Yang Warriors – Book Review

Written by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Billy Thao | University of Minnesota Press

Release Date: April 13, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5179-0798-3

Age Range: 5 -10 years

Hardcover: 40 pages, 18 color plates

Size: 7” x 10”

Price: $16.95

Award-winning author Kao Kalia Yang delivers an inspiring tale of resourceful children confronting adversaries in a refugee camp.

More About the Book:

After lunch, the Yang warriors prepare for battle. They practice drills, balance rocks on their heads, wield magical swords from fallen branches. Led by ten-year-old Master Me (whose name means “little”), the ten cousins are ready to defend the family at all costs. After a week without fresh vegetables, the warriors embark on a dangerous mission to look for food, leaving the camp’s boundaries, knowing their punishment would be severe if they were caught by the guards. 

In this inspiring picture book, fierce and determined children confront the hardships of Ban Vinai refugee camp, where the author lived as a child. Yang’s older sister, seven-year-old Dawb, was one of the story’s warriors, and her brave adventure unfolds here with all the suspense and excitement that held her five-year-old sister spellbound many years later. Accompanied by the evocative and rich cultural imagery of debut illustrator Billy Thao, the warriors’ secret mission shows what feats of compassion and courage children can perform, bringing more than foraged greens back to the younger children and to their elders. In this unforgiving place, with little to call their own, these children are the heroes, offering gifts of hope and belonging in a truly unforgettable way. 

About the Author:

Kao Kalia Yang is an award-winning author for both children and adults. Her debut children’s book A Map into the World is an ALA Notable Book, a Charlotte Zolotow Book Award honoree, a winner of the Minnesota Book Award in Children’s Literature, and the Heartland Bookseller’s Award in Children’s Literature.  She is also the author of The Shared Room and The Most Beautiful Thing. Her adult books, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family MemoirThe Song Poet, and Somewhere in the Unknown World, have been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the PEN USA Award in Nonfiction, the Dayton’s Literary Peace Prize, and garnered three Minnesota Book Awards.

About the Illustrator:

Billy Thao is a Hmong American artist who was born and raised in Minnesota. This is his first book.

Thoughts, Praise, and Critique:

The Story
This picture book memoir chronicles the author’s early life experiences as she and her family were confined to Bin Vinai, one of Thailand’s Hmong refugee camps. Spending the first six years of her life in a camp enduring violence and starvation left an enduring mark on the author. She writes about her experiences in a thoughtful, tender way allowing the reader a tangible glimpse into what life was like at a Thai refugee camp.

The story focuses on a group of brave children, that risk punishment and worse, in order to collect vegetables for their starving friends. Their selfless actions and courage drive them to risk all to improve their lives, even if it is just for one meal. It is a nod to finding the strength to do what is right even when one is faced with insurmountable odds.   

The Illustrations
There are some effective visuals that amplify the feel of the oppression the refugees endured. The muted tones and use of shadows further convey how little power the people living in the camp had over their own lives. The children are rendered in stronger hues which pops them out of the background. This serves as a visual symbol intensifying their significance and highlighting their effort to improve their lives and that of their friends and family.

Image Copyright 2020 John Owens, courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

The illustrator is fond of rendering figures from the back which at times feels rather repetitive. However, despite this, the art fits the story well. The artist’s use of Hmong symbols adds another layer that honors the history of the Hmong people.

Here is an insightful video that details Billy Thao’s approach, research, and process as he developed the illustrations for the book.

Humanity and History – The Power of Love and Courage

The history of the Hmong people and their escape from persecution for their anti-communist involvement during the Vietnam War, is not common knowledge especially to the younger generations of the US. That makes this book a much-needed beacon showcasing the plight of the Hmong refugees. Furthermore, it illustrates that everyone, no matter how small, has the power to make a difference, especially when they place the needs of others above all else. No matter what the cost.

My Recommendation:

“Yang Warriors” is a must-read! I was not familiar with the history of the Hmong people, so this book propelled me to learn more about what happened and why the Hmong had to flee their former home. I would have loved to have seen more backmatter and maps in the book detailing the history of the persecuted Hmong.

Nonetheless, this book is well-timed as a new generation of readers must learn about the plights of other members of our human family and that millions of refugees throughout the world today still live the reality that Kao Kalia Yang so eloquently describes in this book.

The author, Kao Kalia Yang, shares her inspiring journey during this TEDx talk:


More Information and How to Connect with the Creators:

Minnesota Press Book Page https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/yang-warriors

Kao Kalia Yang | TEDxMinneapolis Talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuYepsQ0fwM

ART IS…Kao Kalia Yang | Arizona PBS, ASU https://www.pbs.org/video/art-kao-kalia-yang-zucdmv/

Kao Kalia Yang Social Handles and Website:
Instagram: @kaokaliayang
Website: https://kaokaliayang.com

Billy Thao Social Handles and Website:
Instagram: @beeteeart
Website: https://billythao90.myportfolio.com

University of Minnesota Social Handles and Website:
Twitter: @UMinnPress
Instagram: @UMinnPress
Website: https://www.upress.umn.edu/