There are many things beautiful about The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang. First, it shares the story of a young refugee from Laos and her grandmother. Then it has richly-colored illustrations. But the most beautiful thing might well be different for each reader. It is an emotional refugee story, a narrative of the challenge of poverty, a theme of acceptance, and a reflection on how beauty is identified. Each can be found in this sensitively told story that evolves from the author’s personal experiences. For me, the most beautiful thing about the book is the intergenerational relationship that reveals a mutual bond of love, respect and admiration, setting this book apart from many others that tell of relationships between children and grandparents. One quote represents the tone of this relationship:
“The luckiest of the grandchildren got to help take care of grandma.”
Both Kalia and her grandma are in the forefront as Kalia lovingly takes care of her grandmother, listening to her stories of growing up. Grandma’s story of life in the jungles of Laos are told as related to Kalia’s questions and the challenges of her family having little money. These stories create a brief cultural and historical background for young readers through a rich interweaving of past events, such as Grandma having to run to escape a tiger, with Kalia’s daily life. But they also create a parallel between the two generations as to the challenges of poverty each faced and the love of family that proved stronger than these challenges.
The Most Beautiful Thing is rich with sensory imagery as Kalia describes her grandmother’s soft but dry skin, her rough feet with “deep cracks filled with dirt from long ago and far away,” and the single tooth that stood strong in her mouth. The mixed media visual images created by Vietnamese illustrator Khoa Le provide both realistic and abstract representations of both Kalia’s life with Grandma and the stories Grandma told. Rich colors and cultural motifs keep the stories visually interesting, often with symbolism that helps to show the passage of time as Kalia gets older and Grandma gets slower, although nonetheless wiser.
Kao Kalia Yang shares the Hmong refugee experience from her own childhood, but most impressive are the memories of family, stories, and lessons learned about “the most beautiful thing,” a grandmother’s smile. The focus is uplifting and invites readers of all ages to consider the beauty of the relationships they create. Among her other picturebooks are Map Into the World and The Shared Room. She has also written for adults. -Recommended by Janelle Mathis, University of North Texas
Author: Kalia Yang
Illustrator: Khoa Le
Publisher: Carolrhoda Books
PubDate: October 6, 2020
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