A little girl and ants share a perilous journey escaping war-torn Vietnam.
The Paper Boat is a refugee story using Lam’s signature collage art. It’s a story without words, genre ‘wordless narrative’ that allows the child and parent to experience the menacing experience of escape. As the story begins a Vietnamese little girl saves ants from a sugar water trap using a chopstick. It puts a smile on her face, but through the pages her family wear only worry on their own. Looming outside the window of their home war-tanks can be seen with the infamous Communist star on it’s side. Troops are marching, there is a war raging outside and they must use all their money and jewelry to escape. They have a small boat, not much different than the one the little girl folds for the ants she has rescued, they too will set off on the waters and their own dangerous journey. The brutal sun, illness, exhaustion, threats from the sky like deadly seabirds who want to eat them, near drowning, vicious storms and scores of ants clustered together, much like the author’s own family went through.
Once they are safe and on land, have a place to stay in a city and food to eat there is another family member, a newborn as the mother in the story was pregnant on the journey. Now they are in a place where many cultures blend, as evidenced from the artwork and different styles of dress. They are alive, no longer living in fear, a fresh start from what they knew in Vietnam… building a different life. I found an interview with the author Thao Lam on YouTube about this beautiful book and her family’s experience. It’s well worth watching. She was only 2 at the time of their escape and as you can read in the Author’s Note at the end, she has no recollection of their journey, all her questions were met with silence about the unspeakable things that happened during the Vietnam war. Her mother, however, found a way to speak about seeking asylum to a young Thao by using insects and telling ‘a magical story about ants, the only invasion before the war’. This magic was a seed planted in Thao’s memory, giving birth to this tender book.
Ants rebuild, ants work together for survival, and they reflect everything Thao Lam’s family and refugees like themselves went through. Of course, a child’s understanding of what they are looking at is different dependent on age. Parents can explain what is happening, the art stands on it’s own, children generally love looking at art. The story is far more tender knowing the background. I always enjoy children’s books, both of my adult children are artists and we appreciate unique stories geared towards the young. It is a good way to teach our youth about other cultures and our own. Books are a bridge between us because stories, too, cross oceans. Lovely.
Out Now Published September 15, 2020