Puag Saum Cov Ntsis Ntoo: An Interview with Author Kao Kalia Yang

Since its publication in 2021, the award-winning picture book From the Tops of the Trees has touched the hearts of young readers and adults alike. Now, there is a new way to read this inspiring true story as we welcome the Hmong edition, Puag Saum Cov Ntsis Ntoo, to the shelves.

Today author Kao Kalia Yang joins us to discuss the reception of the original English publication, the collaboration with illustrator Rachel Wada, and more!

Front cover of Puag Saum Cov Ntsis Ntoo

From the author

From the Tops of the Trees is your fifth children’s book but it is the first to garner the APALA Award. What does this award mean to you?

As an Asian American author working from the American Midwest, a part of the country where Asian representation is almost obsolete in popular media and literary circles, it is an important recognition of the important stories that are also housed here, the people who call this place home, too. I am hopeful that the award can draw more attention to From the Tops of the Trees, a book that is so seminal in my journey as a writer and human being. A big part of my job is the ability to see “beyond the fences” and to imagine the possibilities on the other side of the mountain. In a world where so many children are first told of their limitations not their abilities, to have arms that hold us high is an invaluable gift. This story honors my father’s faith in my little legs carrying me far, and my discovery of a bigger world. I hope Hmong readers everywhere will be able to see in this story all the people and the stories that have held safe and lifted us high when we’ve needed it the most.

What has been the response of young readers to From the Tops of the Trees?

When I read this book out loud, I find that the different audiences who listen to it, adult and children, grow quiet and thoughtful. It always takes a minute longer after the reading before the Q&A can commenced because this is the kind of book that invites internal reflection. The question is very simple: whose arms have lifted you high? What have you been able to see from the tall places in your life? What does that reveal about you and your place in the world? When the questions come, they are often generous and kind in nature. For example, in an online reading, a child asked, “Does your father know you’ve written this book?” There is an understanding in the question that a relationship is at work, has been at work for a long time, and that readers are entering into it when they enter the pages of the book.

Would you have liked to have read From the Tops of the Trees as a child?

I love books about food. Food is a big part of this book, from its opening spread where the three girls are running after rice balls, racing with a chicken to see who gets to it first, I’m engaged. The part where young Kalia and her cousin are picking up fruit that has fallen in heavy wind to eat as treats is magical and so very real for so many children who know what it is like to savor sweetness. Beyond the food elements, I also love the sweeping nature of Rachel Wada’s art in this book. Each spread holds multitudes of stories. The art is so generous and beautiful. Young Kalia would have adventured from spread to spread, hungry for more.

Spread from Puag Saum Cov Ntsis Ntoo in which Kalia's father shows her the land beyond the refugee camp.

How was the collaboration between your words and Rachel Wada’s art in From the Tops of the Trees?

Rachel Wada is smart and talented. She’s also young and hungry to learn about the vast diversity of our world and the different ways in which her abilities can lend themselves to the work of stories. I’m so honored that we have now this beautiful book that is comprised of my words and her images. It feels like a gift for the ages. *She also dedicated the book to me. I have never had a book dedicated to me before. The first time I saw the dedication, I was moved to tears. I am thankful that this book has the power of Rachel Wada’s imagination and sensibilities to give it life.

One hundred years from now, what do you want readers to get from From the Tops of the Trees?

One hundred years from now, I will be dead. In fact, my beloved children also likely be dead. What will live on are other mothers and fathers and their children, adults who will lift children high so that they might feel the direction of the wind blowing, see a glimpse of something they’ve only ever tried to imagine. One hundred years from now, I believe the world will still know what war is, will live the realities of what happens when nations fight, will understand what it is like when families leave their countries behind in search of a life far away. The themes of the book will be alive. I want readers to get exactly what I get when I read the book today: love lifts us high and gifts us with the opportunities to find beauty and the things that sustain our hearts and our hopes for each other and our world.

A Video Introduction to the Hmong Edition

Awards and Reviews for From the Tops of the Trees

  • Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, 2022
  • A Mighty Girl’s Books of the Year, 2021
  • ALA Notable Children’s Books, 2021
  • Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books, 2021
  • Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year, Outstanding Merit, 2021
  • Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Choices, 2021
  • Irma S. and James H. Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature, 2021
  • Kirkus Best Children’s Books, 2021
  • New York Public Library Best Books for Kids, 2021

★ “Beautiful in its simplicity and elegance, with a hopeful and inspiring message, this story will not soon be forgotten.” —starred, Booklist

★ “This story of resilience and generational hope is told in an expressive, straightforward narrative style. A visually striking, compelling recollection.” — starred, Kirkus Reviews

★ “A stirring, lyrical portrait of hope and intergenerational bonds.”—starred, Publishers Weekly

★ “[A] gentle celebration of vision, hope, and determination . . .” —starred, School Library Journal

Connect with Kalia

Photo of Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is the author of the award-winning books From the Tops of the Trees and The Song Poet. Yang is a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

Find more interviews with Lerner authors on the blog here!

Leave a Reply