Thao Lam’s The Paper Boat

h1 August 20th, 2020 by jules


If you’ve seen Thao Lam’s previous picture books, you know that she works in a distinctive paper collage style and that her books have been consistently quirky. (Case in point is last year’s very funny My Cat Looks Like My Dad.) Coming to shelves next month, though, is a personal story from her, called The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story (Owlkids, September 2020). Here today at 7-Imp are a few spreads from it.

When Thao was two years old, her family fled Vietnam. Here is part of what she writes in this book’s closing author’s note:

Cornered by fear and desperation, my parents risked the unknown. They boarded a small fishing boat with twenty-seven other passengers. Actually, twenty-eight—my mother, afraid of bering left behind, did not tell my father she was three months pregnant with my sister. I have no recollection of this time. For years, I didn’t understand the sad silence that followed my questions about the war and our journey across the South China Sea.

Landing in Malaysia, Thao and her family lived in a refugee camp. Also included in the book’s backmatter is what Thao describes as her first and only baby photo, taken in that camp.

This wordless story, which makes use of panels to pace the narrative, tells this story but with an unusual twist — ants. As she also notes in the book’s backmatter, Thao was “struck by the traits shared by ants and refugeees.” It’s a Vietnamese girl and her family here who escape in a boat, but the perilous journey we see is the one the ants take across the sea. The ants board a paper boat that the girl’s mother folds and sets on the water as her own family awaits the boat that will take them to safety. The ants’ journey, mirroring the ones refugees still take all over the world, is perilous. Not all of the ants survive. Following that harrowing journey is a happier sight: We see that the girl and her family have re-settled. (The girl even has an ant sighting.)

Lam’s highly textured paper collage illustrations are beguiling. You can see some of that below, as well as her smart palette choices. The visual storytelling here is rich and layered; it’s a compelling story and filled with such details that readers will find themselves lingering over panel after panel and page after page. It’s deeply moving, this tribute to Lam’s own family.



(Click either image to see spread in its entirety)



(Click either image to see spread in its entirety)



(Click either image to see spread in its entirety)


(Click cover to enlarge)


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THE PAPER BOAT: A REFUGEE STORY. Text and illustrations copyright © 2020 by Thao Lam. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Owlkids Books, Toronto.

One comment to “Thao Lam’s The Paper Boat

  1. […] Thao Lam’s paper cuts and collage in her wordless, semiautobiographical book The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story [], or Sophie Blackall’s gorgeous water colors in […]

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