Told from the perspective of a young child who visits their dying grandmother in the hospital, Green Papayas is the story of a family across generations and oceans. As the child and their mother and siblings gather at Oma’s bedside, Oma asks, “What’s your name, my dear?” This question kicks off a journey through the family’s history.
Green Papayas is relevant for children of many diaspora communities, and offers parents and educators the opportunity to talk to young readers about their heritage and family history. The repetition in the prose reiterates the importance of keeping and remembering these stories. It’s also a great entryway to discuss war and its impact on families with children. By leaving all the characters unnamed, the family’s story itself becomes the main character.
The beauty of this book lies in its visual storytelling. Gillian Newland’s watercolour illustrations convey a softness necessary to hold the pain of the past. The muted colours of the pages where Mama recounts the devastation of war reflect lost hope and an uncertain future. But the story does not linger too long in the past, and these sombre pages are immediately followed by illustrations with brighter colours. The juxtaposition of contrasting tones depicts how a painful past does not necessarily prevent a brighter future.
In each flashback, Mama talks of a land of green papayas; as an important staple in Southeast Asian cooking, this signals to readers that the story is grounded in a particular culture. The colour green is found on every page of the book, and fruits are woven throughout the storyline. The green papayas are also a reminder of the centrality of food to culture, history, and memory.
This is ultimately a story that helps teach young readers about heritage. It’s also an excellent book to show young readers that even though our ancestors pass on, we are still connected to them by the stories they shared.