top of page

The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Kao Kalia Yang and Review of The Rock in my Throat

Kao Kalia Yang is an award-winning Hmong American author for both children and adults.

Author Photo of Kao Kalia Yang.

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.

Collage of Kao Kalia Yang's 5 picture  book covers.

She’s the author of the picture books From the Tops of Trees (2021), Yang Warriors (2021), The Most Beautiful Thing (2020), The Shared Room (2020), and A Map Into the World (2019).

Collage of the 4 book covers og Koa Kalia Yang's novels.

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 written with Shannon Gibney (2019)and Somewhere in the Unknown World (2020).

 

For additional information on Kallia, see our earlier interview (here).

 

Her newest nonfiction picture book, The Rock in My Throat, releases on March 5th.

 

Welcome back Kalia. Thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and writing.

 

What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written or illustrated a manuscript?

 

The most unusual place I’ve written is in an emergency room. The wait time can be long and while the situations are dire, I find that writing calms me down. So, each time I’m in a situation where I have to go to an emergency room or am accompanying another, I always try to bring along writing material so that I can write my way out of the situation.

  

I like the idea of writing out of the situation. Hope that doesn't happen too often. What was your inspiration or spark of interest for The Rock in My Throat? 

Book cover - a girl with her hand by her throat pointing toward the image of a rock.

I was a selective mute growing up. It was a painful experience that taught me a great deal about myself, the worlds around me, but also the world within. As a writer who does a great deal of public speaking on the side now, often I think back to my experiences of selective mutism. Often, I’m asked by parents, educators, and students themselves, “Why didn’t you talk?” or “I know someone who doesn’t talk, how do I….?” I knew the experience marked me profoundly and it marks the ways in which I navigate silence and the volume of others.


But it was not until my editor at Carolrhoda Books, Carol Hinz, asked me to write of the experience that the words flooded the page. I truly did the draft in one sitting, and much of that draft remains in The Rock in My Throat. As I wrote in the introduction, I wanted to write a book “for everyone who has trouble speaking, trouble being heard, for everyone who has lived without understanding on their side.”

 

You created an amazing book for little Kao, your mother, and everyone else - as both a mirror and a window promoting empathy and understanding. How long did it take for The Rock in My Throat to go from idea to publication? How did this compare to From the Tops of Trees, which is also based on your childhood experience?

  

With this particular title, everything happened as quickly and smoothly. When my agent Erin Murphy sent Carol Hinz’s idea my way, I got to work immediately. That evening the draft was complete and I’d sent it to Erin. Erin read it and forwarded it to Carol. The ball was rolling. When I came across Jimei Lin’s art, I knew she would be such a gift to the book. Jimei agreed and got to work doing research, and then it was a matter of when to publish the book.


The experience of The Rock in My Throat and From the Tops of the Trees were phenomenally different. While both titles are based on my childhood experiences, they were such different stories; in Rock there was a question that I could not answer in the wake of the story I was living in, whereas in Trees, I was asking that question and in trying to respond, a story was born. Also, interestingly, Trees happened before Rock, so the characters were different in age and scope of experience, and that changes the logic of a narrative. It took many more revisions to get Trees right. The great similarity: the talent and gift of the illustrators I got to work with. Rachel Wada brought so much of her own truths to Trees—just as Jimei Lin accomplishes in Rock.

 

They are both stunning and poignant books! Thank you for writing them. When you first saw Jiemei Lin’s illustrations, did anything surprise you? Which is your favorite spread?

Internal spread - girl's imagined self lying under under tree roots , while a smaller image on right sits in her chair in the classroom with her hand raised.

Text © Kao Kalia Yang, 2024. Image © Jimei Lin, 2024.


I am in awe of Jimei Lin’s illustrations in this book. They speak directly to the words, and bring them to life, but they are so rich in possibilities, in imagination, in detail, that they inspire poetry in the experience of the book. This is the highest compliment I can give to any piece of art, when it invites us to engage in a conversation across time and place, to reflect on nature, to look for hope in a feather, to see a girl the size of a tree, that feather having transformed into a bird, resting on her fingertips. It is simply magical. My favorite spread is the one where the girl is digging her feet into the carpet, hoping to get through the floor to the core of the earth itself. The spread is incredible.


All the illustrations are amazing. And I totally agree with you, this spread is phenomenal. Is there something you want your readers to know about The Rock in My Throat?

 

My editor and I made a careful decision not to interpret two Hmong lines in the book. I saved it for the author’s note at the back of the book. I’ve had some reviewers who have wondered why and suggested that maybe it was an oversight or a mistake. In a book about language, about understanding, about patience, I want all readers to have a moment to contemplate the reality of what it means when a different language is spoken and not immediately interpreted for us, to hold fast to our feelings, and let that emotion guide us in how we respond to others who are perhaps entering into our home languages.

 

It does cause the reader to pause, to look closely at the images, and to listen with their hearts. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Collage of book covers of 2 of Kao Kaila Yang's upcoming books.

I am finishing procedural things for another picture book, Caged, that will be released on May 28th, 2024. It is an exciting fictional narrative about a girl’s experiences living in a refugee camp. I am also finishing copy edits reviews for my debut middle grade fiction, The Diamond Explorer, out on September 17th, 2024. Soon enough, I’ll get first draft edits for a young adult memoir that is set for release next year called A Story of Our Own.

