When You Were Born in Vietnam

Interview by Allison Martin

Therese and William Bartlett, authors of When You Were Born in Vietnam, describe their experiences in creating this lovely children's book for children adopted from Vietnam. When You Were Born in Vietnam is the illustrated account of a Vietnamese adoption story as told to your adopted child.

Could you share some of the experiences you had in putting your book together?

This book gave us a wonderful opportunity to see Vietnam from north to south. We traveled from Hanoi to Hué to Saigon and down to some very small villages in the Mekong Delta. All with our two-and-a-half year old (and then 10-month old) in tow! It was an awesome experience!

One of our most cherished memories came from a visit to a temple near Hué. Just outside the temple was a small hut where a family lived and made incense. The mother was busy making non la, the quintessential conical hats of Vietnam, and the children (ages 5-15) each were making incense sticks. It was pouring rain and their hut was surrounded by dogs and chickens and a rooster which kept crowing. They were so warm and inviting and welcomed us into their homes, cameras and all. We’ll never forget their hospitality nor their smiles, so genuinely pleased to spend time with us.

We had unlimited access to the orphanages, where the shy and smiling nannies giggled incessantly, wondering why on earth we would want to take so many pictures of them. It was wonderful to spend so much time with the people who cared for our two children before they joined our family. And to see their reactions to seeing Moya return to them only two years after her adoption--priceless!

Mostly, our visits to temples, pagodas, the countryside and into the homes of the people--places most adoptive parents never get to visit with as much freedom as we had on these trips--will be forever etched into our memories. We truly feel that we have left a part of our hearts there, along with family that we must return to greet. It is a feeling that we never anticipated would be as strong as it is.

What ideas do you have for parents who wish to share the adoption story with their children?

We never intended that this book was for the children alone. It is meant to be shared between parent(s) and child. It is meant to be a stepping stone, a springboard for talking about adoption and how a child came to be united with his/her family. Our own children love talking about their nannies, pointing to pictures of their cribs, and telling anyone who will listen that they were born across the sea and came home to us on an airplane. As they get older their questions will get harder and their interest may wane, but they’ll always know that they were wanted and that others wanted a better life for them. We have no degrees in childhood education and no magical answers regarding adoption, but we sincerely believe our children deserve to know that they came from a land where life can be hard and that adoption is a miracle for all involved.

What was your inspiration for your book?

Bill and I met while I was an art director for a national catalog retailer and Bill was the head photographer on the project. We worked together frequently and then after we married we began our own studio and worked together on a regular basis. But we’d always wanted to do a project together that would be just for us...something that would creatively satisfy us both. Prior to adopting our daughter Moya in December of 1998, we’d talked about how we would take photos while in Vietnam and then come home, write up a draft and contact the publisher of the “When You Were Born...” series. Problem was, when we were there to adopt Moya, we were always trying to outrun monsoons and bad weather and our own adoption delays left little time for quality photography. Plus, we were so totally enthralled with our new little bundle, it was hard to think of anything else!

Just after we’d started the process to adopt our son, Nathan, we were contacted by the people at Catalyst Foundation and Yeong and Yeong Book Company. They’d gotten to know us through our involvement with Catalyst and through the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota’s Vietnam Families Group. They felt we were right for the project and asked if we were interested. Interested? When do we pack? That was our response. We couldn’t have been more thrilled!

We’d have to say that our inspiration for the book was our own children. Like most adoptive parents, we wanted a resource to help us tell them their stories. Being chosen to create that resource was a real honor. And knowing that all profits from the book were going to Catalyst Foundation, an organization that we knew firsthand was making a difference in Vietnam, made it even more rewarding to us personally.

This was such a colloaborative project, how did you go about creating it?

Of course, having the Korea and China books as a guideline certainly helped set us on the path for creating this book. Under the tutelage of our publisher, Brian Boyd, we were able to benefit from his past experiences with those very successful books. But our vision of the book was something more than those books had offered. We were elated when we were told we could do the book in full color. To us, the black and white photography was beautiful, but color would truly show the spirit of Vietnam and the stories there to tell. We tried to think through every aspect of the book, from wanting a horizontal layout that fit better across two laps (a parent and child) to trying to include children of all ages, from all regions of Vietnam, coming home to a single parent or a huge family. Clearly, this book couldn’t be all things to all people, but we made a whole-hearted effort to give families a common framework from which to tell their own unique stories.

From the writer’s perspective, I wanted this book to offer more of the child’s view... what they might have been thinking and feeling as a little baby. I tried to interject that into the story and think it came through well.

Similarly, from the photographer’s perspective, Bill wanted to grasp the interest of the children who will read the book by showing more than just photos of buildings and ceremonies. He wanted to capture the soul of the people in the fields and the streets, the children and their caregivers. He wanted his images to express emotion . . . both sorrows and joys.

Together, we wanted to include more of the history of Vietnam without becoming political or sounding like a travelogue. We settled on a few well-chosen words and thought-provoking photographs which we think show the beauty of this country so dear to our hearts.

What are your plans for the future?

We’re very involved with Catalyst Foundation and hope to join their Aid Expedition next year as a whole family. I went on the expedition last summer and cannot tell you what a moving experience that was to be with nearly 300 orphaned children and help rennovate orphanages and build playgrounds.

At the same time we were doing this book and adopting our son, Nathan, we founded a series of art contests in Vietnam which provide scholarships for kids ages 5 through 16. Helping the kids stay in school is their best chance for a better future. The contests were held in three provinces and several more have asked to participate. Our last contest had more than 4800 entries and continues to grow! Our calendar which showcased the winning art was a great success. A portion of the profits from product sales supports this scholarship program and is donated back to the needy kids in Vietnam. We feel blessed to be involved with this project.

And, of course, any opportunity to return to Vietnam...

Theresa and William Bartlett are the authors of When You were Born in Vietnam. Therese Bartlett is Creative Director and President of Bartlett Studio, Inc., a graphic design firm in St. Paul, Minnesota. While her paying work helps feed her family, it is her work on behalf of Vietnam that feeds her spirit. William Bartlett is a commercial photographer with more than 20 years experience in advertising and editorial photography. He has produced award-winning work for major corporations and has received top honors and recognition for his personal work. Nothing has been so rewarding as his experiences while photographing the people of Vietnam. Together they are the proud parents of two children from Vietnam, both adopted through Children’s Home Society of Minnesota.