“This bittersweet story balances social and intellectual pursuits against the strained relations of a family tapping roots into a new homeland, and it shows the emotions behind weighing cultural affiliations against the sway of progress and prosperity. ” —Alison Follos, School Library Journal
For the Hmong people living in overcrowded refugee camps in Thailand, America is a dream: the land of peace and plenty. In 1995, ten years after their arrival at the camp, thirteen-year-old Mai Yang and her grandmother are about to experience that dream. In America, they will be reunited with their only remaining relatives, Mai’s uncle and his family. They will discover the privileges of their new life: medical care, abundant food, and an apartment all their own. But Mai will also feel the pressures of life as a teenager. Her cousins, now known as Heather and Lisa, try to help Mai look less like a refugee, but following them means disobeying Grandma and Uncle. From showers and smoke alarms to shopping, dating, and her family’s new religion, Mai finds life in America complicated and confusing. Ultimately, she will have to reconcile the old ways with the new, and decide for herself the kind of woman she wants to be. This archetypal immigrant story introduces readers to the fascinating Hmong culture and offers a unique outsider’s perspective on our own.
After ten years in a refugee camp in Thailand, thirteen-year-old Mai Yang travels to Providence, Rhode Island, where her Americanized cousins introduce her to pizza, shopping, and beer, while her grandmother and new friends keep her connected to her Hmong heritage.
Reviews & Accolades
“While eloquently expressing how the threads tying Mai Yang to her heritage become entangled with new values, the author creates a delicate, credible balance between sorrow and joy, and builds dramatic tension as Mai Yang struggles to become American without losing her Hmong identity. Besides learning much about Hmong culture and attitudes, readers gain an opportunity to observe American society from a different vantage point as Mai Yang is inundated with sometimes disturbing, sometimes remarkable images of contemporary culture.” —Publisher’s Weekly
“Shea tells Mai’s story well, in a way that will appeal to other immigrant teenagers caught between two cultures, and all readers who are interested in other cultures. There are many emotional scenes, and Mai’s experiences are filled with hardship and challenge…she creates in the character of Mai a smart, determined young woman who is trying to figure out how to live in the new world.” —Claire Rosser, KILATT
“This bittersweet story balances social and intellectual pursuits against the strained relations of a family tapping roots into a new homeland, and it shows the emotions behind weighing cultural affiliations against the sway of progress and prosperity. Adding to the growing ranks of contemporary novels about today’s diverse immigration experiences…A good choice for classes studying refugees, multicultural diversity, immigration, Hmong Americans, Laos, and the Vietnam War.” —Alison Follos, School Library Journal
“Shea’s text successfully portrays the turmoil, excitement, and heartbreak that come with repatriating. Adjusting to a new country and culture is never easy; the ideal is to blend the best of old and new, as Mai seems on her way to doing by the satisfying conclusion.” —Kirkus Reviews
“As seen through Mai’s eyes, the wry observations of American habits are amusing and insightful. Her explanations of Hmong culture fit so naturally into the narrative, most readers will not need the appended glossary and information. Respectful and dutiful, yet resilient and independent, Mai wrestles with peer pressure and family expectations in a story that will resonate with immigrant students and enlighten others.” —Linda Perkins, Booklist
Immigration, family relationships, cultural identity, family death
Thai refugee camp
Providence, Rhode Island
Most of my work deals with world-wide, social justice issues (ex., child labor, war), because I became an activist at 8. My adolescence was rocked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, civil and women’s rights movements and, most importantly, the Vietnam War. The violent footage inspired me to learn more about the cultures of Southeast Asia, and I vowed to travel there someday.
I got my chance in 1989 when my friend, Susan Beam, invited me to Thailand and to visit the refugee camp she worked in. The Hmong hill tribe people were driven out of their lands for helping Americans during the Vietnam War. Despite the depressing and disease-causing conditions in the camp, I was inspired by the resilient refugees making art, specifically the girls and women sewing “pa’ndau” storycloths. I wrote a picture book, The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee’s Story, which includes paintings by Anita Riggio and stitchwork by a Hmong refugee, You Yang. While researching, I interviewed many Hmong refugees in the U.S. who were trying to balance their traditional ways with modern life. Those interviews led me to write Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story. I set it in the Hmong community of Providence, because I could drive there in about 90 minutes to conduct interviews and observe ESL classes. I’ve also attended many Hmong New Year celebrations and even a wedding. I’ve since made Hmong friends in Minnesota, California and Wisconsin, as well as throughout New England—even in my home town!
Because I’m not Hmong, I asked a good deal of Hmong to read my manuscripts for accuracy before publication. The biggest challenge, though, was trying to make Mai sound natural. I originally wroteThe Whispering Cloth in first person, but it sounded “clunky” having Mai (then 7) explain her situation. Changing it to third person allowed the narrator to inform readers. So when I drafted Tangled Threads, I used third person, but my editor said it sounded like I dumped years of research onto the pages–which was exactly true! Changing it to first person made Mai come alive. I’ve since written a YA novel, Stitch in Time, (Kindle Books) about Mai having to choose between art school and marriage. That’s in first person too. I’m contemplating a novel for adults about Mai returning to Laos. It might be the very first instance of a picture book character growing up through middle grade and YA novel formats into an adult novel.
When it comes to writing, I’m game for any challenge!
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