From the Tops of the Trees by Kao Kalia Yang

Cover image for From the Tops of the Trees.

From the Tops of the Trees by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Rachel Wada (9781541581302)

A true story from the Hmong author’s childhood, this picture book brings readers to the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand in 1985. Their days are filled with hunger and finding fruit that they can pretend are candy. The aunties in the camp talk about the war and their fears of returning to the old country or heading to a new country. Every week the families in the camp are given enough food for three days. It’s a practice meant to deter other Hmong refugees from entering the country. After Kao asks about the world beyond the camp, her father takes her to the tallest tree in camp, climbs with her to the highest branches, and gives her a view of the world beyond the camp.

Yang shows the view of the refugee camp from that of a small child living there. The day is filled with happy moments like riding one of the dogs and racing the chickens for rice balls. Yet there is no escaping that they are in a refugee camp. Yang shares this by having the adults talk about the war, showing the food disbursement, and having Kao explain that they can’t leave but others can enter. The climb into the branches is dramatic and inspiring, a look a freedom that could not be more moving and tangible.

Wada uses a mix of traditional media like graphite and watercolor with digital tools. She shows Yang’s small family, using more saturated colors to pull them out of the crowds and to keep the focus on the young Kao in the camps. The colors are sandy and subtle, becoming deeper as they reach the treetop to see the world around them.

Another gorgeous and skilled picture book from Yang that captures the experience of the Hmong refugee camps and Hmong Americans. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Carolrhoda Books.

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

Cover image for A Lesson in Vengeance.

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee (9780593305829)

Felicity is returning to Dalloway School after the tragic death of her girlfriend ended her previous senior year early. But it’s not easy to return to the ivy-covered school that is filled with dark legends that Felicity finds herself drawn to. The early days of the school date to the witch trials and five Dalloway students died early in the schools history, their deaths filled with connections to witchcraft. As Felicity starts her senior year again, she meets a compelling new student, a young novelist who is working on her second book. When Ellis reveals her book is going to be about the Dalloway Five, Felicity agrees to help her with her research. As the two research documents, they also form their own coven and begin to explore the occult. There is so much history filled with questions, and that includes the death of Felicity’s girlfriend a year ago too.

This book is beautiful and delicious. I love that it has its own distinct vintage style too, combining elbow patches and fifties sweaters with cell phones. The witch elements of the story are an invigorating mix of real history with existing covens but also may be covering up more realistic reasons for the deaths of the five girls. The setting itself is marvelously isolated and allows the characters a lot of freedom. These are wealthy girls, who flaunt their privilege at times and deny it at others.

The book is layered and complex. It turns from being a gothic, vintage witchcraft tale to something even darker. As Felicity’s mental health destabilizes, the truth emerges in fits and starts. The book becomes far more about the power of young women, the way society has frowned upon them gaining agency in the world, and what that means today. Beautifully, that doesn’t mean that the bloody nature of the book goes away. Far from it.

Dark, dangerous and delightful. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Delacorte Press.