A new picture book from multiple-award-winning author Marsha Skrypuch and renowned illustrator Brian Deines tells the story of a young boy’s remarkable escape from Vietnam in the early 1980s. The book opens with six-year-old Tuan Ho fleeing his home in Ho Chi Minh City in the middle of the night with his mother and sisters, dodging bullets fired by the Vietnamese military police. The family ends up in a faulty boat with 60 others, adrift on the ocean. For six days Tuan survives despite brutal conditions, until rescue finally comes in the form of an American aircraft carrier. The book closes with Tuan gulping down multiple glasses of cool milk, and smiling at the sailor pouring it.
This is not the first time Skrypuch has dealt with Vietnam. Her 2011 non-fiction title Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War won the Red Cedar Book Award. The author’s familiarity with her subject is evident here, and Tuan’s dramatic story of survival comes alive in Skrypuch’s capable hands. The heart-pounding action alone is enough to captivate readers, but Skrypuch also incorporates moments of great poignancy that add depth and emotion. As little Tuan watches a nearby boat filled with people erupt in flames and slowly sink, he reflects that there is nothing he can do to help and wonders if the same thing will happen to his boat. This is just one of many scenes with the potential to inspire empathy and discussion about the plight of refugees.
Deines’s accompanying artwork is achingly beautiful. Rich, warm colours make readers feel they are experiencing Vietnam for themselves. That danger can exist amid such beauty is an important lesson to learn. That the human spirit can triumph under the most trying of conditions is even more important.