Kao Kalia Yang helps us see from a very tall tree

The column below originally appeared in several APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers, including the Star News, serving the Elk River, Mn newspapers

Kao Kalia Yang helps us see from a very tall tree

Multiple-award-winning Minnesota author and parent Kao Kalia Yang remembers the day, more than 35 years ago, when her father climbed with her on his back to the top of a very tall tree in Thailand. His goal was to help her, at age 4, to see there was much more to the world than the refugee camp in which they were living.

In her new children’s book, “From the Tops of the Trees,” Yang helps youngsters see and understand beyond where they are living – wherever that is.

Beautifully illustrated by Rachel Wada, “Trees” is gentle, personal and understated. On one level, it’s a story of children living difficult lives in a refugee camp. On another, it’s the story of how one father helps his daughter recognize more of the world. When her father reached the top of that tree, he explained: “Look, the world is bigger than this place. … One day my little girl will journey far into the world, to the places her father has never been.”

Cover of “From the Tops of the Trees”

I asked Yang, whom I’ve known and admired for years, what she wants people to understand about this book. She responded, in part: “We need ways of understanding and articulating the different stories of how people come from different places in search of a home. I see ‘From the Tops of the Trees’ as a powerful story about how the adults in our lives can feed our dreams — even in the midst of tremendously challenging circumstances — but also as a reminder that even in the lives of refugee children, there is beauty, wisdom, and love to offer the world. Sometimes the gifts others have to share are not things we can see; they are stories we can carry forever.”

This is one of the five best children’s books I’ve ever read.

Yang published another very good children’s book last year, “The Shared Room.” With assistance from illustrator Xee Reiter, this book also helps children understand things most haven’t experienced.

In this case, it’s the death of a sister. “The Shared Room” tells the true story of a family in St. Paul whose 6-year-old child drowned.

For months, the family, which I know, grieved. The house was very quiet. As Yang writes, “Sometimes the quiet got too loud, and the mother and the father played videos of the girl singing on their phones.”

Months went by. Then the parents asked their oldest child, who was sharing a room with his younger brother, if he wanted to make a change: Would he like to move into the bedroom of the daughter who had died? An emotional question and a heart-rending decision. Yes — after tears and confirmation that she would not return — he moved in.

The book ends with the family moving while retaining memories of their departed daughter. Those memories were and are “a melt in the freeze of their hearts.”

These two books help children and parents understand, as Yang writes, “the world is bigger than anything I had imagined.”

Yang recalls as a young child going to her school library in St. Paul and asking for books “about people who looked like me.” The librarian told her there weren’t any.

Yang has now written eight books and co-edited a ninth that has helped fill this gap. However, many of her books include stories of others, along with the Hmong.

In these two books, Yang describes wonderful parenting, regardless of race, income or cultural background. She helps parents and grandparents understand how we can help prepare children for challenges, some of which we’ve never seen.

Every family and every youngster will benefit from climbing and looking out on the world from the tall trees that Yang provides in “From the Tops of the Trees.” (Lerner Publishing Group) and “The Shared Room” (University of Minnesota Press).


 Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org or @JoeNathan9249 on Twitter.