The Paper Boat by Thao Lam (9781771473637)
Inspired by her own family’s refugee story, this wordless picture book shares the story of a family fleeing Vietnam. Ant crawl around the food on the table in Vietnam, lured into a bowl of sugar water. A little girl saves the ants from the trap and prevents them from drowning. Meanwhile outside the window, tanks and soldiers appear and the family flees into the night, separating from one another. The little girl and her mother hide in the tall grass, narrowly avoiding the searching soldiers. The girl notices a line of ants leaving the grass. They follow the ants and discover the shore where they wait for the boat to carry them away. In the meantime, they make a paper boat from a food wrapper that is used by the ants to escape across the water too. In a new country, the family gathers around a table together, the ants arrive as well.
Lam’s art is exceptional. She has created a detailed world of harrowing dangers in her depiction of Vietnam. Just having the money and papers mixed with bowls of food on the family table indicates a family ready to flee. The loving family provide moments of connection even as they flee, caring for the spirits of the little one among them.
The most powerful piece of the book is when the ants venture onto the sea in their small paper boat. Some ants perish on the journey, hunger is an issue, and they barely survive, in the end swimming to the safety of the shore. That allegory allows the dangers of the journey to be shown in detail but through ants rather than the direct loss of the characters. It’s powerful and also appropriate for children to begin to understand.
This important wordless picture book tells the refugee story with empathy and strength. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Owlkids.
Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron (9781328635181)
Maya has started noticing strange things happening at school and around her South Side Chicago neighborhood. Cracks appear, black lightning forms, and time freezes for others near her. Her best friends try to help her figure out what is happening: one thinks it might be paranormal and ghosts which he loves, and the other believes that it can be explained by science. Maya’s father travels regularly for work, but when she follows him he doesn’t seem to be heading for the airport, instead vanishing right in front of her as if he was swallowed by the shadows. Soon Maya discovers the truth, that her father is a god-like orisha who protects the veil between their world and the Dark. That makes Maya (and her two best friends) half-orisha or godlings. When her father doesn’t return from the Dark, Maya and her friends use their budding powers to enter the Dark themselves and rescue him. But things are not that simple as the human world itself is threatened by the Lord of Shadows.
Barron blends modern American Midwestern life with African legends into one amazing world where gods walk among humans, veils obscure parallel worlds, and dangers emerge from darkness. The Chicago neighborhood is full of gods and godlings, all black and brown characters who create a real community. The world building offers explanations of the various legendary creatures that the characters encounter, woven nicely into the narrative.
Maya and her friends are a great team, offering a mix of beliefs in paranormal, African magic, and science. The three of them also always have each other’s backs, using their powers to help, their intelligence to solve the puzzles they face, and their care for one another and their community as a foundation.
A great middle-grade fantasy with African origins and strong characters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HMH Books for Young Readers.