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  • Ratha Tep

Interview with Thao Lam, THAO: A PICTURE BOOK

Even though it’s only four simple, familiar letters long, nobody can ever pronounce Thao’s name. She’s been called Theo, Tail, even Towel! But the teasing names―Tofu, Tiny, China Girl―are worse. Maybe it’s time to be someone else?

Max's Boat Pick:


By Thao Lam

Publisher: Owlkids (April 15, 2021)

What inspired you to write Thao: A Picture Book?

TL: "Years ago I stumbled across an NPR article about the effects of mispronouncing a student’s name. It mentioned how the alienation of having an unfamiliar name could cause a child's grades and social emotional well-being to suffer. The article validated my experiences and I wanted to learn more so I went down this rabbit hole reading everything I could on the social impact, as well as the politics and history, of names.

My name was butchered my entire life. I would dread roll calls or having to introduce myself at school. To

this day, I still cringe inside when I know my name is going to be called; there is always this awkward pause that tells me I am next.

Though they may seem harmless—mere slips of the tongue—these racial microaggressions add up and can leave a lasting impact on a child, skewing how they view themselves, their culture and

the world around them.

I was never taught to appreciate my name; it was something I endured. It was an embarrassing burden, and a constant reminder that I was different, foreign, and weird. But names are special and part of your identity. They have meaning, cultural significance, and family history attached to them."

Writing anything, even a work of fiction, can seem so personal, and here you are not just writing something deeply personal, but also putting your childhood photos in it! How did that come about? "I had all these photographs my mother gave me while I was researching my family’s history for The Paper Boat. There were a few of our lives in Canada so when I was trying to figure out the 'look' for THAO: A Picture Book, it clicked. This story was about me, so it made sense to use photos of me to help put a real face to a name. They serve as a reminder that behind each name is a person who should not be carelessly brushed off. Names hold ancestral and historical significance for many immigrants, like myself. There is a story and a person behind each name; we should make an effort and take the time to get to know both."

Who are some illustrators you admire? "I used to be an art buyer for educational publishing; my job was to commission illustrations for your language, math, history, science and social studies books. I spent a lot of time looking at illustrations and had the privilege of working with some amazing illustrators so it’s a long list of favorites:

Isabelle Arsenault

Oliver Jeffers

Mo Willems

Dan Santat

David Roberts

Elise Gravel

Thomke Meyer

Suzy Lee

Jungho Lee

Vera Brosgol

Joe Todd-Stanton

Patrycja Podkoscielny

Raquel Catalina

Christian Robinson

Eric Carle

Ezra Jack Keats

Qin Leng

Chris Sasaki

Jorge Gonzalez

Teagan White

Jane Massey

Jean Jullien

Chris Turnham

Jon Klassen

Shaun Tan

Simona Ciraolo

And so many more…"


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