The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Kao Kalia Yang and Review of From the Tops of the Trees

Kao Kalia Yang is an award-winning Hmong American author for both children and adults. Yang came to America at the age of six from the refugee camps in Thailand. Her family was resettled in Minnesota where Yang still lives and works from. Her work has won numerous awards and recognition including multiple Minnesota Book Awards, a Charlotte Zolotow Honor, an ALA Notable Children's Book Award, Dayton's Literary Peace Prize, and a PEN USA Award in Nonfiction.


She’s the author of Yang Warriors (2021), The Most Beautiful Thing (2020), The Shared Room (2020), and A Map Into the World (2019). As well as the memoirs The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir (2017), The Song Poet : A Memoir of My Father (2016), What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Indigenous Women and Women of Color (2019), and Somewhere in the Unknown World (2020).

Her newest nonfiction picture book, From the Tops of the Trees, released yesterday.

Kalia, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and writing.


Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)


I came to writing because I didn’t speak as a child. As a new refugee child in America whose parents were struggling to find a footing in a new language and culture, we didn’t have very much. At the stores and in public spaces, the voices of my mother and father faltered and were often met with impatience. As a result, I decided to stop talking: if the world that I now lived in didn’t need to hear from my mother and father, then it surely did not need to hear from me. A silence grew inside of me. I wrote to fill that silence.


For the longest time, I wrote to make sense of the world and inside of me. It wasn’t until my grandmother passed away my senior year of college, that I saw the ways in which my writing could honor the people I love, the ones whose voices and stories have not been afforded time or space in the world of literature.


The reason why I write has shifted and grown as I have matured and broaden my experiences but everything I write is a love letter to someone somewhere whose story I believe will make this world a gentler, more diversely beautiful place.


That is a wonderful reason to write your beautiful stories. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?


Very few people know of my love for flowering trees. All kinds of flowering trees from all around the world. The fantasy and reality of looking down or up into a giant flower is something that I adore.


There is nothing like sitting in a tree surrounded by cloud of pink cherry blossoms or dogwood flowers. What inspired you to capture this event from your childhood into From the Tops of the Trees?

This is a story that I’ve carried inside for a long time, a memory of who my father has been to me; a source of strength when I’ve needed it. The idea that I would write it as a children’s book came to me about three years ago when my own young children were beginning to ask questions about my childhood in the refugee camps of Thailand. They, born in America, struggled to understand the ways in which I was raised and where. So, one evening I began telling them this particular story as a way of opening up a life that I know is still relevant for many refugee children everywhere, for all children in search of a bigger world, a broader perspective.


Such a wonderful gift for them and for all other children. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?


I loved scary stories growing up, they helped me meet the fears in my world. I grew up reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and the Goosebumps series. Less than a favorite, these stories were seminal in allowing me to meet some of the scary feelings and ideas within me and without.



How many revisions did From the Tops of the Trees take from first draft to publication? Was it harder or easier to write than your other picture books?


I wrote the draft quickly—as I do all my books. But the revision process was thoughtful tempered thanks to my editor Carol Hinz and her team. I don’t remember how many revisions but I am confident it was more than five and less than ten. This story came quickly to me when I sat down to write it only because I have been holding it fast for so long and then it emerged into words first for my children. It was a story that stemmed from love and traveled toward it.


It sounds like it was ready to be written. Is there something you want your readers to know about From the Tops of the Trees?


I want readers of From the Tops of the Trees to know that the life we lived in the book is a life many children around the world inhabit still; I want readers to know that from such places, incredible stories were born.


Unfortunately, too many children still live in refugee camps. When you first got to see Rachel Wada’s illustrations, did anything surprise you? Which is your favorite spread?

Text © Kao Kalia Yang, 2021. Image © Rachel Wada, 2021.


"To Kalia, who has gone beyond the tops of the trees to share her story with the world." - R.W.


When I read Rachel Wada’s dedication in the book, I had to hold my hand to my heart. It was so generous and unexpected and moving for me.

Text © Kao Kalia Yang, 2021. Image © Rachel Wada, 2021.


I love the spread where young Kalia, wondering what a world outside of the camp might look like, sees herself reflected in the dark face of the well. The magic and mystery of the moment was so beautifully captured.


I adore the way the images move like memories across the pages. It’s beautiful and timeless and it stretches far across the distance that separates the adult me from that little girl in the book.


The illustrations are amazing and the dedication is truly special. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


I’m working on a young adult work for Dutton titled The Diamond Explorer. It is a story about a young boy, born on the Minnesota prairie, who is destined to become a great shaman but all the great shamans in his life are gone, a young boy struggling to reckon with his identity and destiny.


We'll have to keep an eye out for that. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?


The most frustrating thing about being any kind of author at the moment is the fact that my books have entered into the space of a pandemic. For my young readers, it is hard to connect via a screen. Without the bookstores, libraries, and in-person school visits, the books I’ve released in this pandemic (a total of five!) have all entered the world very quietly.


Beyond this moment in time, a traditionally frustrating element in the life of a children’s book author is how slow the publishing industry is: from the point at which a book is written, agented, and accepted for publication to the actual publication itself is lengthy. It becomes an endurance sport at some point!


I like the comparison of publishing to an endurance sport! How are, or have you been, staying creative during these times? Have you found anything that helps you “prime the well”?


