STARRED REVIEW
September 26, 2021

From the Tops of the Trees

By Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Rachel Wada
Review by

With realism and a strong thread of empowerment, author Kao Kalia Yang shares a story based on events she experienced as a child living at Thailand’s Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in From the Tops of the Trees.

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With realism and a strong thread of empowerment, author Kao Kalia Yang shares a story based on events she experienced as a child living at Thailand’s Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in From the Tops of the Trees.

Yang captures the rhythms of camp life from the start. Her family sits in the shade of a large tree that provides “a great umbrella of cool.” She and her cousins play while the adults sew and discuss the war that forced them to cross a treacherous river to reach safety. “They are scared to return to the old country. They are scared to go to a new country,” Kalia reflects.

Yang hints delicately at the difficulties of camp life in a way that’s well suited for young readers. After she hears the adults talking about war, Kalia’s father reassures her that she’s safe. “Your hands and your feet will travel far to find peace,” he tells her. When she wonders why she must live behind a gate and whether “all of the world [is] a refugee camp,” he puts her on his back and climbs a tree to give her a glimpse of the wide world that awaits her.

Illustrator Rachel Wada uses linework to direct the reader’s attention, bringing some elements into sharp focus and allowing others to recede into the background. While many of the book’s scenes are full of joy, Wada’s earth-tone palette conveys the limitations of the camp’s environment, which is devoid of the lively colors readers are used to seeing on the pages of many picture books.

The spreads in which Kalia and her father climb the tree and gaze far out past the borders of the camp to see mountains in the distance “at the place where the sky meets the earth” are wonderful. Readers will feel as though they’re climbing alongside father and daughter and sharing their awe-inspiring view of the vast freedoms the world has to offer.

The author’s note makes Yang’s powerful story even more impactful. She includes a photograph taken by her mother that shows her in her father’s arms among the treetops. She also describes the lives she and her family went on to lead beyond the confines of the camp’s walls. Rooted in one family’s specific experience, From the Tops of the Trees offers an inspiring and universal vision of hope.

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From the Tops of the Trees

From the Tops of the Trees

By Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Rachel Wada
Carolrhoda
ISBN 9781541581302

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