We are delighted to join the Nonfiction Picture Book meme 2020 hosted by Alyson Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year, when we can.
The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story (Amazon | Book Depository)
Written and Illustrated by Thao Lam
Published by OwlKids (2020)
ISBN13: 9781771473637 Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.
This is a wordless tale depicting a family’s displacement from their home to seek refuge in a new land. The fear, anxiety, and the imminent threat posed by armed soldiers had been conveyed so realistically through Lam’s signature collage art – see the young girl looking out their window in the image below:
There is a parallel narrative of a family of ants saved by the child in the story who unwittingly and fortuitously led mother and daughter to relative safety – a boat that will lead the family away from the only home they have ever known.
As mother and daughter climbed aboard the boat, the girl leaves a paper boat behind that was used by the colony of ants who are themselves displaced just like the girl’s family. I found the visual narrative to be especially powerful as it portrays through allegory the difficulties encountered by Lam’s family through the ants’ experiences. I found it to be quite unique and also very emotionally affecting, especially as one reads the detailed Author’s Note which explained Lam’s use of ants as inspired by her mother’s magical tale of comfort and resilience.
I would even go as far as claim that it has Spiegelman’s Maus elements to the narrative with the colony of ants depicted here. Lam’s technical expertise is demonstrated here with her play in perspective, and her ability to distance herself from her own narrative through this allegorical representation of her family’s harrowing experience as refugees from Vietnam, and their tumultuous journey across the South China Sea.
For the longest time, all I knew about the war and our escape was a magical story woven by my mother. Long before the war, she said, the only invasions were by ants looking for food. Her mother would set out bowls of sugar water to rid the house of the pests. As a child, Mom spent carefree afternoons rescuing them. In return, the ants rescued her when we fled Vietnam.
Through this wordless tale, Thao Lam invited the reader into her narrative, into her family’s story, into what matters most to her. It also revealed how luminous her spirit is: her strength of character rooted in something so fierce and courageous.
When looking for strength and courage, I often picture my mother pregnant with my sister and stranded at sea with me.
This is a beautifully told story without words – just tragedy transformed into something beautiful and awe-inspiring. I hope it finds you soon.
#ReadIntl2020 Update: Vietnam – Thao Lam is Vietnamese-Canadian.