Book Review: The Paper Boat


The Paper Boat
By: Thao Lam
Reviewed by: Uma Krishnaswami

This wordless book from cut-paper artist and illustrator Thao Lam offers a journey of shifting perceptions. Opening with a sugar water trap for ants, the page turns draw us into the story of one family’s escape from Vietnam. The girl rescues the ants in her home, dipping a chopstick into the cup and letting them climb out. The delicacy of the cut-paper art makes for incredibly moving images and invites the eye to linger on the frames. One of the delights of a wordless book is that there’s no compulsion to read in a single direction. One can find the ants in the jungle, follow the child’s eye, then return to the previous spread to breathe in its emotional impact, before carrying on. Fear is conveyed through gesture and the directions of tall grasses, the uniformed soldiers crouching low to the ground, the dark skies and the grey palette. Meanwhile, the ants embark on their own journey in the titular paper boat folded by the girl. Braving the sun, the fierce beaks of predatory gulls, and vast expanses of water, the ants land at last on a safe shore. A friendly ant riding on a platter of food offers a visual connection, when the family is finally shown sharing a meal in their new home. A busy cityscape offers cutaway views of apartment buildings full of people in a diverse range of clothes and skin tones. Back matter includes an author’s note and a beautifully honest childhood picture reflecting the fear of being uprooted from home. Endpapers include images of newspapers from before and after the war in Vietnam, providing additional information via headlines and dates.
Children’s Lit Reviewer Uma Krishnaswami is a children’s writer–picture book through middle grade. She is also on faculty in the MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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