The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

Owlkids. Sept. 2020. 40p. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781771473637.
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.

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