A Most Beautiful Reveal of The Most Beautiful Thing: Cover Reveal and Interview with Kao Kalia Yang
One of the nicer perks of writing a book is that on occasion your publisher might send you somewhere. It might be a conference. It might be a bookstore. It might be a book festival in Minnesota in mid-October in the middle of an inexplicable snowstorm. I mean. For example.
This past October I found myself using my Santa hat for warmth rather than as a mere accessory as I participated in the Twin Cities Book Festival’s featured youth programs. A whole host of authors and illustrators were presenting their books. There were folks like John Coy, Marlena Myles, Bao Phi, Kayla Harren, Michael Hall, Mike Wohnoutka, and a singular young woman named Kao Kalia Yang. If the name rings a bell you might have heard of her picture book A Map Into the World, released last fall, which ended up a Charlotte Zoltow Honor Book as well as a newly minted ALA Notable. And that was her debut!
In A Map Into the World, we follow a Hmong family as the daughter observes her elderly neighbors and discovers how you can reach out to someone when they’re going through a private grief. This year, I am pleased to announce, Ms. Yang has another picture book coming out in October of 2020 and, once more, it returns to her Hmong roots. Kalia, you see, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to the United States at the age of 6. She is among the very first Hmong American children’s authors working in the States today.
I am asked to do cover reveals from time to time, and I’ve found that the ones that work best are the ones where the book has a hook that intrigues me in some way. Here is the description I was handed for Kalia’s latest:
“The Most Beautiful Thing is a nonfiction picture book that speaks directly to the experience of being poor. Weaving together Kalia’s story with that of her beloved grandmother, the book moves from the jungles of Laos to the family’s early years in the United States. Kalia asks for things she cannot have and as time passes, she becomes dissatisfied with making do with the little that her family has. When she decides she wants braces to improve her smile, it is her grandmother—a woman who has just one tooth in her mouth—who helps her see that true beauty is found with those we love most.”
Intriguing. But before we could go much further, I had some questions for the author in question. And happily, she was willing to answer them:
Betsy Bird: Thank you for joining me here today, Kalia. So sometimes a person can just tell from reading a book that its story is based on real occurrences and real people from the past. The Most Beautiful Thing is steeped in Hmong history and culture, primarily through the grandmother of the tale. Can you tell me a little about the impetus to write this story?
Kao Kalia Yang: The Most Beautiful Thing is very much the story of my family’s life in America with my beloved grandmother. Grandma was a splendid storyteller and really the only grandparent I knew (my grandfathers died when my parents were just children; my mother’s mother was in Laos so I never had the chance to meet her). Grandma was my point of connection to a history I could not locate in the history books in the American schools. Through her stories, the little girl she was, the life she lived, peeked out at me from a past I knew existed.
At my grandmother’s feet, cutting her toenails, I learned the stories of her past. They were the foundations of my history. I recognized that the stories we were living together would be the ones I would pass to the future. The Most Beautiful Thing was born from this understanding, this feeling like I was not alone because she had lived, that I would be fine in this life, because she’d journeyed far to get here and be with me.
BB: In the story it’s clear early on that each child that tends to their grandmother feels that it’s a special honor to aid her in some way. Was that something you experienced with your own grandmother growing up? And did your feelings about the task change as you grew older, as they do in the book?
KKY: My grandmother had many grandkids. For most of us, she was our only grandparent–grandparents were in short supply. Beyond that, we belonged to a culture and a people that held elders in high esteem. It was an honor to care for our grandmother, to be so close to history, to the spirit of survival and strength that she embodied. As I grew older, I grew more distracted in our moments together, more pulled toward the growing list of responsibilities that I was taking on as the numbers of siblings and my range of abilities grew. Her ability to tell stories, to remember the facts, slowed with her age. We were both changing so fast, so cognizant of the changes inside ourselves and the world outside that the bridge of our meeting, our being together, in body and spirit, grew thin with the passage of the years. Yes, what happens in the book by that window is so true to the life we shared.
BB: There are so many palpable images and feelings in this story but the most powerful by far is the grandmother’s feet. Cracked and filled with dirt from decades before, she tells a story of walking barefoot as a child and running from a tiger as her bare feet broke open, “blood and dirt mixing into clay with each step.” How much of this story is original to you and how much do you recall from being a child?
KKY: My grandmother really did run away from a tiger in the jungles of Laos. Her torn earlobe was the only evidence I’ve ever needed as confirmation of the fact. She told many times of her bleeding feet on the flight toward safety. Grandma spoke only in Hmong. The writing of the story, in English, had to be my own…translated from memory.
BB: Few picture books for kids feel comfortable discussing the working class and everyday poverty. Yours handles the subject expertly. What is the benefit, to your mind, of including this aspect to the story?
KKY: I grew up poor. I know poverty well. My father used to be adamant that we were not poor children because our hearts were not poor places. There has been in my life many a moment when I’ve challenged his words out loud and to myself. Poverty is nothing new, but it remains underrepresented and oftentimes misrepresented in children’s picture books. It’s hard to do it well. By circumstance, I think I can do it well.
We talk often of the importance of representation in literature and other forms of art. YES, it is important for all of us to see ourselves represented. But beyond just that, diversity matters because it allows for certain knowledges and cultural norms to be centered–and for those who are not part of mainstream society to live openly and teach fearlessly from our truths. This is the beauty of having a writer like me enter into such a thing as the children’s picture book world.
The intersectional elements of my identity all come to play when I play on the page. Across genres and audiences, I was a first generation Hmong refugee woman and now I’m a new American Hmong mother. I was poor and now I’m less poor. I grew up the granddaughter of a great shaman and now most of the great shamans of my childhood are dead, but I still remain deeply entrenched in the cosmology of my people while living in a Judeo-Christian society. There are so many layers at play, named and unnamed, in the book.
The world is big and rich and beautiful. Every child should be able to experience that breadth and depth. Literature is my chosen field. I often remind my own children, “You have the most to learn from the perspectives that are hardest to find in the world.” I believe this completely.
BB: An author often cannot select their illustrator, and it can feel like the luck of the draw on how well they pair with your text. Khoa Le lives in Vietnam and appears to have created the most perfect art for each page. Was this how you envisioned the book?
KKY: Khoa Le brought to visual life the beauty, the lushness, the magic, the poetic metaphors and possibilities of the story with exquisite grace, color, and skill. I’m so moved by her illustrations. I am only sorry that she won’t have a chance to be recognized by awards such as the Caldecott.
Early on, I decided that one definition of artistry is that it must be able to inspire another’s art. I can see that the book has really connected and spoken to Khoa and allowed her to do her magic on the page.
Whatever I envisioned for this book pales in comparison to the vision that the book has become in the hands of Khoa Le. Holding this book feels very much to me like I’m holding a most precious, beautiful gift.
BB: And finally, what are you working on next?
KKY: Next year, 2021, I’ll have at least two more children’s books coming out. A picture book in the spring from the University of Minnesota Press called Yang Warriors and then in the fall, another book I’ve been working on with Carolrhoda Books called From the Tops of the Trees. Meanwhile, I’m writing a middle-grade work for Dutton and picture book with Kokila, and these are just some of the projects on my table at the moment. There will be many more things coming from me.
Thank you, Kalia, for that wonderful interview.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for . . . .
The Most Beautiful Thing will publish October 6, 2020. Many thanks to Carol Hinz for the reveal and to Kao Kalia Yang for the interview. Cover and interior design by Emily Harris.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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