Sharing the Refugee Experience: The Paper Boat (2020) and The Most Beautiful Thing (2020)

Recently, I had the opportunity to review two children’s books, both providing a glimpse into the refugee experience. As a child of refugees, I grew up with the mentality that I encompass the hopes and dreams of my parents and their sacrifices. My success is not necessarily my own. My parents drilled this into me at a young age, but I don’t think I truly understood this until I was older. (While it remains a heavy burden, some days are easier than others.)

What was this idea of communal success? What were my parents’ sacrifices? Why was it important for them to see me succeed (other than being their child of course)? These ideas, these concepts were already difficult to comprehend but made more so when I was underrepresented at school and couldn’t find books that remotely shared anything close to the story of my life or that of my parents’. Lessons in the classroom were not exactly helpful either.

When I was in around 9 years old, I had an assignment to write about my ancestors in the United States. Who was I supposed to write about? My ancestors tilled the fields of China and roamed the jungles of Laos. I had no ancestors in the U.S. whom I could lay claim to, unlike my friends who discovered their connections to individuals like Annie Oakley. The first people in my family to come to the United States were my aunt and her husband, who arrived in the late 1970s just a few years before my parents. With the parameters set, I didn’t see any other option but to write about my aunt and her family. Ancestors were relatives and my aunt was a relative, right? And my aunt was in the United States, right? That fulfilled the assignment requirements…right?

When I think back on this assignment, it often feels like blasphemy. I come from a culture that believes our ancestors continue to watch over us even after they pass, bringing fortune and helping us to overcome the bad. And, I couldn’t share their stories, their accomplishments. I’ve never forgotten this experience. This memory is one that lingers, often appearing at the most unexpected moments but bringing with it my hopes and wishes for the future, for change.

The incessant call for diversity in publishing, especially as the demographics of the United States shift to become minority-majority, is an opportunity for stories that better reflect the plethora of rich narratives in our communities. When I came upon The Paper Boat (2020) and The Most Beautiful Thing (2020), I was overwhelmed with emotions. I wish I had these stories to read when I was growing up to better understand my parents, to better understand my history, to know that I wasn’t alone.

Full disclosure: I was provided a copy of each of these books through Netgalley for an honest review but I will be purchasing them for my personal library to share with nieces and nephews.

THE PAPER BOAT (2020)

ISBN: 9781771473637. Children of Southeast Asian refugees like myself will appreciate the harrowing journey Lam shares of a girl and her family’s escape from Vietnam. Presented without words, readers must interpret the story through images illustrated with collage art. It encourages a more intimate connection by having readers closely observe the actions and emotions on each page so when readers finally reach the author’s note, there is a greater emotional impact. The Paper Boat provides an opportunity to share the sacrifices of our families, passing down stories to a younger generation so they may understand their history is not only one filled with pain but also courage and hope.

Thao Lam is an award winning author and has written several children’s books that include her collage art. She was only two when her family fled Vietnam. She currently resides in Canada and is also an art buyer for an educational publishing company.

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THING (2020)

ISBN: 9781541561915. The Most Beautiful Thing is the heartfelt story of a Hmong girl and her relationship with her grandmother. It’s a simple and meaningful story with the lesson that beauty is more than just what we can see or buy. The book is beautifully illustrated with an array of colors reminiscent of traditional Hmong clothes. I would have appreciated a book such as this when I was growing up, one with a character who looks like me and shares a similar family history. I cannot wait to share this book with my nieces once it is published so they can also see themselves reflected in the books they read.

Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong American author, public speaker and teacher who has garnered several awards for her books. Born in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in 1980, she came to the United States with her family when she was seven. Currently, she resides in St. Paul, Minnesota.

**For those who do not read Hmong or are unsure how to pronounce the Hmong words, the phonetic spelling of each at the beginning of the book is helpful.

I would love to know what books you have read that you wished had been published when you were growing up? What books would you love to share with children?

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