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Natalie Portman and Viet Thanh Nguyen talk kids books at L.A. Times Festival of Books

Viet Thanh Nguyen with his son Ellison in the backyard of their Pasadena home.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Tortoises racing hares, chickens becoming pirates: Children’s stories dominated the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this weekend.

Sunday’s virtual events included a discussion with Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman, who shared the inspiration behind her first book, “Natalie Portman’s Fables,” with Times film critic Justin Chang. Earlier in the day, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, his son Ellison Nguyen, illustrator Thi Bui and her son Hien Bui-Stafford talked about being multigenerational creative team behind 2019’s “Chicken of the Sea.”

Portman’s debut, illustrated by Janna Mattia, was inspired by reading stories to her two children — Amalia, 3, and Aleph, 9 — to whom the book is dedicated. Surprised at how many characters, animals included, defaulted to male, she decided to embark on a gender-inclusive update.

“Storytelling develops empathy more than anything,” Portman said. “... And if we’re practicing empathizing with primarily male characters, that affects boys and girls in negative ways.”

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And so her slow-and-steady hero in “The Tortoise and the Hare” is female, while the Three Little Pigs are male, female and nonbinary. Portman also layered on other topical morals: The female wolf threatening to blow their houses down? A metaphor for climate change.

“I thought [the story] was relevant in terms of the environment,” Portman said, “and how we need to consider how we build and live in order not to have this self-made wolf that is climate change.”

 Natalie Portman
Portman’s book “Natalie Portman’s Fables,” was inspired by reading stories to her two children — Amalia, 3, and Aleph, 9 — to whom the book is dedicated.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

You might expect even more serious moral examinations from Nguyen, whose acclaimed literary spy novel, “The Sympathizer,” features a Vietnamese refugee who must choose between his friends and his secret Communist loyalties. In fact, “Chicken of the Sea” just isn’t that deep.

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His collaboration with Bui follows a group of chickens who abandon their farm home to become pirates — a meandering and deadpan tale with no weighty lesson at the end.

Conceptualized by then-5-year-old Ellison (with a narrative assist from his dad) and illustrated by then-13-year-old Hien (whose mom helped color in the drawings), “Chicken of the Sea” was an exercise for both parents in lightening up.

“I never could have come up with a story about chicken of the sea,” said Nguyen during the virtual event, moderated by Sumun L. Pendakur from USC’s Race and Equity Center.

“I would probably have to think about, ‘Oh my God, what about Vietnamese New Year? What about cultural differences and language issues and moon cakes?’ … [Ellison] just went straight to the heart of chickens and pirates and pursuing one’s dreams, even if one happens to be a chicken.”

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Like Nguyen, Bui is a Vietnamese refugee. She chronicled her own story in the celebrated 2017 illustrated memoir “The Best We Could Do.”

“Our generation would never, ever — as Vietnamese refugees, especially people who fled on boats — be able to write a book about pirates where the pirates were the good guys,” she half-joked, eliciting a chuckle from Nguyen.

When asked about his inspiration, Ellison, now 7, was forthright: “I like chickens. I like pirates.”

His favorite part of the process was collaborating with his dad.

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“I’m desperately trying to pressure him to write the sequel to ‘Chicken of the Sea,’ because he’s almost run out of royalties, right?” Nguyen said. “No money, no Legos. That’s the key artistic incentive here right now.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen is photographed with his son Ellison
Writing “Chicken of the Sea” gave Viet Thanh Nguyen a chance to bond with his son Ellison.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Other than an opportunity to bond with his son, it was also a chance for Nguyen to reconnect with his own inner child. Ellison’s freewheeling style even influenced Nguyen’s forthcoming book, “The Committed,” a sequel to “The Sympathizer” that will be out in March 2021.

Nguyen said it helped him “get over certain kinds of barriers we have as adults. Like we’re supposed to think a certain way; or as writers, we’re supposed to write a certain way.”

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Portman is also using her new book to connect with her kids.

“Whenever [my daughter] asks me to read the book at night I get really excited,” Portman said, “because she’s very picky about what we read. That is just the biggest compliment.”

The star of “Jackie” and “Black Swan” hopes to keep it real with her children at a level they can understand — a strategy that carries over into her everyday life as she attempts to explain the back-to-back crises of 2020.

“I try to answer in the most honest and simple way possible, and also give a feeling that everything is going to be OK — even thought it doesn’t always feel that way.”


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