Books·How I Wrote It

Thao Lam's children's book THAO is for everyone reclaiming their name

Lam spoke with CBC Books about how her own experiences inspired the story and the importance of being heard for who you are.

The Toronto author recently appeared on the CBC Kids Book Club to discuss her book

Thao is a picture book by Thao Lam. (Owlkids)

Thao Lam is an author and illustrator from Toronto. Her earlier picture books include Wallpaper and My Cat Looks Like My Dad.

Her latest picture book, THAO, is about what it's like to grow up with a name that people say is difficult to pronounce. Designed with a playful emphasis on typography, and Thao's own childhood photos added to her signature cut-paper collage, THAO champions being true to yourself and your background, and being empathetic toward others.

The Toronto author recently appeared on the CBC Kids Book Club, a segment which features Canadian children's book authors paired up with CBC Kids best friends Gary the Unicorn and Mr. Orlando.

Lam spoke with CBC Books about how her own experiences inspired the story and the importance of being heard for who you are. 

Seeing yourself in a story

"A while back I read an NPR article about mispronouncing students' names and how it affects their grades, their self-esteem and how they start dissociating themselves from their culture and their family. So it was a whole bunch of these social issues they were encountering and how schools or teachers were asking students to change their names for convenience's sake.

"I was really taken aback because everything they were describing was something that I was experiencing, but I didn't have the words or the understanding to put two-and-two together. I just went through life thinking my name is difficult and this is something I have to deal with and figure out how to accommodate people. 

Most of the time when I write something, it's for me or for my daughter. This one I wrote for me so I could cleanse my head of all the issues with my name that I had dealt with.

"I just went down this rabbit hole reading every article I could on that subject and then I decided to write a book about it, because for me, it was therapeutic. Most of the time when I write something, it's for me or for my daughter. This one I wrote for me so I could cleanse my head of all the issues with my name that I had dealt with. I've been lucky that every time I write a book, it's also something that somebody else has dealt with or taken an interest in."

Artwork with a retro vibe

"I work in collage, so a lot of it is patterned and textured papers that I have collected or bought. Each project is a different set of papers because it's a different feel or a different vibe that I'm trying to create for each book. 

"For this book, I tried intentionally to get '80s colours. Originally, I wanted a lot of fluorescent colours, but they are very expensive to print in books! We didn't have the budget for that. I tried to match the tone of the photographs that I had, which were from the '80s. They are printed and pixelated. I cut everything out and put it down. The photographs I used are not the actual photos — my parents would kill me! [laughs] But I colour-photocopied them and then I made a little person and stuck it on the art."

Internalizing assimilation 

"Learning about how far back changing someone's name goes was a real eye-opener for me. I read articles that talked about how when boats of slaves came over to America, the people who bought them stripped them of their identity and gave them their owner's last name. Or the other examples of Indigenous people who were taken to [residential] schools and were given Christian names. 

When I had my daughter and I had to choose a name for her, it really did a number on me. I was like, 'I really need to pick a name which nobody can tear apart.'

"We don't learn about that in school. If we jump into the present, they were talking about a school in Brooklyn where the teacher asked a class of immigrants to change their name and the kids protested. They said, 'Why don't you come to lunch? We will sit next to a student, and that student will teach you how to pronounce their name.'

"[Writing the book] really helped me understand why I have anxiety when I'm meeting a new person or if I am giving my name to somebody at Starbucks and waiting for my name to be called, I want to make sure I'm really quick on it so they don't have to repeat it twice. It's little things like that which you don't think really affects a person, but over time, it chips away at you and you don't even realize what you're doing or why it's happening."

The other Thaos 

"I felt really uncomfortable putting myself in the spotlight but to make the story stand, it had to be real. The idea of using my photograph meant we are now putting a face to the name — and that's the thing: there is a face to every name.

The idea of using my photograph meant we are now putting a face to the name — and that's the thing: there is a face to every name.

"The funny thing is, my name is very common in Vietnam. 'Thao' is like 'Jennifer' in Vietnam. It just depends where you're at. I've seen a couple South Korean shows where the kids had adopted English names and the Korean teacher would be trying to pronounce them, and I feel like it's the same way moving to a new country. It is going to be a struggle, but it shouldn't be an isolating experience. How people respond to your name is key. 

"When the book was published, people actually reached out and said, 'You know what? My name is Thao, too, and I feel the same way,' or, 'My parents changed my name because there were issues at my school.' So it was just nice to know there is a community of people who understand the problems of having a name that is different. 

"I don't expect everybody to know how to pronounce my name off the bat. In a way, it teaches me to be patient with others and just go, 'OK, this person is learning — or at least they are making time to learn.' So I think in the same way, it's understanding both sides of the fence, and I think that goes a long way."

Meeting Mr. Orlando 

"I grew up on shows like CBC Kids. When I arrived, I was sort of like a kid in a candy shop. My eyes were bulging out and I was just like, 'Whoa, look how cool the set is,' or, 'This is where they filmed this.' 

"And it wasn't so hard to talk to a puppet! I felt like I was trained for it because, playing with my child, she treats her stuffed animals like real people so I had talked to many stuffed animals for the last couple years! It's on my bucket list to be on Sesame Street, so when CBC Books called me, I knew I had to do it."

Thao Lam's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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