PPBF – The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

I’m sticking with the theme of boats, as I think summer is the perfect time to read about them. I hope you agree!

Title: The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

Written & Illustrated By: Thao Lam

Publisher/Date: Owlkids Books/2020

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes/Topics: refugees, journey, Vietnam, ants, wordless, kindness

Opening: n/a

Brief Synopsis: A wordless picture book recounting an escape from Vietnam.

Links to Resources:

  • Tell a story about your family or an adventure you’ve had using only pictures;
  • Learn about the Southeast Asian country of Vietnam;
  • Watch Lam’s YouTube video about the making of The Paper Boat and check out the Author’s Note;
  • Make your own paper boat.

Why I Like this Book:

In this wordless picture book, Lam recounts a story handed down by her mother depicting the family’s journey from Vietnam. In the first frames of the story, ants crawl among family treasures and attack food set out on a table. A young girl sees the ants drowning in soup, and she rescues them.

As symbols of war proliferate outside the family’s home, the girl and her parents flee first to the safety of tall grasses, and then, following a trail of ants, to a boat. Before departing in that boat, the girl and her mother construct a paper boat to save the ants who helped them find the sea.

Leaving one’s homeland to seek safety is difficult for children to understand. And depicting the horrors of a sea journey isn’t easy in a picture book. But by focusing on the kindnesses shown by the young girl and by the grateful ants, Lam makes the topic more kid-friendly. In addition, rather than portraying the humans’ journey in the crowded refugee boat, Lam instead focused on the ants’ journey in the paper boat, before returning, at the end of the story, to a reunion of the ants with the young girl and her family in their new home, safe from the soldiers of their homeland.

I especially love the last spread, that shows the family that fled Vietnam in one apartment surrounded by other apartments filled with many multicultural families.

Lam’s colorful cut-paper collages include so many rich details. The Paper Boat will be a wonderful addition to school and home libraries that is sure to prompt many discussions about why families flee their homelands, how they journeyed to their new homes, and what awaits them there.

A Note about Craft:

I don’t often review wordless picture books as I find that I often need text to follow the storyline. But Lam’s visual narrative, arranged in graphic-novel style with several vignettes to a page, reads like a film, unfolding seamlessly. And I think this particular story works better as a wordless one given the many questions the subject matter undoubtedly will raise in young readers.

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!

4 responses to “PPBF – The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

  1. What an unusual refugee story. I love that it is wordless as kids will be able to tell the story in their own words. I especially love how the family honors the ants who help them find the sea. Beautiful story!

  2. Wow, I love how thoughtfulness of the mother and daughter who remember the ants. What a touching story. TY for sharing, Patricia. 🙂

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