Picture Book Review: The Most Beautiful Thing

From The Most Beautiful Thing Carolrhoda Books © 2020


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Written by Kao Kalia Yang and illustrated by Khoa Le

For ages 5-9; CarolRhoda Books 2020.

Overview of The Most Beautiful Thing

“Drawn from author Kao Kalia Yang’s childhood experiences as a Hmong refugee, this moving picture book portrays a family with little money—and a great deal of love. Weaving together Kalia’s story with that of her beloved grandmother, the book moves from the jungles of Laos to the family’s early years in the United States.” (Book jacket)

The Most Beautiful Thing gives readers a peek into the rich history and culture of the Hmong people, greatly underrepresented in books. A loving family of three generations is shown with lush illustrations by Khoa Le weaving between the present in Minnesota and Grandma’s past in Laos.

From The Most Beautiful Thing Carolrhoda Books © 2020

Their present life as new refugees is often difficult, but the young grandchildren beg for repeated tellings of Grandma’s tales of her childhood of danger and deprivation across the world.

And on every page we see their acceptance of her aging body. “The luckiest of the grandchildren got to help take care of Grandma…”

From The Most Beautiful Thing Carolrhoda Books © 2020

We learn that “…in her mouth was a single tooth.” Yet the grandchildren find Grandma’s smile beautiful—the kind of acceptance we all hope for in our old old age. Author Kao Kalia Yang so skillfully shows us their devotion and understanding with her poetic text.

“I squeezed her feet in my arms and pulled them close to my heart, a hug for the hard road she’s walked to get to me.”

From The Most Beautiful Thing Carolrhoda Books © 2020

In the end we see what gifts Grandma’s quiet presence and acceptance are for her granddaughter struggling to understand why she can’t have all that she wants.

Talking about aging with young people

All too often very old adults are seen as frail, their inner strength seldom discussed. The Most Beautiful Thing reminds us that sometimes entire families are greatly challenged, for generations. And yet—they can be resilient and loving and happy.

Recently I reread a 2013 article from The New York Times, “The Stories That Bind Us.” Author Bruce Feiler asks a question worth pondering in 2020—“What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?” It turns out the single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all:

Develop a strong family narrative.

Feiler shares the findings of Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University. Dr. Duke has researched the importance of developing strong family narratives. His research showed:

“The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

Children with strong self-confidence have what Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush call a strong ‘intergenerational self.’ They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”

“When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship.” Dr. Duke recommends that families share traditions and stories as important ways to build that intergenerational self.

Intergenerational Activities

2020 has been a tough year. No disputing that. A pandemic—with anxiety, illness and loss for many, isolation from friends and family, divisive politics, lost jobs and business, virtual school and more. For many families it has been very, very difficult.

Maybe asking older family members and friends to share past hard times would help. Prompt them to tell us about the challenges they’ve met in years gone by. And what about documenting 2020 from a family perspective?

Learn more about three types of “unifying family narratives” in NYT “The Stories That Bind Us” article. And start with some of the “Do you know?” questions shared there.

I would add—let’s talk to kids about the softer skills frequently offered by the older adults in our lives—the stories and insights shared, patience shown, the acts of kindness and time given freely. Read children more “age positive” picture books and commenting on skills you notice.

Illustrations used with permission. I reviewed a library copy of the book.

***What has YOUR family found helpful meeting the challenges of 2020?

Look for picture book A Map into the World also by Kao Kalia Yang. Find more Age Positive picture books here.

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