Remona Htoo didn’t have any children’s books growing up. Now, she’s publishing one of her own.
Htoo was born into a Karen family fleeing the civil war in Myanmar. She spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Thailand before her family resettled in Idaho, in 2007. At the time, the 12-year-old spoke no English.
Refugees don’t choose where in the U.S where they end up. A significant population of Karen people came to Minnesota, but only 20-odd families landed in Idaho, Htoo said.
There she discovered a love for the outdoors and found a sense of comfort from a challenging and culturally isolated childhood. While attending college at a small Christian university, she began taking trips to the Sawtooth Mountains, where she fell in love with the landscapes of mountains, pine trees, and clear lakes.
“It was me trying to cope with stress, trying to cope with the trauma I had. It was a healing mechanism for me,” Htoo said.
Ten years ago, she met a young Karen man online who lived in St. Paul: More than 17,000 Karen people live in the city and neighboring Maplewood. The two shared early childhood experiences in the refugee camps, and struck up a relationship. Now, the two are married, with a 22-month older daughter, Emma, and live in St. Paul’s east side.
A well traveled toddler
Htoo, 27, began taking her daughter on outdoor adventures: backpacking and camping in the summer; and sledding in the winter. The family goes near and far to experience nature. In St. Paul, she likes Hidden Falls and Crosby Farm Regional Parks. They’ve trekked the Superior Hiking Trail and made trips to state parks on the North Shore. In the summer, the family hits the roads to visit national parks like Glacier, in Montana. Emma has already seen 10 national parks—more than many adults.
Though Htoo has been to share many many activities with her daughter, she couldn’t find a book to read to her in Karen.
“After I became a mom, I realized there are no children’s books in Karen,” she said. “I wanted to read a book in Karen for my daughter.”
So, Htoo took action. She wrote and self-published My Little Legs, a book she said is about “being outdoors and what your little legs can do.”
Emma, her daughter, served as inspiration for the main character. She wears a traditional Karen shirt in the illustrations, created by local artist Mikayla Johnson. The book is bilingual, with English and Karen script.
There are very few children’s books, or books in general, published in Karen in the United States, and much of what exists originated in St. Paul. There are just 32 books published in the Karen language available in United States libraries, according to the WorldCat library search catalog.
St. Paul Public Library recognized the need for more Karen language literature. The library system has published three children’s books in Karen since 2015, according to spokesperson Stacy Optiz. The most recent is Children’s Stories, a collection of five traditional Karen folk stories, released in 2021.
My Little Legs targets families with children ages 1–3. In compiling the tale, Htoo looked back at Emma’s own development milestones, like learning to crawl and walk. She also wanted to create an outdoor adventure story that featured southeast Asian characters, and to inspire a curiosity about the Karen people for other American readers.
“I don’t think people think we are the outdoor type,” Htoo said.
People of color make up about 20 percent of Minnesota’s population, but only 5 percent of state park users, according to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources data. Many Minnesotans of color feel isolated in outdoor spaces. In response, groups like BIPOC Outdoors Twin Cities emerged, where people can find diverse friends to hit the trails or go fishing.
Htoo self-published the book, and is currently selling the first 100 copies on her own. She also runs an Etsy store, where she has produced stickers featuring women of color in the outdoors. She hopes to add the book to the Etsy store soon.