When you read the title of My Cat Looks Like My Dad (Owlkids Books), the latest picture book from acclaimed writer/illustrator Thao Lam, you immediately know you're in for something funny, charming, and freshly different.
Lam, who is known for her previous books Wallpaper and Skunk on a String, brings her humour and gentle charm to the page again, telling a family story that reminds readers that family doesn't have to be defined in any one, static way - that love is the true definition of family.
Lam's signature paper collages are bright, compelling, and unique as they capture the titular similarities between Dad and the family cat, from a love of milk and stretching to bright orange hair. A surprise at the end adds to the whimsy that makes Lam's work so authentic and charming.
We're excited to welcome Thao to Open Book today, where she shares with us about the books that have shaped her in our WAR: Writers as Readers series. She tells us about how picture books helped her transition to Canada as a young refugee, the books that always make her laugh (including a hilariously dubious tip on how to rescue a fallen kite), and the iconic Canadian illustrator whose work became her guide to learning to draw.
The WAR Interview Series: Writers as Readers, with Thao Lam
The first book I remember reading on my own:
My family were refugees from Vietnam, and there were a lot of things to learn upon arrival in Canada like the culture and the language. It was a real struggle to learn English, and for a while I relied on the pictures in books to tell me the story and let my imagination fill in the gaps. Eventually I was able to piece together the letters and words to read on my own. The first book I ever read on my own was probably The Cat In The Hat by Dr. Seuss. This strange and silly book, both in story and illustrations, captivated me and gave me permission to be strange and silly myself.
A book that made me cry:
At different milestones in my life, I have read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, and each time it makes my heart ache. Even as a child reading it, it made me feel things that I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I finally understood the unconditional love Shel Silverstein wrote about.
A book that made me laugh out loud:
It’s a toss up: I get the giggles every time I read Stuck or The Moose Belongs To Me, both written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. The little boys in both books have such spunk and their “why not?” perspective on everything just kills me. For me, both books perfectly capture the thought process of my 4-year-old, super silly but also sensible at the same time. “Of course, it makes total sense to throw a whale up a tree to get your kite down and let me tell you why….”
The book I have re-read many times:
My daughter and I go through binges. Currently, she is obsessed with superheroes, and for the last month or so, we have been re-reading the adventures of Spiderman. The book we have probably read the most often is The Day the Crayons Quit, written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. I must have read this book to my daughter every night (sometimes twice) when she was 2 years old. Sadly, this book went “missing” when we moved (out of reach and out of sight on top of the bookshelf).
A book I feel strongly influenced me as a writer and why:
Before I was able to read, one of my favourite things was being read to by a teacher or librarian (my parents never read to me because they were struggling to learn English themselves and were busy holding down multiple jobs). One of my first memories was hearing Thomas’ Snowsuit, written by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko, read out loud. I became a fan of this comedic duo of author and illustrator, and I wanted to make children laugh, too, by writing children’s books. I learned to draw by copying Michael Martchenko’s illustrations (he was really good with facial expressions). Decades later I got a chance to meet both my mentors, but I was so tongue-tied that I never got the chance to properly thank them for starting me down the path of not only reading, but writing and illustrating children’s books.
The best book I read in the past six months:
This past year I’ve been reading about the Vietnam War for a new project, diving into history books and biographies. My favourite so far has been First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung. It was really difficult to get through. I had to read it twice because I was crying at every turn. My parents never talked about the war or their escape by boat across the South China Sea, so I never understood the danger or appreciated the sacrifices they made to ensure my safety and my future. Though the book was about the Cambodian Civil War, I gained insight into the emotional struggles and difficult decisions that my parents must have faced at the time. Loung Ung’s journey is not just part of history, it is something that is still being played out now in any war-torn or politically unstable country.
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The book I plan on reading next:
I am currently exploring the world of graphic novels as a medium for writing a memoir, so I’ve been making my way through Guy Delisle’s works. His books give readers a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people in regions that may be considered dangerous, ones dealing with conflict or strict authoritarian governments, beyond what we hear about in the news. My understanding of graphic novels was limited to my high school friend’s manga collection, so I am really enjoying my exploration into what this medium of storytelling has to offer.
My go-to recommendation when someone asks for something great to read:
As a parent when you are asked to re-read a book to your little one for the hundredth time each night over a span of 10-plus years, it’s important that you enjoy it too. You can’t go wrong with Mo Willems or Oliver Jeffers, they are great storytellers with a sharp sense of humour. It’s so much fun reading their books out loud. Mo Willems is constantly reinventing himself, adjusting his illustrations to match the tone of the story he is telling, so as a reader boredom is not an issue because there is something new to discover with each book. I love Oliver Jeffers’s writing style—something wonderful happens as his words roll off your tongue when you read them out loud. I would hyperventilate if I ever got to meet either of these two authors in real life.
A book I loved that I think has been overlooked:
This year I was introduced to Jon Agee’s book Life On Mars, and after that I went down a rabbit hole and borrowed all of his books out of the library. I loved Life On Mars, but unfortunately my daughter found the orange monster scary. She called it the scary book and asked me to donate it, so we compromised: I moved it to the top shelf, flipped it upside down, and turned the spine away. I thought the story was really clever and one of the most original storylines I had read in a while. The design and art is different from other children’s books; it felt more mature. Life On Mars read like an opinion piece or a political cartoon you would find in the New York Times. Really enjoyed this one!
My all-time favourite book series:
I love the Gerald and Piggie Books by Mo Willems. My daughter and I are big fans; we even dressed as Gerald and Piggie for Halloween. The series is so simple and delightful (and so hard to pull off); it’s a great example of “less is more”. It is amazing how Mo Willems can tell a story and make you laugh with just a handful of words. The illustrations are also simple and perfectly adjusted to match the tone of the series. His ability to capture facial expressions with just a few line strokes is something I try to achieve in my characters. When I read one of his books to my daughter, I feel like a comedian getting a standing ovation; only when I’m reading Gerald and Piggie, am I considered funny to my little one.
My other favourite book series is Disgusting Critters by Elise Gravel. I wish she had been my science teacher growing up; she makes learning fun. The series is full of fun facts and great conversations starters when you are at a party, mostly with the 6 and under crowd. I love the packaging of the books, the illustrations and the design, particularly the hand-lettering text.
Thao Lam is the critically acclaimed author/illustrator of Wallpaper and Skunk on a String. She studied illustration at Sheridan College and has an insatiable love of coloured 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.