Without the subtitle, “A Refugee Story,” on the cover of The Paper Boat it might be difficult for children to immediately recognize the message that this wordless book shares so beautifully. It isn’t until reaching the end of the book, where there is an author’s note from Lam, that young readers learn exactly what the images in the book are meant to convey. This makes the book even more powerful, because it requires such focus and concentration from young readers in their first read and then invites many more visits through the illustrations once more information has been gathered.
Lam’s experience as a two-year-old fleeing Vietnam with her pregnant mother during the war is depicted in collage-style mixed media illustrations with muted tones. The book begins with a little girl rescuing ants who are trapped in the sugar water meant to keep them from eating the family’s food. These ants continue to be characters throughout the story, leading the family towards the boat they will take to flee Vietnam and then making their own escape in a paper boat built by the little girl.
The ants’ journey on the paper boat is a reflection of the experience of so many refugee families. We have seen devastating images of individuals and families whose journeys by water have ended tragically, but these images would be too hard or upsetting for many of our youngest students to process. Lam uses the story of the ants’ escape on the paper boat as a method of conveying the struggles and risks that so many refugee families encounter. By so cleverly interweaving the story of the ants with that of the little girl and her family, Lam makes sure that readers will understand their connection.
I am so grateful to NetGalley and to Owlkids for the opportunity to read and review this book. It is one that I believe young children will be drawn to over and over and that will inspire awareness and empathy in those who spend time with it.
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:
Diversity 8: I want to know about other people and how our lives and experiences are the same and different.
Justice 13: I know some true stories about how people have been treated badly because of their group identities, and I don’t like it.