The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

by Thao Lam (Author)

The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story
Reading Level: 2nd − 3rd Grade

A Kirkus Reviews most anticipated picture book of fall 2020 with starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, School Library Journal and the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books -- a heartfelt and personal immigration story, new from critically acclaimed author Thao Lam

New from Thao Lam, the award-winning author of picture books My Cat Looks Like My Dad, Wallpaper, and Skunk on a String, comes a personal story inspired by her family's refugee journey.

In The Paper Boat, Thao's signature collage art tells the wordless story of one family's escape from Vietnam--a journey intertwined with an ant colony's parallel narrative.

At her home in Vietnam, a girl rescues ants from the sugar water set out to trap them. Later, when the girl's family flees war-torn Vietnam, ants lead them through the moonlit jungle to the boat that will take them to safety. Before boarding, the girl folds a paper boat from a bun wrapper and drops it into the water, and the ants climb on. Their perilous journey, besieged by punishing weather, predatory birds, and dehydration, before reaching a new beginning, mirrors the family's own. Impressionistic collages and a moving, Own Voices narrative make this a one-of-a-kind tale of courage, resilience, and hope.

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Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review
A timely, resonant, exceptional model of visual storytelling; the ironic title is a seaworthy companion to “a wing and a prayer.


Starred Review
Each panel is so detailed that readers will want to linger over them all, admiring Lam’s craft even while being immersed in emotions. A tender tribute to the author’s parents and to all refugees who survive and thrive despite enormous odds

Publishers Weekly

In wordless cut paper and mixed media collage, Lam (My Cat Looks Like My Dad) fictionalizes her family's escape from Vietnam, drawing a human family into relationship with the ants that are interested in food on their table. Though grown-ups smack at the insects with a newspaper, a child rescues one, pulling it out of a bowl using chopsticks. Ants, in turn, lead the way when the child and mother leave their home, through tall grass to a boat that will carry them away from stern officers and a large green tank. Instead of using people to represent the hardships endured at sea, Lam employs an ant family on a folded paper boat as proxies. The insects journey across the ocean, through bad weather and seagull attacks, and land in a place where the human family, safe, dines at another table. Crisply cut paper represents intricate domestic scenes and just as skillfully conveys suspense during the silent, tense trip. An author's note supplies important detail in this story of bravery and resilience, and provides its most powerful message: "When looking for strength and courage, I often picture my mother pregnant with my sister, and stranded at sea with me." Ages 6-9. (Sept.)

Copyright 2020 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

School Library Journal

Starred Review

Gr 1-4—In a semi-autobiographical recounting of her departure from post-war Vietnam, Lam crafts a wordless story of the refugee experience from a child's perspective. Shown in multi-paneled pages, a family hurriedly packs up their belongings and flees into the night. A mother and child are separated from the group, but find their way to an escape boat. A microcosmic story is told as the child rescues ants from a trap (in an image similar to the iconic photographs of helicopter rescues from the U.S. embassy in Saigon). Rather than showing the family's traumatic sea voyage, Lam chooses to show the ants' voyage on a paper boat that the child has left behind. They face many perils: hunger, thirst, predators, storms, all of which readers can imagine have real-life counterparts in the author's journey. At last the ants and humans find safety. They meet again for a meal in an apartment which, as the view pans out, is revealed to be in a lively, diverse city. The general story arc comes out clearly through the illustrations, especially if there is a knowledgeable adult to provide scaffolding. However, the details are much more clear after reading the author's note, so educators might start there. The artistry in the illustrations is spectacular. Lam's textured cut-paper collages are layered and feel three-dimensional, with shades of white, black, and gray, along with themes in several repeated colors. She portrays the ants' journey from all angles and perspectives. Small effective details like the lined school paper of the boat's sail and the characters' simple faces make the exquisite illustrations approachable to young audiences. VERDICT An important story told in an impeccable format.—Clara Hendricks, Cambridge P.L., MA

Copyright 2020 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

Review quotes

"This sensitively rendered story is accessible to young viewers, and it's a perfect stepping stone for older readers."—Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books - STARRED REVIEW
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Publication date
September 20, 2020
BISAC categories
JUV013030 - Juvenile Fiction | Family | Multigenerational
JUV039250 - Juvenile Fiction | Social Themes | Emigration & Immigration
JUV016030 - Juvenile Fiction | Historical | Asia
Library of Congress categories
Stories without words
Family life
Ocean travel
Boats and boating
Paper toys
Wordless picture books

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