Thao by Thao Lam

This is a beautiful children’s picture book that tackles a topic very near to my heart, seeing as I’m only now embracing my own Asian-inspired name in favor of the Anglo one I’ve used professionally since I started getting paid to review books. In my case, however, the Asian-inspired name is a weird mess my parents made up, hippie-style: even they caved and have been calling me Doreen for as long as I can remember. My real first name, Edaureen, is distinctive and, IMO, looks pretty on the page. It’s pronounced ee-DOW-reen but not even my best friend from grade school could get it right, so I’ve never minded being called Doreen, since that is essentially what I’ve been called since birth. Plus, it kinda stings whenever people pronounce it wrong (or when they think it’s a variant on Eduardo, like, wat?) so I actively encourage the nickname in social settings.

It’s my last name I’ve always felt bad about eliding. My parents shortened it from Muhamad Nor (my dad’s given name, as is tradition in my culture) to just Nor when I enrolled in American kindergarten, and I’ve pretty much gone by Doreen Nor when in the west, sometimes adding M as a pretend middle initial, a defiant reminder that I’m Muslim even if I don’t look it. I adopted Doreen Sheridan as my professional name after I married, tho I never changed it legally. Being both Muslim and Malaysian, the patriarchal adoption of a male spouse’s family name feels like an unnecessary erasure of my own identity. I was willing to go along with name changes socially and professionally, but legally just felt like too much of a negation of who I am, where I come from and what I believe.

Which is why I found this book exceedingly relatable. Telling the autobiographical story of the author as a little girl, trying to get people to call her by her actual name instead of a weird or even racist variant, this book is gorgeously designed and presented in a way that makes it easy for young readers to digest and empathize with. I’ve always been a fan of Thao Lam’s collage art, and love the incorporation of her own childhood photos here.

But I found it baffling that she doesn’t actually explain how to say her name. In the book, she shows a lot of the mispronunciations — several of which I’d guessed were how I was supposed to pronounce her name — but not the actual way to say it. And that’s a huge letdown. The name Thao and its correct pronunciation are uncommon knowledge. Readers likely picked up this book because they’re open to learning how to say it correctly. I get that Ms Lam might not have wanted to go into greater detail here about how to have that conversation in general — tho that’s a hugely useful topic for young readers, IMO! — but there’s a weird undercurrent of “if you can’t say my name correctly then you’re the one who’s deficient, not me.”

First of all, no one is deficient for having an unusual name nor for lacking an innate understanding as to how to say it. Not knowing how to pronounce things is both common and not inherently racist. Encouraging people to ask politely instead of assuming only works if you’re not going to be weird, or worse, about answering the question. People with entitlement issues deserve to be knocked down a peg, but people who don’t know but would like to learn should be taught what they need. If you’re going to write an entire book lamenting the mispronunciation of your name, it’s bizarre that you wouldn’t also use that book to tell people how to say your name correctly.

A reviewer on Goodreads very helpfully found this link as to how Ms Lam pronounces it. Being Malaysian, I didn’t even know the correct pronunciation of her last name, as we default to a different “a” sound, as with the one Malaysian Lam I know in real life. All that said, I’m glad this book is now a part of the conversation, even if I think it could have contributed more. It’s another visually beautiful addition to Ms Lam’s canon, even if it falls short in talking about how we can all respectfully learn to address one another.

Thao by Thao Lam was published today April 15th 2021 by Owlkids Press and is available from all good booksellers, including

Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.

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  1. So many different a’s in the places I have lived, and only two of the languages aren’t Indo-European! Completely agree that giving the correct version would be a good thing.

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