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.