In this beautiful new picture book “A Map into the World” we see warm friendships blossom across multiple generations, and across cultures. Author Kao Kalia Yang gives us insights into a Hmong-American family and Seo Kim‘s lovely illustrations complement her words. (Carolrhoda Books; 2019)
Below are my top ten reasons to read A Map into the World:
- What is most striking is that four generations are clearly delineated—the children, their parents, Paj Ntaub’s grandmother, Tais Tais—who gardens and actively assists with child care, and also their older neighbors Bob and Ruth. Here to be older is not simply “old.” All too often in picture books that is the case—“old” encompasses multiple generations.
- The author and illustrator adeptly show us a young child’s perspective of events. Paj Ntaub watches her world through the lens of the big living room window, trying to make sense of what she sees. We see the progression of four distinct seasons along with her observations of events. And from her low vantage point drawing on the sidewalk she overhears her mother and Bob talking.
- Growth and aging and death are shared as normal and natural. Paj Ntaub’s tiny twin brothers grow older in both the text and the lush illustrations by Seo Kim. Alongside this passing of time, Ruth’s death is gently shared and the sadness acknowledged. But to be older is not equated with death. Grandmother Tais Tais continues to help the young family in home and garden. Bob grieves, but also responds to their efforts to engage him.
- The young family reaches out in friendship and support to their older neighbor Bob as he grieves his partner of 60 years. Many people avoid mortality and sadness in discomfort, but this family shows us the way. Yet—the child does not “fix” the older adult.
- Paj Ntaub offers gifts of nature—first to her baby brothers—a golden gingko leaf, a ball of fresh snow, fragrant lilac flowers. Then later to their neighbor Bob, in the form of colorful chalk pictures on the sidewalk.
- We gain insights into a modern Hmong-American family as a valuable part of their community, along with hints at their ancient culture such as the beautiful story cloth.
- Childish observations and fun details will capture kids’ imagination. “They were like puppies, their tongues licking everything,” says Paj Ntaub about her infant brothers. And she names her worm “Annette.”
- The big sister grows visibly in responsibility for her baby brothers. At first her mother cautions her with regard to her interactions, but soon she is urged to help out, “Don’t let them eat the flowers Paj Ntaub.”
- This beautiful picture book doesn’t end with death and grief, but rather with hope for Bob’s reentry into his community, and the world. Too many picture books with older characters focus on illness, forgetfulness and decline. Growing old is often confused with disease and death.
- This book is based on truth. The author’s family maintains an ongoing friendship with their neighbor. She dedicated A Map into the World “For Bob, who loved Ruth.” Here we have a powerful message about community, inter-generational friendship, and longevity.
I’m grateful for this lovely book. In part because it shows the possibility of happiness after loss late in life. And because how we portray growing older does matter, even in picture books.
Researcher Sheree Kwong See at the University of Alberta says “We’ve been able to show that even young children have beliefs about older people’s abilities. We’re seeing what we could call ageism by about age three.”
“The reality of aging is that there’s considerable heterogeneity; older people differ,” says Kwong See. “They differ a lot, and that is a more complicated story to portray, but it is the truth.”
“Kwong See would like to see people be as proactive about quelling ageism as they are about issues like racism and sexism… intervention needs to start early to combat the negative stereotypes and to avoid the cycle people go through from being the perpetrator to being the target.” Read more about ageism and children.
Ageism impacts our health and longevity, from an early age. Check out this fascinating research about the power of our beliefs about aging. And how it matters even for children.
Author Kao Kalia Yang of Minnesota, is also the author of award winning The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and The Song Poet for adults. More picture books forthcoming in 2020.
A little Hmong-American History—
“The name “Hmong,” (pronounced “Mong”) translates as “Free People.”…In 1976, under the auspices of world relief organizations, the first Hmong refugee families came from Laos and Thailand to the United States, settling in California, Oregon, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Colorado, with other Southeast Asian immigrants…”
Excerpt. Read more from Dia’s Story Cloth: The Hmong People’s Journey of Freedom by Dia Cha (Lee & Low Books, 1996)
Program from my daughter’s grade school, Randolph Heights, in St. Paul MN some years ago. Their Hmong New Year celebration featured a fashion show and music—it was a fabulous way to bridge cultures. Blessings on teachers!
Images used with permission. Thank you to Lerner Books, and editors Carol Hinz and Shaina Olmanson. I reviewed an ebook provided by the publisher at my request.
Find great picture book reviews every Friday at Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog.