Title: Yang Warriors
Author: Kao Kalia Yang
Illustrator: Billy Thao
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Review copy: Digital ARC via Netgalley
Availability: April 13, 2021
Summary: In this inspiring picture book, fierce and determined children confront the hardships of Ban Vinai refugee camp, where Kao Kalia Yang lived as a child. Accompanied by the evocative and rich cultural imagery of debut illustrator Billy Thao, the warriors’ secret mission shows what feats of compassion and courage children can perform, bringing more than foraged greens back to the younger children and to their elders. In this unforgiving place, with little to call their own, these children are the heroes, offering gifts of hope and belonging in a truly unforgettable way.
My review: Kao Kalia Yang has put the perfect words together to whisk readers back in time right into her memories. She shares about her young cousins training together each day so they would be ready when needed. They had both physical and mental exercises and their chosen leader was one of the smaller children. He was chosen because he was the most passionate about their training and believed in them the most. He had a heart for everyone and for the work they were doing. One of my favorite illustrations is this tiny boy standing with his hands on his hips. The shadow that he casts is a large one and it is also shaped like the heart motif that is often found in Hmong textiles and jewelry. It's just one of the many wonderful ways Billy Thao's artwork supports the story.
The Yang Warriors had many reasons to train. There were Thai guards, other children who wanted space in the camp, and there were lonely ghosts. They knew there was danger around them, but they also knew they wanted to be prepared for anything. Young readers will likely connect with these creative and empathic children who did more than simply survive in this challenging situation. They taught each other and challenged each other in many ways.
As with many of Kao Kalia Yang's stories, readers will also feel the boundless familial love within the words. Several of her adult and children's books are love letters to her grandmother and parents, but with this book, we get to see love for her sister and cousins.
Yang and Thao each provide wonderful notes at the end of the book that include a little more information about the refugee camp experience and Hmong culture.
Recommendation: This is truly a book for anyone. It should find a place in any library and I am excited to have it available for my students in the near future.