Author-illustrator Thao Lam, the creator behind the critically acclaimed picture books My Cat Looks Like My Dad, Wallpaper, and The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story, returns with Thao. Based on Thao Lam’s own childhood experiences of being Vietnamese-Canadian in predominantly white environments, Thao explores names, otherness, and pride in one’s identity.
Thao only has four letters in her first name, letters that make up other names, too – so why does her combination of these letters cause such difficulty for other people? At school, Thao’s Vietnamese name is often mispronounced – carelessly or deliberately – or goes unspoken. In several instances, Thao is on the receiving end of microaggressions, name-calling, and overt racism; sometimes Thao raises her hand in answer to a name nothing like her own. Since pronouncing Thao properly is such a problem for her peers, the young protagonist begins to wonder, Would it not be better if she simply changed her name?
Thao contemplates the name Jennifer: it’s more familiar in English-speaking countries, thus arguably it will be easier for others to pronounce. Thao decides to adopt Jennifer as her new name, seeing no downside to her plan – that is, until Thao discovers her favourite Vietnamese dish in her lunchbox, which sparks her to question her decision.
Thao is captivating and playful at the illustrative level. Lam’s wonderfully unique artistic style is on display here, through the use of mixed-media illustrations, collages, variations in typography, and real-life photos of Lam as a child interspersed throughout. The story’s ending is slightly abrupt; more time spent on the resolution and celebration of the protagonist’s name and identity would have been welcome, especially given how well paced and well articulated the build to the climax is.
In all, Thao is a terrifically complex picture book that packs depth as well as moments of levity within the limits of its format. Its sincerely empathetic perspective offers encouragement to readers with similar life experiences, while all readers (children and parents alike) may be inspired by Thao to reflect on how their own actions can better support and celebrate cultural diversity.