The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story
The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story
The Paper Boat is a fabled reimagining of illustrator Thao Lam’s family escape from war-torn Vietnam to Canada. The reader enters the story one evening through the dining room of a Vietnamese family whose table is set with food that has pesky ants scouring for their next meal. A bowl of sugar water is placed on the table to capture the ants, but a little girl is patiently rescuing them from the sticky substance. When a military tank is seen through the window, the family quickly gathers their few belongings and sets out under the cover of darkness to escape by boat to a new land. Mother and daughter, separated from the family, lose their way and hide from the soldiers in the tall grass. Just as the mother is losing hope, the moonlight shines through the grass revealing a trail of ants who, themselves, appear to be travelling towards freedom. Mother and daughter cautiously follow this trail until they reach the shoreline. Just as the daughter saved the ants from peril, the ants have saved her from capture.
The treacherous journey at sea that follows is shown through the ants as they struggle to survive rugged weather and extreme hunger while at the mercy of the ocean. Some ants make it to shore while others are lost forever to the depths of the sea. The story then shifts back to that of the Vietnamese family who have made it to the new land and their new life. Using ants as proxy to depict the human’s sea journey makes the harsh reality of death and suffering more appropriate for a young reader target audience. It is not that young children shouldn’t be aware of such things, but Lam has employed a different, creative, palatable way to show it.
Other than an author’s note informing readers that it was her family’s journey and the courage and resilience of refugees that inspired her story, The Paper Boat is a wordless picture book. It contains images depicting a rich story rife with emotion. Many people will be able to relate to Lam’s book and the feelings it evokes. At first glance, the artwork appears simple. However, as one looks more closely, subtle details emerge. The illustrations are created through the blended use of mixed media heavily-textured cut out paper collages. Each panel portrays an aspect of the escape from land to sea to land again. Lam’s use of colour cleverly conveys both the mood and the emotions experienced throughout the story. The family’s happy times together are shown in colourful images whereas their escape from Vietnam and the ants’ time at sea are presented in dark, dull colours. Clever use of the end pages adds authenticity to the story. They feature drawings of newspapers. The front end pages proclaim news of the war whereas the back end pages report news about refugees. These newspaper headlines include dates and details about actual occurrences during the Vietnam War.
Amanda Borton Capina is a doctoral student at the University of Manitoba. She also serves as vice-principal at a bilingual elementary school.
Dr. Gregory Bryan is a children’s literature professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.