- The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story by Thao Lam
Lam, Thao The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story; written and illus. by Thao Lam. Owlkids, 2020 [40p] Trade ed. ISBN 9781771473637 $17.95 Reviewed from digital galleys R* 5-10 yrs
This wordless picture book follows a Vietnamese family forced to flee from their home when Communist forces swarm southward after the 1975 fall of Saigon. A family gathers around their dinner table, annoyed only by the ants bent on foraging their meal; when soldiers and a tank appear in the window, they hastily gather their valuables and disappear into the night. Mother and daughter creep stealthily though the brush, trying desperately to evade the soldiers; the mother calms and quiets her exhausted child by making an origami boat as they hide in the brush. A small fishing boat arrives to whisk them away, and the art redirects to a second tale: a stream of ants purloins the abandoned paper boat and launches it on the water, where the insects struggle against storm, heat, thirst, and sea bird attack until survivors reach another shore. The parallel tales converge in an obviously Western apartment: the family has reconvened around the dinner table (grandmother present in a picture on a sideboard), the ants are back claiming their share of the meal, and the scene pans out to a streetside cutaway of apartment buildings occupied by refugees from around the globe. Lam's paper collage scenes feature roughly cut painted paper shapes layered into elegantly simple compositions, with black and white backdrops that support commanding focal points—blue-clad family members, a pink origami boat, vibrant orange bursts of relentless sun and spears of lightning. In her closing note Lam tells of her family's flight from Vietnam, which she was too young to remember in detail but has imaginatively reconstructed here from stories her mother told of the escape. This sensitively rendered story is accessible to young viewers, and it's a perfect stepping stone for older readers almost ready to tackle Tan's The Arrival (BCCB 1/08).