The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Khoa Le (9781541561915)
Based on the author’s childhood growing up in a Hmong refugee family, this picture book looks at the impact of poverty on childhood and the incredible importance of a loving family. Kalia grew up with her grandmother who had been born across the ocean and once threatened by a tiger there. Now her grandmother is old with only a single tooth left. The luckiest of the grandchildren got to help take care of her. It was Kalia’s job to trim her fingernails and toenails. Her grandmother’s feet were rough and her toenails thick. They were cracked with dirt in the cracks from long ago. The family didn’t have a lot of money so regular ice had to stand in for ice cream, peppermint candies shared together took the place of a new dress. Kalia grew tired of not having enough money for treats, eventually asking for braces to fix her crooked teeth. But the family could not afford them. Her grandmother pointed out her own single tooth, and suddenly Kalia realized what beauty is, and it was not perfection.
Yang vividly tells the story of her childhood, inviting readers into her childhood home to see the care and love there. The dedication goes both ways, with her grandmother offering wisdom and love and the grandchildren sharing in taking care of her needs too. The book steadily builds to the take away, a moment that reminds me of the Russian folktale about the little girl describing her mother as the most beautiful person in the world when by societal standards she was clearly not. Throughout the book, poverty is handled in a matter-of-fact way with love as the healing force.
Le’s illustrations depict a household full of children, plants and toys. The wobbly family table and brightly covered couch add to the feel of a family in need but making do together. The Hmong tales told by the grandmother are lush and bright, carrying readers into a mystical world of jungles and creatures.
A thoughtful and rich picture book featuring a Hmong-American family. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Carolrhoda Books.