I discovered today’s Perfect Picture Book in the bookstore at the New England SCBWI 2017 conference this past April. The gorgeous stitched illustrations and evocative title drew my attention even before I saw the tag line, a refugee’s story. Interestingly, it’s not one I’ve found on any of the many lists of picture books about refugees…yet!
As this is the story of a grandmother and grandchild journeying together, with their love and the strength of the female community so prevalent throughout the tale, I thought this is a Perfect Picture Book to feature for Mother’s Day:
Title: The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee’s Story
Written By: Pegi Deitz Shea
Illustrated By: Anita Riggio
Stitched By: You Yang
Publisher/date: Boyds Mills Press/1995
Suitable for Ages: 3-8 (per the publisher; I’d say older)
Themes/Topics: refugees, Hmong, needlework folk art
After Mai’s cousins moved to America, Mai passed the days with Grandma at the Widows’ Store, watching the women do pa´ndau story cloths. She loved listening to the widows stitch and talk, stitch and talk – mostly about their grandmothers’ lives in China a hundred years ago. All Mai could remember was life inside the refugee camp, where everyone seemed to come and go but her.
With the help and encouragement of her grandmother and the women stitching, and selling, Hmong story cloths, Mai learns this traditional art and shares the tale of her losses.
Links to Resources:
- Shea provides a Curriculum Guide on her website and there is a Glossary and Foreward that provide Hmong words and story background;
- Learn about the Hmong peoples and culture;
- Learn about Hmong embroidery and try some embroidery stitches;
- Learn about Southeast Asia, including Laos and Thailand, the setting of The Whispering Cloth;
- Create story pictures about your life or the life of an older relative or friend.
Why I Like this Book:
As is evident from the synopsis, the refugee in today’s picture book hails not from the Middle East, Africa, or Central America. Nor is Mai’s story a contemporary tale. Published over 20 years ago, The Whispering Cloth is the story of a young, orphaned Hmong refugee living with her grandmother and dreaming of a better life. Tragically, while the setting and ethnic group are different, this story is as relevant today as when it was written. And while children like Mai may now be settled in the US and have children of their own, I believe that learning what they experienced is important for all of us. Reading The Whispering Cloth together may even help these survivors share their experiences with children and grandchildren.
The bond between Mai and her grandmother is another reason I like this story. That older women have talents and traditions to share with grandchildren is a valuable facet of this tale.
Finally, I love how the arts are at the heart of The Whispering Cloth: as a way to earn money by selling the pa´ndau story cloths and as a means to both tell and process the horrific experience of losing parents, fleeing home, and living in a refugee camp. The folk art pa´ndau is also central to Hmong culture, making it particularly relevant to the story of Hmong refugees. This makes me wonder about the folk art traditions of current refugees: whether the children are learning them, whether they serve as therapeutic outlets, and whether they are surviving the transitions to new homes and cultures.
The Whispering Cloth includes scenes and references that might prove upsetting to younger children (blood, soldiers and bullets figure in the embroidered story). However, they are integral to the story, and the combination of rich watercolor and embroidered artwork may soften the potential impact of these troubling details for younger children.
A Note about Craft:
Authors and illustrators know that we must find the kernel of a story, the nugget at its heart that helps the story resonate with readers. But how do you identify that nugget? At least when writing a story set in a particular place or describing a particular culture, I think the nugget must provide insight to that place/culture. Additionally, it must play a significant role in the character development and story outcome. I think the nugget in The Whispering Cloth is the Hmong pa´ndau. Its centrality in the text and illustrations provides a window into Hmong culture, a culture about which many readers may be unfamiliar. It also acts as a mirror, for those who journeyed through the refugee camps and beyond, as they share this story with their children and future generations. And mastering the techniques enables Mai to remain tied to her traditional culture while earning the money necessary to escape from the refugee camp.
Neither Shea nor Riggio is an #OwnVoice author or illustrator, but a Hmong artist, You Yang, rendered Mai’s story as a pa´ndau, adding richness and authenticity to this story.
Pegi Deitz Shea is also the author of a middle grade book, Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story (Clarion, 2003), that follows Mai as she starts a new life in Rhode Island.
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!