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The Paper Boat A Refugee Story

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

The Paper Boat A Refugee Story

I had the incredible opportunity to ask Thao Lam some questions about her book, The Paper Boat A Refugee Story. I found this book incredibly detailed and powerful. It is definitely a book that belongs in schools, classrooms, public libraries and in our homes.

The story that readers learn about through the detailed illustrations is an important one. It is a needed story that should be embedded in our school curriculums so that we can all learn a complete, comprehensive and dynamic story from an insider perspective.

I would recommend this book for an Upper Elementary and beyond audience. The teacher/adult can support student’s understanding and comprehension by helping them pay close attention to the details, emotions and the changes that happen in the story. I believe that it is books like these that will help us connect with each other by learning about intricate lived experiences. Books like this help us see each other’s shared humanity and focus on our shared yet individual experiences.

This book is published by OwlKids Books ( and I want to thank them for this opportunity. Please see the questions and answers below to learn more about the book, the author/illustrator, why this book is important in the context of children's literature and how it can support us in our work as we deliver our curriculums from an inclusive and equity lens.


How important were picture books for you as a young child?

I came to Canada as a refugee from Vietnam with my family when I was two years old. Not knowing the language and the culture of a new country is extremely isolating. Even before I understood the English language, I would spend hours in the library flipping through children’s books, making up my own stories. I was treating children’s books as wordless picture books long before I was introduced to the concept. Picture books helped me narrow the language and cultural gap, and empowered my imagination.

How can picture books change the world?

Picture books have the ability to spark conversations, to introduce new and different perspectives. They give us an opportunity to expose children to a world bigger than their own. Whether it is creating picture books or reading about empathy and tolerance, change starts with us as creators and parents. We play a role in teaching and forming the way our children think, react and interact with the world. Kids are constantly observing and listening when we read to them but also through the examples we set through our everyday actions.

How can reading stories often not heard of be a way to move forward towards recognizing our shared humanity?

I think it is important to expose kids to variety of stories that reflect the world they live in: a world rich in different cultures and diversity. We learn empathy when we can find similarities in each other, but to teach tolerance and acceptance we need to recognize and respect each other’s differences. We cannot broaden our understanding or our world views if we’re all the same, or if the stories we’re reading are all the same.

Was it hard to create a wordless picture book? Why did you choose this format? What are the advantages and are there any disadvantages?

I find writing way more stressful than creating a wordless picture book. My stories often play out like silent films in my head, so it’s much easier for me to plot a story in a wordless format.

That being said, I intentionally made The Paper Boat a wordless picture book because the story was about refugees and many, like myself, might arrive in a country where they do not know the language. I wanted a child who may be new to a country and feeling isolated to be able to recognize their story.

In a wordless picture book, you have to be really clear in the sequences of actions and facial expressions because you don’t have text to assist in the storytelling. But even then, the story could still be interpreted differently once it is in a reader’s hands. There is no language barrier in wordless picture books, allowing the reader to use their imagination to tell the story.

Your book is an important story. A story that needs to be centered and heard because it can be a springboard for important conversations around Refugee experiences. What advice would you give children who may have such a lived experience and those who may be learning about it for the first time?

While researching for The Paper Boat, I came across many stories about the journeys of refugees ­– so many stories about courage, love, and sacrifice. Many of these stories were tragic but all of them were inspiring. It takes great strength and courage to leave everything behind, to survive, and start over. I would give the advice to be proud of where you came from and how far you have come. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to share your stories.

The parallel story about the ants is a fascinating. Was it always the plan to have this be part of the story?

My mother often tells the story of her mom in Vietnam, leaving a bowl of sugar water on the table to trap the ants in the house. My mother, then a little girl, would sit there for hours and rescue them.

On the night of our escape, my mother got lost in the tall grass. Spotting a trail of ants in the moonlight, she followed them to the river where the boat awaited. The ants she rescued as a little girl saved her in return that night. For the longest time these images woven by my mother were the only facts I knew about the war and our escape, so the ants were always part of the story.

How important is the 'own voices' movement?

Growing up as someone from a background that was different from the kids around me, I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed about those differences. I would spend most of my time hiding behind books; sadly, most of the characters in these books reflected the majority and not me.

A character’s personality tends to take shape as the story develops, but a character’s appearance is a choice I have as a writer and illustrator. Their hair, their eyes, their skin colour, their shape and height. Did making the main character a dark-skinned girl change the integrity of my story? No. Did changing it make a difference? Yes. My daughter and I are now represented.

As the “own voices” movement pushes forward, our understanding of each other will broaden. We will get the opportunity to hear from others, and to share more rich and personal stories. I am excited and hopeful for the changes that lay ahead. And can I say, it’s about time!

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