Two new inspirational books by award-winning Minnesota author Kao Kalia Yang

The following column was published in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during April, 2024.


Two new inspirational books by award-winning Minnesota author


It took two weeks for me to read Kao Kalia Yang’s new book, “Where Rivers Part.” That’s because at various times, I would stop and weep. For the hardships that her family endured. For the cruelty they encountered. And for the incredible spirit that kept and keeps them going.

“Where Rivers Part” is the incredible story of her mother’s life, beginning in Laos, moving to a refugee camp in Thailand, and then living in Minnesota.

This book answers many questions. One of the most important, Yang told me when we talked early in April, is about “what’s it like to live as an (economically) poor person who is rich.” Rich in courage. Rich in compassion. Rich in persistence. As Yang pointed out to me, “We don’t have a lot of stories that tell about such people.”

Another question the book answers is if people like Yang’s mother, and thousands of Hmong refugees, should be pitied. Yang answers strongly: “No! Pity is not useful or productive – I want people to be surprised, see pieces of themselves reflected. That is the purpose of art.”

This book contains dozens of examples of Yang’s artistry. Here are two:

  • She describes her mother’s hands as “small hands, small fingers, middle finger and ring finger bending toward each other like old friends with secrets to share.”
  • Yang explains that “these pages are a message from my heart to my mother’s, my way of saying although time will not hold us close together forever, our feelings for each other will live on long after we are gone.”

Yang has won many Minnesota and national awards for her books, some of which are for children, some of which are for adults. (See

The New York Times recently published a lengthy interview with her.

Yang’s second new book is for children and adults. “The Rock in My Throat” is dedicated to “everyone who has trouble speaking, trouble being heard. For everyone who has lived without understanding on their side.”

The book answers questions such as:

  • What’s it like to go to a store when you don’t speak English well and ask for something when you don’t know the right word? In this case, Yang’s mother wanted to buy light bulbs and did not know the right words. So she asked slowly for “the thing that makes the world shiny.” The store clerk tapped her own hand on the counter and looked away. Yang decided she did not want to be like the clerk.

* What’s it like to decide you feel comfortable speaking with your family, but not in public settings such as school? This is “called selective mutism.” It’s a disorder that, according to a national group working on this problem, affects about 1 out of every 140 children and “has been found to be more common in children who speak more than one language.” (More information is here and here. )

Beautifully illustrated by Jiemei Lin, published by Carolrhoda Books, this gently moving book deepens understanding and empathy.

Yang is being asked to share her insights widely. She told me that she has 56 book talks scheduled between April and June. Carleton College, her alma mater, has asked her to speak at its June graduation where the college will give her an honorary doctorate.

Kao Kalia Yang in a St Paul Public School library that has been named for her (Photo credit from Ms. Yang)

“Where Rivers Part” (Atria Books) is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the most valuable. For an emotional, insightful, ultimately rewarding experience, read either or both of these books.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, co-directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome,