This powerful picture book is a wordless recreation via metaphor of the author’s family’s journey from Vietnam to Canada at the end of the Vietnam War. Only two at the time, Thao Lam remembers little of the events themselves, but has taken her mother’s story and crafted it beautifully for this children’s book.
Working in her preferred mixed-media/collage art style, she tells the tale of a Vietnamese family forced to flee their homeland by boat, merging seamlessly with the tale of ants also embarking on a perilous journey using a paper boat her mother folded to keep her quiet and entertained while hiding from military brutality. The ants have a hard time of it out on the open water, beset by heat, birds, hunger and storms. So it is almost magical when the ants make their way to safety, just as Ms Lam’s family does, finally settling in beautiful urban Canada.
This is a book that requires the reader to pore over each beautiful panel in order to get the full effect of the story. It’s especially important to pay attention on pages 28 & 29, as my 9 year-old and I needed to go back when we were done reading to see that the ants had made landfall and weren’t merely swimming in a calmer sea. I was probably slightly more affected by the book than he was, tho he did enjoy the art and the fact that there weren’t any words till the insightful author’s note at the end.
The Paper Boat is the kind of book that skillfully does the tough but necessary work of encouraging empathy, especially for refugees. While Ms Lam is carefully neutral about the involvement of Malaysia in resettling Vietnamese arrivals, I personally wish that the land I grew up in had shown far more hospitality then, and would show far more kindness and decency to the refugees they host now. Which is all very well for me to say, given that I live in a country with its own deplorable track record, that I’m hoping to help correct come November*. In the meantime, I’ll keep promoting books like this one in hopes that it will help open eyes, hearts and minds to the very real human suffering we can do so much to alleviate simply by recognizing the humanity in one another and treating others the way we would want to be treated.
*semi-regular reminder for Americans to check your voter registration and otherwise prepare yourself to vote by going to Vote.org.