Kids Club: Thao Lam on Bookmaking, Talking It Out, and the Inspiring Stories of Refugees
In award-winning author and illustrator Thao Lam's newest picture book, The Paper Boat (Owlkids), a child escaping warn-torn Vietnam finds some unlikely kindred spirits.
After finding a group of ants trapped in sugar water in her home in Vietnam, a young girl decides to free them. When she and her family are forced to leave the country under cover of night, she finds herself reunited with the tiny beneficiaries of her kindness. As the family moves through a frightening canopy of dense, dark jungle, the ants guide them safely to their waiting boat. Fashioning a small boat herself from a bun wrapper, the girl places it on the ground for the ants to climb into. As the two parties embark on parallel journeys marred by hunger, exhaustion, and various predators, the similarities of their struggles become apparent.
Based on her family's own story, Lam's wordless book comes alive through her vibrant, singular collage illustrations, weaving an inspiring tale of empathy, hope, and survival.
We're thrilled to have Thao at Open Book today, where she discusses the emotional refugee stories she came across while doing research, how talking out loud helps her overcome creative hurdles, and her favourite (and least favourite) stages of creating a book.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
I was two when my family fled Vietnam, so I have no recollection of our journey across the South China Sea. My mother often tells the story of her mom leaving a bowl of sugar water on the table to trap ants in the house. My mother, then a little girl, would sit there for hours and rescue them. On the night of our escape she got lost in the tall grass. Spotting a trail of ants in the moonlight, she followed them to the river where a boat awaited: the ants my mother rescued as a little girl saved her in return that night. These images of kindness and karma woven by my mother were the only facts I knew about the war and our escape. They helped shape me and guide me through life. This story with the ants and the sugar water became the cornerstone of The Paper Boat.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
When I started working on The Paper Boat, my daughter was the same age I was when my family fled. In researching this book, I read stories upon stories about the sacrifices and risks parents took to ensure the safety of their families. Their decision to flee was never made lightly or by choice. They are not looking for handouts; they only want an opportunity to live free of persecution and fear. Though these stories were heartbreaking and, in most cases, tragic, they were also lessons in strength and courage – lessons I hope readers, as well as my daughter, will take with them. I hope The Paper Boat will spark curiosity and conversations that will lead to an understanding of the plight of refugees.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
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The Paper Boat gave me an opportunity to have a conversation with my parents. We don’t talk much, and we especially don’t talk about the war and our escape from Vietnam. Like many survivors, my parents believed no good could come out of discussing dark times. They were tough conversations to have, but important enough to keep a record of. In researching this book, I also got an opportunity to learn more about the culture and history of the country we left behind. I have never been back to Vietnam, but it has always piqued my interest.
As I pieced together my family’s journey to Canada, I was struck by the common traits between ants and refugees. They will always put family above all else. Working together, they show great determination and resilience in tough times. They have no fear of hardship and are willing to sacrifice themselves to ensure the safety of their family.
How do you cope with setbacks or tough points during the writing process? Do you have any strategies that are your go-to responses to difficult points in the process?
I write and illustrate my books, so it is on me to handle any problem that arises during both processes. It can be very overwhelming, but super satisfying when I solve a problem. I talk to myself a lot, which is one of the reasons I got a cat – so I don’t look crazy. During the writing process I find it helpful to talk out loud when I am working through a tough spot. Walking while talking is a great combination, but my cat does not like taking walks so I often just pace around my place in circles while I talk to myself. I also find it really helpful (and enjoyable) to talk to my editor. She is a great sounding board and therapist.
If I encounter a composition problem while illustrating, I often flip through children’s books or go on Pinterest. It is inspirational and helpful to see how other illustrators handle similar problems.
What's your favourite part of the life cycle of a book? The inspiration, writing the first draft, revision, the editorial relationship, promotion and discussing the book, or something else altogether? What's the toughest part?
I once described my feelings at different stages of bookmaking to my editor, and her response was that it sounded really painful and terrifying. Though I find each stage stressful, I do like the challenges that arise with each new book. It’s really rewarding when I find a solution to a manuscript, plot, or composition problem.
The moment when an idea takes hold of you is exciting and scary at the same time. There is so much potential, but the challenges ahead can seem daunting, especially when you are writing and illustrating the book at the same time.
I get nervous in big groups, and networking is like getting a root canal, so I don’t enjoy the marketing aspect of bookmaking. I am lucky that the marketing team at Owlkids is kind and patient while they nudge me out of my comfort zone.
As I mentioned before, I find it really enjoyable to talk to my editor. When I am working through an issue (most of the time it is book-related), I find her to be very insightful. She knows when to let me ramble and when to redirect me when my ideas get out of hand.
Creating a children’s book can be very lonely, but I have been fortunate enough to have a team of people pull me through the daunting moments, keep me grounded, and help me celebrate all the small and big accomplishments along the way.
What are you working on now?
I just finished my new book, "THAO", for Spring 2021 with Owlkids. Years ago, I read an NPR article about the psychological effects of mispronouncing a student’s name. Since my name was mispronounced often (and still is), I was able to relate. I went down a rabbit hole, reading articles and research papers on the subject. It got me asking a lot of questions and reflecting on my own personal experiences, especially during my school days when I got really embarrassed every time my name was called. I also got teased a lot because my name was different. I was shy and didn’t have the courage to correct my teachers or peers on the correct pronunciation of my name (the “H” is silent, so it’s pronounced like Taoism). "THAO" is based on my experiences of being different, and learning to accept who I am.
Thao Lam is the critically acclaimed author/illustrator of Wallpaper, My Cat Looks Like My Dad, and Skunk on a String. She studied illustration at Sheridan College and has an insatiable love of colored and textured papers, which she uses to create her exuberant collages. She draws inspiration from the stories she hears, from the beauty in everyday things, and from the work of the many illustrators she admires. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.