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Children's Fiction Emigration & Immigration

The Paper Boat

A Refugee Story

by (author) Thao Lam

Owlkids Books Inc.
Initial publish date
Sep 2020
Emigration & Immigration, Asia, Asia, Multigenerational
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2020
    List Price

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Where to buy it

Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels

  • Age: 6 to 9
  • Grade: 5 to 12


Named a best picture book of 2020 by Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, New York Public Library, the Globe and Mail, CBC, and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books — a heartfelt and personal immigration story by critically acclaimed author Thao Lam

New from Thao Lam, the award-winning author of picture books My Cat Looks Like My Dad, Wallpaper, and Skunk on a String, comes a personal story inspired by her family’s refugee journey.

In The Paper Boat, Thao’s signature collage art tells the wordless story of one family’s escape from Vietnam—a journey intertwined with an ant colony’s parallel narrative.

At her home in Vietnam, a girl rescues ants from the sugar water set out to trap them. Later, when the girl’s family flees war-torn Vietnam, ants lead them through the moonlit jungle to the boat that will take them to safety. Before boarding, the girl folds a paper boat from a bun wrapper and drops it into the water, and the ants climb on. Their perilous journey, besieged by punishing weather, predatory birds, and dehydration, before reaching a new beginning, mirrors the family’s own. Impressionistic collages and a moving, Own Voices narrative make this a one-of-a-kind tale of courage, resilience, and hope.

About the author

THAO Lam has been creating pictures for as long as she can remember. For her, drawing has always felt as natural as breathing. She has an insatiable love for coloured and textured papers, which she uses to create her exuberant collages. Passionate about children’s books, Thao is especially interested in visual storytelling. She draws inspiration from the stories she hears, from the beauty in everyday things, and from the work of the many illustrators she admires. As an art buyer for an education publishing company, she has the opportunity to work with thousands of different artists from all around the world. Since studying illustration for three years at Sheridan College in Toronto, Thao has developed her dual careers of illustrating and art buying. Her art works have appeared in publications such as Cricket and Highlight magazines. In 2008, she won the Highlights Five Pewter Plate award for verse illustration of the year. She has twice been chosen for the American Illustration Award. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Thao Lam's profile page


  • Commended, TD Summer Reading Club Top Recommended Read
  • Commended, Best Books for Kids and Teens (starred selection)
  • Commended, A Horn Book CaldeNott
  • Commended, A USBBY Outstanding International Books List selection
  • Nominated, Kids Book Choice Awards Best Book of the Year: 3rd–4th Grade
  • Commended, A Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon Selection
  • Commended, Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Canadian Picture Book Award Honour Book
  • Commended, A Kirkus Reviews Most Anticipated Book for Fall
  • Commended, A 100 Scope Notes 10 to Note for Fall
  • Commended, A Loan Stars Jr. Summer Top 10
  • Commended, Silent Books Collection
  • Commended, A Booklist Editors' Choice
  • Commended, A New York Public Library Best Book for Kids
  • Commended, A CBC Best Canadian Picture Book of 2020
  • Commended, A Book Links Lasting Connection
  • Commended, 100 Favourite Books of 2020
  • Commended, A Canadian Children's Book Centre Favourite Book of 2020
  • Commended, A Kirkus Best Picture Book of 2020
  • Commended, A School Library Journal Best Book of 2020

Editorial Reviews

"Children will be compelled to return again and again to digest its story. A timely, resonant, exceptional model of visual storytelling."

Kirkus Reviews – STARRED REVIEW

"I loved this wordless true story of a little girl and her family escaping Vietnam for a new home in North American. Told in frames, like a comic or graphic novel, Thao Lam's story evolves as the family hides their goods, their intentions, and their leaving, with the story of the ants the girl has helped to make the same journey. It's dark and scary, but as much of our world is again feeling the same, it is also comforting to see them together at the end, all at home."

René Kirkpatrick, University Book Store, Seattle WA

"A rich story rife with emotion."

Canadian Review of Materials

"The Paper Boat is beautiful, emotional, and an essential read."

The Tiny Activist

"Thao Lam invites the reader to delve into the story and make connections between the two families, one ant and one human, finding the similarities and differences in their plights and the relationships between and within."

CanLit for Little Canadians

"Readers will be enchanted by this remarkable wordless picture book, and its powerful themes of sacrifice, survival, and—above all else—family."

Sal's Fiction Addiction

"The visual storytelling here is rich and layered; it’s a compelling story and filled with such details that readers will find themselves lingering over panel after panel and page after page. It’s deeply moving, this tribute to Lam’s own family."

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

"Thao Lam shares her family’s history in this wordless tribute to the adults and children who were forced to flee Vietnam in the aftermath of the war."

Foreword Reviews

"Each panel is so detailed that readers will want to linger over them all, admiring Lam’s craft even while being immersed in emotions. A tender tribute to the author’s parents and to all refugees who survive and thrive despite enormous odds."


"[Lam] carefully guides her readers through the emotional trauma of [the Vietnam War] from the perspective of a child... Lam shares her story in an equally moving afterword but it's the wordless story that will resonate with readers."

The Globe and Mail

"[The Paper Boat] is another brilliant wordless display of Lam's talents as a paper cut and collage connoisseur... Lam takes care to depict every feeling of every key moment from the young girl's perspective, providing readers with an innocent lens through which to connect with this story."

Let's Talk Picture Books

"Unique, wordless, and beautiful."

100 Scope Notes

"This sensitively rendered story is accessible to young viewers, and it’s a perfect stepping stone for older readers."

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books – STARRED REVIEW

"The delicacy of the cut-paper art makes for incredibly moving images and invites the eye to linger on the frames... One can find the ants in the jungle, follow the child’s eye, then return to the previous spread to breathe in its emotional impact, before carrying on."

Children's Literature

"With cut paper illustrations, Lam shows two parallel stories — a Vietnamese family and a group of ants — leaving home and taking to boats for refuge. The tiny ants deepen the sense of the family’s vulnerability and, although Lam describes an event of the 1970s, the story resonates all too well in our current world."

Toronto Star

"Crisply cut paper represents intricate domestic scenes and just as skillfully conveys suspense... in this story of bravery and resilience."

Publishers Weekly

"The artistry in the illustrations is spectacular... An important story told in an impeccable format."

School Library Journal – STARRED REVIEW

"A wonderfully gentle way to tell the story of war."

Calgary Herald

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