements will make this novel feel more real to my readers.
What Conversations Do You Hope to Spark?
Ines: One of the first thoughts that came to my mind while reading the description for Mèo and Bé is how I could see this beautiful story as a classroom read. Can middle-grade students expect school visits from you? What conversations are you hoping your historical fiction will spark?
Doan Phuong: I would absolutely love to be read in classrooms everywhere. Mèo and Bé is a novel that speaks to the atrocities of war, but also one of hope. When students learn about the Vietnam War in schools, we don’t hear very much about what life was like during the war, the fear of the unknown, the worry that the fighting could destroy your village and the worry that your life could be in danger.
At school visits, I’d love to speak about the Vietnam War, but I would also love to introduce more about Vietnamese culture and the country itself, what it was like growing up, what it’s like visiting today.
In my novel, I share a few Vietnamese folktales in the narrative (such as The Legend of Mai An Tiêm—how watermelons came to Vietnam, and the story of Chú Cuội, the man on the moon). I’d love to share more of these fairy tales to school audiences because they are so unique and not often known outside of the Vietnamese community.
I also have an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I would love to inspire children to write their own stories one day. When I was in school, I loved when authors visited. They inspired me so much to be an author one day, and I hope I can inspire children to reach for their dreams.
Furry Friends Are The Best Friends
Ines: Mèo is a powerful character. A real support animal if ever there was one. Was Mèo’s character always a part of the story, or did he develop as the story unfolded in your drafts?
Doan Phuong: Mèo’s evolution has been so interesting! In the early drafts, Mèo was such a tiny part of the story. He was there, but not that big of a character. Some critique partners wanted me to kill him because it wasn’t realistic that he’d survive through some of the events of the book, but then my literary agent thought he should be a larger part of the narrative. (He doesn’t die—don’t worry!) So, I revised the novel and Mèo became this sweet support animal/best friend to Bé, who supported her and helped her throughout the novel. He is a big part of how Bé survives and finds a hopeful ending! My editor asked me to revise the novel further, and we also get to meet Mèo’s siblings and his mother at the beginning of the novel.
This novel discusses a lot of hard, difficult topics that aren’t middle-grade friendly (such as sex slavery, domestic abuse, parental abandonment), but I didn’t want it to be a YA. When I was rejected in the past, some of the critiques were that this wasn’t a children’s novel. However, my editor and I worked very hard to make this novel very child-friendly, and I think Mèo is one of the reasons that it has succeeded in becoming an upper middle grade book. The tough, violent scenes also happen off screen, and we worked hard to soften the narrative to make it more palpable to younger audiences. However, because of the topics that are touched upon, this novel is best suited for ages 11 and up.
We Love Tropes
Ines: A quick Google search tells us that the found family trope is very popular in books for teens and older readers, but making familial bonds with friends at the middle-grade level is equally as important, if not more. According to the Yale-New Haven Teacher’s Institute, “[middle school students] are just beginning to be able to see themselves from an outside perspective. Making community connections are critical at this age.” Was it always your intention to incorporate this concept into the story? Or, did the found family aspect develop as you realized it was something that Bé needed?
Doan Phuong: I have always loved the idea of found family. For me personally, when my family immigrated to America from Vietnam, I lost my extended family members (my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins all stayed behind) and these family members had been so important to me in my earlier childhood years. However, in America, we were able to find family friends who bridged this gap. I was fortunate enough to have two American grandmothers and uncle (who had started as family friends, but our love for one another grew so they became my extended family.) So this idea of found family is very personal to me.
In this novel, Bé loses her biological family, but she gains an assortment of found family members. The women in the underground bunker, where she’s kept after she’s sold, protect her and become a village of loving mother and auntie figures. She also gains a new sister, and later a new adoptive mother.
To me, I wanted my readers to know that you can find found family anywhere. You just have to look and love people.
Tell Us Your Favorites
Ines: I truly believe this story will live in readers’ hearts long after they close the back cover. Are there any books or authors that left you feeling that way, effectually inspiring this gripping story of your own?
Doan Phuong: Thank you! I hope so too! I love so many amazing middle grade novelists. I love Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (2014). That was the first novel that I read that was based on real events, and it inspired me to use my own family history for future novels. I also loved Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again (2011), which touches on events in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Thanhha Lai’s work inspired me to write my own Vietnamese stories.
About Mèo and Bé
Eleven-year-old Bé hasn’t spoken a word since her mother left. She hangs on to the hope that one day they will be reunited, but after two years of waiting, it’s becoming more difficult. Her father–who is now frail and helpless after a stroke–can do little to protect her from her stepmother, Big Mother, who treats Bé like an animal and a servant. Thankfully, Bé has a secret friend, her little kitten Mèo, to comfort her in the worst of times. Maybe if she just steers clear of Big Mother and is obedient, everything will be okay.
Unfortunately, Big Mother has other plans. She accuses her of stealing, and Bé is drugged and sold. When she wakes up, she finds herself in a locked underground bunker being held captive with a group of young women. Bé is too young to understand why they’re prisoners, but at least she still has Mèo! He was hiding in her shirt when she was taken. As weeks pass, Bé makes a friend her own age, Ngân, even without speaking, and Mèo becomes a solace for the women–being available for cuddles and catching the mice that annoy them.
Suddenly, a violent uprising enables the imprisoned women and girls to escape, only to realize the wider world of war is just as dangerous. Can Bé and Mèo, and their newfound friend, Ngân, find their way to a safe place they can call home–even though the world is literally exploding all around them?
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More About Doan Phuong Nguyen
Doan Phuong Nguyen was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States when she was in elementary school. After growing up in the South, she settled in the Midwest. Doan Phuong loves anything pink and cute but enjoys writing incredibly sad, emotionally evocative novels. She received her MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. This is her first middle grade novel. Find her at doanphuong.com and on Instagram and TikTok @doanphuongwrites. Visit her website doanphuong.com.
((If you enjoyed this interview with Doan Phuong, you’ll love this interview of author K. Ibura.))