September 25, 2020

The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

Written and illustrated by Thao Lam
Owlkids Books
40 pp.
Ages 6-10
September 2020
Told exclusively in the glorious collage art of Thao Lam, The Paper Boat follows the flight of a little girl and her mother away from Vietnam, a journey paralleled by an army of ants who strive for their own survival.

From The Paper Boat by Thao Lam

As the front endpapers illustrate, The Paper Boat begins amidst a history of the war in Vietnam. The conflict between South Vietnam and the North Vietnamese escalates until April 30, 1975 when Saigon falls and the South Vietnamese surrender. While a family tries to curtail an invasion of ants with sugar water, and a little girl uses her chopsticks to rescue them and send them on their way, the Vietcong tanks roll past their window. Soon the family is packing up and saying their goodbyes, with mother tearing her daughter away from her father and grandparents who have their own journeys.
From The Paper Boat by Thao Lam

As mother and daughter escape through long grass, hiding from soldiers, they follow a parade of ants in the moonlight to the water's edge. But while they wait for Vietcong patrols to leave, the mother distracts the child by fashioning a paper boat from the wrapping around their food. When their escape boat arrives, the paper boat is left behind but discovered by ants who will begin their own escape by boat.

From The Paper Boat by Thao Lam

The ants endure a multitude of hardships–undoubtedly mirroring what the child and her family bear on their own boat–from limited food and water, to calamitous weather and the capsizing of the boat before making landfall. Even as they help each other, some are lost, before they come together at a new table in a new place.

From the clues in Thao Lam's story, as well as her "Author's Note," it becomes evident that The Paper Boat is based on the author-illustrator's own family history of escape from Vietnam. This tale of migration is laced with trauma and danger and, by telling it through the parallel story about the ants, Thao Lam tells us so much without the reader witnessing the horrors of their fleeing. They, like the ants, come to make a new home, with the child together with both parents and even a new little one–though a photograph with incense on a side table suggests a grandmother who did not survive–in a city teeming with families undoubtedly with some of their own stories of migration.

By creating her story without text, Thao Lam invites the reader to delve into the story and make connections between the two families, one ant and one human, finding the similarities and differences in their plights and the relationships between and within. By using her collage art with images on cut paper layered to create depth and texture, Thao Lam brings us to a table, onto a boat, and into a city. Moreover, by using a limited palette, mostly sombre colours like dark blues and black with splashes of pink and golden for hopeful elements like the sun, the boats and food, Thao Lam makes us see where hope lies. Reassuringly, their new home is filled with the colour of promise.

From The Paper Boat by Thao Lam

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