Kao Kalia Yang is the author of the new children's picture book From the Tops of the Trees, which is based on a moment in her childhood. Her other books include A Map into the World. A Hmong-American writer, teacher, and public speaker, she is based in Minnesota.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on a particular childhood experience in your new picture book?
A: I decided to focus on a particular childhood experience in my newest book because it is an experience that has marked me and in some made me who I am.
In the trickiest life moments I have now, when I've wondered about what was ahead, I've returned to the memory of that experience. My feelings of fear dissipate and somehow the beauty is there to be found.
I want to share the beauty of that climb to the tops of the trees for readers--old and young--so that they might be able to harness its strength, or find their own memories to lend them that critical perspective when they need it most.
Q: What do you think Rachel Wada's illustrations add to the story?
A: Rachel Wada's incredible illustrations cast it beautifully in the light of memory. Beyond that, each of her spreads carries so many other narrative possibilities of the life I lived as a child, of the life of a child from elsewhere in the world. Her drawings are richly researched and imagined. The art is delicate like childhood and hope.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "This story of resilience and generational hope is told in an expressive, straightforward narrative style. The simplicity of the text adds a level of poignancy that moves readers to reflection." What do you think of that description?
A: I like simplicity in my life and in my ways. There is already so much complication in the world around us, the worlds within us. I'm glad to see that the reviewer understands the gift of simplicity.
The story is deeply resilient--as a memory and as a book of literature, and certainly: it is hopeful because here I am, there in the author image of the book, is a picture of me all grown up sitting by my father. How better to convey hope than that?
Q: Can you say more about what you hope kids take away from the book?
A: My hope is that children will find in From the Tops of the Trees lots of beauty in the art of Rachel and also the embedded moments: the little girls picking up fallen fruit and enjoying it like candy.
I hope they also find within it lots of room to ask questions of the people in their lives about refugees, about hunger, about poverty, about these real things that happen to people, that shape their becoming.
I most especially hope that they find in this book the gift of inspiration...that even from some of life's hard moments, there's a great deal of wisdom and perspective to be shared.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on a middle grade novel titled The Diamond Explorer and a memoir titled Return of the Refugee. They are my big 2021 projects.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I'm looking forward to the hush of winter this year, the quiet of the cold days, the way the sun hits a tree or a playground in the white of snow, a picture of possibility emerges stark and strong and striking!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kao Kalia Yang.