September 24, 2020


The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story by Thao Lam is another brilliant wordless display of Lam's talents as a paper cut and collage connoisseur.

The Paper Boat tells two simultaneous stories, one of a family's escape from Vietnam during the war and another parallel story of a colony of adaptable ants. The two stories open together at a small house, where a young child is doing her best to save an encroaching ant from drowning in her food. She and her family are escaping tonight, and, along with the ants, the girl and her family run silently through the countryside of Vietnam to a small boat that will take them to safety. The ants take their own boat––a paper boat the girl has made––and though we don't see the family on the boat during their long journey, we see the ants' trip and understand that it is very dangerous, hot, and scary. When we see the young child and the family again, they are settled in their new home and gathering for a meal much like the opening scene, but this time with another child in tow and remembrance incense burning for a lost grandparent who seemingly did not make it off the boat. 

The force of emotion we pull from the images of this wordless story is genuinely hard to put into words. Lam takes care to depict every feeling of every key moment from the young girl's perspective, providing readers with an innocent lens through which to connect with this story. Like many readers, this young girl has never experienced anything like this before, and the book takes care to present the journey through an innocent child's eyes, from the very beginning when the girl is more focused on the ant than on the emotions of her parents to the end when the story comes full circle in the girl's eyes as she sits down to a new kind of family meal.

The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story published last week from Owlkids. You can also read an interview I did a few years back with Thao Lam about her illustration process here.

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