Title: What About Thao?
Author: Oliver Phommavanh
Published: 2nd August 2022
Synopsis: From the author of the bestselling Thai-riffic, Con-nerd and The Other Christy comes a funny and heartfelt novel for 10+ about a city kid in a small country town who’s enjoying being the new kid at his tiny two-teacher school – until Kadir arrives and things get interesting!
In his signature style, Oliver creates a fabulously diverse and heartfelt duo in Thao and Kadir and their sometimes hilarious and sometimes heart-wrenching dilemmas of culture and belonging in a remote rural community. Throw in some slam poetry and it might just end in a lifelong friendship and a whole lot more understanding.
I was a city kid – until we moved to the middle of nowhere!
At my tiny new school, I stuck out like my spiky hair. But being the odd one out was new for me, and all that attention was actually pretty cool.
That was until Kadir arrived. He and his family came from Syria and now they’re in the limelight, even though that seems to be kryptonite to Kadir.
If I could just help Kadir fit in, maybe I’d go back to being the odd one out again. But that seems like a very big ask.
When Thao moves from Sydney to the tiny country town of Megulla, he’s not sure if he will fit in. He looks different, he doesn’t like the things he is expected to like, and he’s not sure if anyone will accept him. When he arrives at school, everyone wants to know everyone about him and his family, whether they are going to open a restaurant, and everything in between. Soon, Thao finds that the whole class – consisting of all the primary years as the school is very small, want to know him and think he is cool – he stands out because he is new. Until Kadir arrives, and everyone’s curiosity turns to him. Yet Kadir wants none of it, nor does he want Thao’s help finding his way around school and Megulla. Kadir just wants to go back to Syria. But can slam poetry help Kadir come out of his shell, and make Kadir and Thao stand out whilst also becoming beloved members of the Megulla community?
Oliver Phommavanh’s latest book is a brilliantly heart-felt story about starting over, making new friends, and finding your place in the world, told through the eyes of a young Vietnamese boy, who longs to fit in and stand out at the same time. It is about the universality of these feelings, of knowing where you came from or your background is important, but so is finding a new place to belong. I felt this story could speak to many people, as whilst it does showcase cultural differences beautifully and celebrate diversity in a small town where everyone comes together as a community to help each other, it also shows that the feelings of loneliness, of not being sure about change, or not knowing what to say, for example, are universal. We feel them at all stages of our lives, and the unsettled feelings Thao and Kadir had were expressed effectively throughout the novel.
I loved the way Isaac and Thao connected over their silly songs and felt for Thao when he felt torn between helping Kadir and spending time with Isaac – the feeling of not being sure who he should be loyal to. I think this is something many people will relate to, as there are always times when our loyalties are tested, and we feel torn between two people. It is the kind of story that will let kids know it is okay to feel like this, and hopefully give them the confidence and language to express their feelings when these situations come up. It is a humorous, touching and evocative read that will give comfort and entertainment to many.
I loved that Thao was able to be himself, and through slam poetry, he was able to help Kadir express feelings and process the many changes in his life. It illustrated that sometimes we need a little help to come out of our shell, and Thao was able to do that for Kadir, and I loved the way the Megulla community always came together for them, even Xander, whom I thought wouldn’t at first. The diversity and illustration of the impact helping people and accepting them makes is immense in this book, showing that acceptance is easier than hate, and encouraging all of us to do what we can to help those who need our help. This book is small with big heart, and I loved it. It is an uplifting read that we all need these days, and I hope it helps people find their place and learn that what makes you different is what makes you stand out, fit in, and most importantly, be yourself and find a community.