Young Kalia and her parents and siblings live with Kalia’s grandmother, a Hmong refugee who suffered the death of her parents at a young age, endured hunger and deprivation, and struggled to adjust to life in a new, strange land. Kalia listens to Grandma’s stories about being afraid and poor. She wonders why Grandma has only a single tooth remaining, and Grandma says, “It is the only thing standing strong in my mouth, this final tooth that my mother and father gave me.”
Kalia becomes increasingly aware that her family is also poor. When she wants to buy ice cream from a neighborhood vendor, she has to settle for ice cubes. When she wants a new dress to start third grade, her mother offers her a few coins to buy peppermint sticks. When she wants some meat for supper, she has to settle for a chunk of bone giving the meal flavor. Each time, Kalia shares the struggles with Grandma.
A few years later, Kalia becomes discontented with her life. She is tired of never getting what she wants. One day, she looks in the mirror and notices her teeth are crooked. She knows the solution—braces! But when she asks her parents, they tell her they can’t afford braces. When Grandma hears Kalia’s complaint, the wise old woman asks, “Is my smile not beautiful?” Kalia understands then that Grandma’s smile is “the most beautiful thing.”
Based on the childhood experiences of author Kao Kalia Yang as a Hmong refugee, this gentle and charming picture book reveals the power of love binding an intergenerational refugee family and shows that beauty is found where hearts are filled with love. Vietnamese illustrator Khoa Le’s vibrant, detailed artwork captures the colors, natural world, and culture of the Hmong people. (Carolrhoda Books)