Portland author Phuc Tran has written a children’s book, “Cranky,” about a construction crane in a bad mood. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Phuc Tran’s childhood experiences as the son of Vietnamese refugees, often bullied and discriminated against, might not seem like ideal fodder for a feel-good kids’ story.

Yet when an executive at HarperCollins read Tran’s 2020 memoir “Sigh, Gone,” she thought his storytelling style would be perfect for a new children’s book called “Cranky,” about a construction crane who’s in a bad mood and can’t be talked out of it.

“I said yes right away, I liked the idea of writing a story for children that wasn’t all sugary,” said Tran, 50, co-owner of Tsunami Tattoo in Portland. “I wanted to lean into some of the complicated experiences we all have as children. Kids don’t get permission to be unpleasant and upset, adults are always trying to fix what’s wrong. But it’s OK for kids to be cranky.”

“Cranky” goes on sale Tuesday, and Tran will read from it during a book launch event Saturday at Back Cove Books in Portland. Tran also is scheduled to be the guest at a Portland Press Herald Maine Voices Live event on March 26 at One Longfellow Square in Portland.

“Cranky” is the first of a planned three-book series written by Tran and illustrated by Pete Oswald, who is known for the artwork in the New York Times bestsellers “The Good Egg,” “The Bad Seed” and “The Smart Cookie,” all written by Jory John. He was also animation production designer for “The Angry Birds Movie” and for the film “ParaNorman.”

Oswald had been thinking of doing drawings of trucks and construction vehicles for a possible book and was playing around with the name Cranky for the crane. But he had not thought about the story and didn’t know who might write it, until his editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, Nancy Inteli, mentioned Tran.


She had read “Sigh, Gone,” loved it and told Oswald to read it, too. In short order, Tran was being asked to write his first children’s book.

“I loved his honesty and his sense of comedic timing, I thought it was just brilliant,” said Oswald, who is based in Los Angeles. “Phuc was able to bring this overall feeling to the story, that we all get cranky, we all have emotions and that every day is not a great day.”

Tran, who taught Latin at Waynflete School in Portland for 16 years, said Cranky is about a crane who acts more like a kid than a truck and is about 80% human and 20% truck. He said a colleague once told him “play is the work of childhood,” and he kept that in mind when writing about Cranky and his work adventures.

Portland author Phuc Tran tried to put a few funny lines for adults in “Cranky,” like calling the trucks’ favorite band “Haulin’ Notes.” Image courtesy of HarperCollins

In the book, Cranky gets out of bed and right away announces that he’s cranky. He tells the reader he’d rather not talk about it, as he eats his cereal. He goes into detail about how all his parts are working perfectly, so there should be nothing wrong. He shows up at a bridge construction site for work and is immediately greeted in a way he finds annoyingly cheery, by his friends Zippy, a cement mixer, and Wheezy, a forklift.

Over several pages, Cranky persists in telling his friends he doesn’t want to talk about his mood and that they can’t do anything to snap him out of his funk. In the end, they all seem to understand that letting somebody be cranky might be the best solution. The books are recommended for ages 4-8.

Tran with his daughters Phoebe, left, and Beatrix at their Portland home. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Tran throws in some funny lines for adults, like a piece of construction equipment named Jacques Hammer, who makes creme brulee for lunch, and Haulin’ Notes, the name of the trucks’ favorite pop band. As the father of two daughters – Beatrix, 10, and Phoebe, 13 – Tran said he appreciates puns and cultural references for grown-ups snuck into children’s books and movies.



Inteli, who is vice president and publisher at HarperCollins Children’s Books, said in an email that she found Tran’s memoir “raw and punk and heartfelt” and that his style worked perfectly in “Cranky.”

“He’s as successful writing for children as he is for his adult audience because he has an authentic voice that’s appealing and relatable,” Inteli wrote. “In ‘Cranky,’ he’s able to bring to life this experience that all kids have – in a way that’s accessible and funny. Phuc talks to the reader on equal footing, which allows him to make complex social emotional issues approachable.”

Pete Oswald, New York Times bestselling illustrator, teamed with Portland author Phuc Tran for the new “Cranky” series. Image courtesy of HarperCollins

Tran’s memoir was largely about his growing up in mostly white, working-class Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and his struggle to understand his identity and fit in there. He was not quite 2 years old in 1975, when his parents and grandparents were forced to flee Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The long Vietnam War was at an end, as Viet Cong forces were about to take over the southern part of the country and create one Vietnamese nation under a communist government. Tran’s grandparents had worked for the U.S. embassy and his father was a lawyer, so if they stayed in Saigon, they risked their lives.

Tran wrote in his memoir about years of feeling like an outcast and being the target of racial slurs. To be bullied less he decided to “be less Asian.” He became a devotee of punk rock, as American as it gets, and decided to read the classics of English literature and become a star student.

As for his own reading as a kid, Tran says that most of the children’s books in the house when he was young were donated by people who sponsored his family’s settlement in the U.S. He remembers getting an illustrated children’s Bible and a volume of Grimm’s fairy tales.

Both of those were filled “with a fair amount of real life challenges and trauma,” which he thinks influenced his own attitude about kids’ books and that shows up in “Cranky.”

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