Gardening has been a gift in terms of acknowledging and coming to terms with the facts: the world has not stopped—although at times it feels like it. The same is true with parenting young children; even on the harder days, some fun must be had, laughter found. These things have given me joy and reasons to be creative. I’m continually looking for beauty in the world to show my children, looking for growth in my garden to show myself, that all of life is a movement of days, that days shift into seasons, and seasons into years and each is very precious because a full life is a short life—in the continuum of everything.


Wow, there is so much in that answer! Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with right now. Why?


Presently, one of my little boys loves tigers. We talk about the tiger a great deal in our everyday life. On the back wall to my office, beneath a flowing vine, is a large picture cut out of a tiger he’s made. I see this image every single day. It somehow captures the times so very well. The tiger of course also has mythic proportions in Hmong stories and legends. It is among the richest of the animal inspirations in my daily and literary life.


Thank you, Kalia for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.

To find out more about Kao Kalia Yang, or get in touch with her:

Website: https://kaokaliayang.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kaokaliayang/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/kaokaliayang?lang=en

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kaokaliayang/



Review of From The Tops of the Trees


With continued political and environmental unrest creating increasing numbers of refugees, more children are finding themselves in camps or displaced in foreign countries. This nonfiction picture book offers a poignant look at one such experience through the eyes of a young child.

From the Tops of the Trees


Author: Kao Kalia Yang


Illustrator: Rachel Wada


Publisher: Carolrhoda Books/Lerner (2021)


Ages: 5-9


Nonfiction


Themes:

Refugee camps, family, resilience, and hope.


Synopsis:

"Father, is all of the world a refugee camp?"


Young Kalia has never known life beyond the fences of the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp. The Thai camp holds many thousands of Hmong families who fled in the aftermath of the little-known Secret War in Laos that was waged during America's Vietnam War. For Kalia and her cousins, life isn't always easy, but they still find ways to play, racing with chickens and riding a beloved pet dog.


Just four years old, Kalia is still figuring out her place in the world. When she asks what is beyond the fence, at first her father has no answers for her. But on the following day, he leads her to the tallest tree in the camp and, secure in her father's arms, Kalia sees the spread of a world beyond.


Kao Kalia Yang's sensitive prose and Rachel Wada's evocative illustrations bring to life this tender true story of the love between a father and a daughter.


Opening Lines:

Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, Thailand, 1985


When the sun gets to the highest point in the sky, the

the leaves of our favorite tree become a great umbrella of

cool for us to play under.


"Hurry!"


My cousin Mai throws a ball of rice onto the ground.

My cousin Yer races the chickens in the yard to get to it.

A bald rooster with black feathers beats her. The look on

her face is so sad and so hungry the fun disappears.


What I LOVED about this book:

Touchingly simple and so poignant, this story is told in the voice of the four-year-old Kalia. As she and her family, Hmong refugees, experience life in a Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand in 1985. Even as Kalia plays with her cousins, there hangs a shadow of sadness, hunger, and rations. A shadow that at time squelches the fun. What kid (or adult) won't be touched to learn that they'd eat a "pebbly fruit," pretending to be "eating hard candy and it is a very special treat."

Text © Kao Kalia Yang, 2021. Image © Rachel Wada, 2021.


A feeling of uncertainty and fear hangs over the camp as Kalia and her cousins hear "the aunties" talk of the war, fleeing their home, and worry about what is to come and where they are to go. Rachel Wada's gorgeously textured watercolor illustrations, done mostly in a limited pallet of olive greens, gold, and browns are full of tender moments (especially between Kalia and her father) and harsh honesty. The somber scene of soldiers is followed by a precious moment where Kalia's father reminds her she's safe and that her "hands and your feet will travel far to find peace."

Text © Kao Kalia Yang, 2021. Image © Rachel Wada, 2021.



With the simplicity of a child, Kalia asks her father "is all of the world a refugee camp?" He hatches a special plan to show her what the world beyond the camp is like. I really hope that you read the book to learn not only the discovery young Kalia makes but the revelation that her discovery imparts.


Craft Note:

Nancy Churnin recently noted how she enjoyed watching a child enjoy reading a narrative nonfiction and then drop their jaw when they discover the story was true. Kao Kalia Yang and Rachel Wada have created just such a book. Not only is this a true story that Kao relates from her childhood, but the final illustration is a beautiful recreation of an actual photo (provided with the Author's Note) of Kalia and her father From the Tops of the Trees. This is a book that kids will love discovering is true and one that will raise a lot of questions.


Overall, this is a tender tribute to her father and a thought provoking glimpse into refugee camps. One that is honest, but hopeful. A book that I hope finds a place in everyone's heart.


Resources:

- if you arrived at a new school, especially if it's in another country, what would you want to know? What are the rules or traditions? Try to write or use drawings to make a guidebook for your classroom or school.

- draw a picture or write a description of what you would see if you climbed to the tops of the trees near you. How far do you think you could see?

- read Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush's Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes, illustrated by Sue Cornelison, Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus, and Dreamers by Yuyi Morales. How are they similar? Is every immigrant or refugee experience the same? Why or why not?

- for other information or activities, check out the UN Refugee Agency resources for ages 6-9 (here) and multiple ages (here).

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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