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A New Voice in Picture Books: Hmong Writer Kao Kalia Yang

At the close of Immigrant Heritage Month, also the month in which we honor World Refugee Day, we celebrate the work of an important new picture book writer.

In the late 1950's, when the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America went to the high mountains of Laos to commission 32,000 Hmong men and boys to fight and to die on America's behalf because the war was unpopular here, they believed that we would die, that the CIA's biggest covert operation would always remain that -- a secret.

A third of the Hmong died in the war with the Americans. Another third were slaughtered in the genocide of its aftermath.

...When the CIA came to the high mountains of Laos, they could not have imagined a writer like me emerging, of all of the places, from Minnesota.

Kao Kalia Yang, "The Impossible Happens Every Day in the Life of the Refugee"

Kao Kalia Yang was born in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in December of 1980, one year after her family made the dangerous crossing over the Mekong River into Thailand, after surviving years hiding in the jungles of Laos.

[In Ban Vinai Camp,] my father used to carry me to the tops of the trees and I'd ask, 'What is home?' He would tell me a story of Laos, imagine a story in America, and then he would look at me and tell me that one day ... my little feet would walk on the horizons he's never seen; that I was not a child of poverty and war or despair, but that I was hope being born, the captain to a more beautiful future.

I believed him.

Kao Kalia Yang, "The Power in Sharing our Stories"

In 1987 the extended Yang family arrived as refugees in St. Paul, Minnesota. Twenty-one years later, Kao Kalia Yang published her first book for adults,  The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir. Last year, her first picture book, A Map Into the World, became only the second picture book by a Hmong American writer published in the U.S.

The only hint in this book of what the Hmong survived is hidden in the story cloth that Paj Ntaub helps her grandmother Tais Tais pin to the wall of their home. But the story itself is a testament to the resilience and gifts of new Americans, bringing their hard work, hopes and dreams to neighborhoods across the country.

For use during stay-at-home and school-at-home, here is Yang reading the book aloud:

And she has more! Look for her just-released The Shared Room (coming to our collection soon), and the drawn-from-life story coming this fall, The Most Beautiful Thing.

Coming Soon

The Shared Room by Kao Kalia Yang and Xee Reiter 2020

"When someone you love dies, you know what doesn’t die? Love. On the hot beach, among colorful umbrellas blooming beneath a bright sun, no one saw a little girl walk into the water. Now, many months later, her bedroom remains empty, her drawers hold her clothes, her pillows and sheets still have her scent, and her mother and father, brothers and sister carry her in their hearts, along with their grief, which takes up so much space. Then one snowy day, the mother and father ask the girl’s older brother, “Would you like a room of your own?” He wants to know, “Whose?” They say, “Your sister’s.” -- publisher

I’ve been sharing our stories, the secrets that we’ve been hiding for so long, the burden we’ve been carrying without understanding on our side, because all over this country people ask, ‘Where are you from?’, ‘What are you doing here?’ I belong to a people, to a mother and a father, who cannot explain what we’re doing here. So that’s what I do.

... We don’t just live in our own stories. We belong to all of these other stories and all of these other people.

Kao Kalia Yang, "The Power in Sharing our Stories"

We suggest pairing Yang’s books with the first picture book by a Hmong American writer, which shares how the Hmong had to flee their home in Laos to make the long journey that led them to America — and the meaning of the story cloth.

The field of children’s books is fortunate to have the circle of belonging enlarged by the stories of Hmong Americans.

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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