 

On the writing front, I’ve submitted two picture manuscripts to my agent for review. I’m pitching ideas for new projects. And beginning an adult fictional manuscript. It is a busy, beautiful time in my journey as a writer.

 

All of these projects sound (and look) interesting. We'll have to keep our eyes open for them. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

Photo of the Badlands NP

I am such a big fan of the Badlands National Park. I saw it as the sun was setting and my heart was swept away in the pink glow of the light across the age-old rocks. In moments of stress, I still return to that setting sun and let the breath I’m holding free itself from my chest. This summer, I’m heading to Yellowstone National Park with my family, and I am eagerly waiting!

  

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 contact her:


Review of The Rock in My Throat


This is a poignant and powerful book about a young immigrant girl's experiences in the community and her decision not to speak English in protest. I am honored to give you a sneek peek at this stunning picture book.

Book cover - a girl with her hand by her throat pointing toward the image of a rock.

The Rock in My Throat

Author: Kao Kalia Yang

Illustrator: Jimei Lin

Publisher: Carolrhoda Books/ Lerner (2024)

Ages: 5-10

Nonfiction


Themes:

Immigration, kindness, Hmong, community, family, and hope,


Synopsis:

In this moving true story, Kao Kalia Yang shares her experiences as a young Hmong refugee navigating life at home and at school. Having seen the poor treatment her parents received when making their best efforts at speaking English, she no longer speaks at school. Kalia feels as though a rock has become lodged in her throat, and it grows heavier each day. Although the narrative is somber, it is also infused with moments of beauty, love, and hope.


Opening Lines:

Recess is the hardest time of the day.


All of the kids are playing. Some are on the playground,

and others are in the field by the side of the school.

There's a group on the pavement in front of me.


The teachers are all busy watching over the kids

and talking.


What I LOVED about this book: Seeing the young girl sitting by the tree watching the other kids play and feeling her loneliness and isolation in the text creates a very powerful opening. The somber tones of the illustration reinforce the mood.

Internal spread - girl sitting under a tree watching others kids playing at recess.

Text © Kao Kalia Yang, 2024. Image © Jimei Lin, 2024.

I love the deepening of the pallet and the changes in perspective when this quiet, observant girl finds a natural treasure near her tree. As well as the softly lyrical description of "a gray feather, a small one, like dandelion fluff only a little bigger." As she studies in her hand, she makes a revealing comment about being more interested in the feather "than I was interested in the leaf yesterday." Causing the reader to realize this is not a one-time feeling of isolation and observation, but a daily occurrence.

Internal spread - girl discovers a feather and holds it in one hand to examine it.

Text © Kao Kalia Yang, 2024. Image © Jimei Lin, 2024.

There is such a dramatic shift in colors, warmth, connection, and her rapid dialogue on the next spread when she arrives home after school. She gushes about everything she saw...until her mother asks "Kuv tsis paub ua cas koj tsis hais lus tom tsev kawm ntawv." I love the pause, and the possible sense of disconcertedness, which Yang creates by consciously not providing an immediate translation (there is one in the back matter). It's authentic, real, and natural.

Internal spread - girl sitting on mother's lap in a chery blue and green room.

Text © Kao Kalia Yang, 2024. Image © Jimei Lin, 2024.


Though at the time she is unable to answer her mother, we learn how her experiences with people who speak English, and their actions toward her parents, have caused her to go selectively silent. To feel as if a rock had lodged in her throat and grown heavier each day. Yang beautifully and lyrically compares Hmong (“a song, uninterrupted” which “flows and flows.”) and English ("sweet and sticky like candy.") and Lin poignantly uses perspective to amplify the girl's emotions and embarrassment in interactions with a shopkeeper and a substitute teacher. As an autobiography of Yang's childhood, the book doesn't have a typical happy picture book ending, Although, while recess is still "the worst time of the day," the shift in color pallet from the opening spread and the ending offer a hopeful future. One that is fulfilled in the Author's note. A note which answers both her own and her family's questions about she why became a selective mute for so many years. This is stunningly poignant, gorgeous book exploring the isolation, embarrassment, frustration, and exhaustion many immigrants face as they navigate in a new place.


Check out some of Kao Kalia Yang's events: (others at https://kaokaliayang.com/events/)


The Rock in My Throat Book Launch w/ Kao Kalia Yang and Jimei Lin Mall of America

Huntington Bank Rotunda

Tues. March 5, 2024

5-7 pm

Books will be available to purchase from a Barnes & Nobel Kiosk at 3 p.m. Program begins at 5 p.m. with a book reading, music + more! After the program, there will be a meet + greet with the author. After the program, there will be a signing with the author and illustrator.



Promo photo of Kao Kalia Yang's book event.

Kao Kalia Yang Reading and Celebration

March 12, 2024, 5:30 pm

The Minnesota Humanities Center

987 Ivy Ave East

St. Paul, MN 55106



Comments


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

Follow Me

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Instagram Social Icon
  • 1473394675_goodreads
  • Pinterest

Archive

Categories

bottom of page