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Mali Under the Night Sky

Publisher's Weekly
A Laotian girl's life takes a cruel turn in this haunting yet hopeful tale based on the childhood of Laotian-American artist Malichansouk Kouanchao. Sunny watercolors with patterned borders illuminate the simple joys of Mali's early life, when the world was "full of wonderful things." She climbs trees, helps prepare feasts, and participates in the tradition of tying strings around the wrists of family and friends, "a way of showing that their hearts would always be together." Landowne smoothly includes several Laotian words and phrases in this deeply felt and gently told story.
Book Dragon
Today, December 7, marks the 69th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, “a date which will live in infamy,” as forever coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Seven decades later, infamy lives on, stealing childhoods, families, homes, lives. Now as another year comes to a close, we pray for peace … again and again … again and again … [Mali Under the Night Sky] is another hopeful, urgent prayer …
As thin as this title might seem, it actually embodies three important sections.

The main focus is clearly the story of young Mali, which begins with her carefree life in her native Laos filled with everyday reminders “that the world was big – ngai – and full of wonderful things.” Writer/artist Youme paints Mali’s joy climbing flowering trees, catching tiny fish, making spicy feasts, and tying strings around the wrists of family members and special friends as a reminder “that their hearts would always be together.”

Mali’s idyllic life is shattered when war encroaches, driving her and her family through a dangerous journey across the Mekong River. The family lands “in the worst place [Mali] had ever been, a crowded jail.” In spite of the fear, with the help of the strings on her wrist, she remembers her beautiful home and shares her wonderful memories with the people around her. Her memories are catching: “They remembered their own beautiful homes. And though the journey to a new home would be long and hard, their hearts were safe when they remembered where they had come from.” And so the story ends with “Soag sai – blessings.”

Then turn the page, and the real Mali appears, now a grown woman, an international artist. Her Self-Portrait faces her life story on the opposite page that begins “I am Mali.” Her full name – Malichansouk Kouanchao – she explains, means “‘fortuitously guided by the lights of the night sky.’” In spite of war, in spite of imprisonment, in spite of so much loss, Mali “grew up to be an artist and an activist so that all people may celebrate their own creativity even in the most difficult situations.” Having lived all over the world, meeting artists along the way, she’s learned that “we all find that our homes are safe in our hearts, even though they may not be safe in the world …”

On the book’s final page are the words of Thavisouk Phrasavath, a Laotian American writer, artist, and filmmaker, whose documentary The Betrayal: Nerakhoon was nominated for an Oscar in 2009. His words are haunting: “I was born in Laos during the civil war. There has never been a time without war for me …” His words are potent truth. War has not ended for Mali, for Thavisouk, for far too many people in the world … somewhere in the world, war endlessly wages on.

Today, December 7, marks the 69th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, “a date which will live in infamy,” as forever coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Seven decades later, infamy lives on, stealing childhoods, families, homes, lives. Now as another year comes to a close, we pray for peace … again and again … again and again … Here’s another hopeful, urgent prayer …
- Terry Hong, December 7, 2010 
Midwest Book Review
Mali Under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home is not an ordinary picturebook - it tells the true story of a little girl named Mali, who had to journey with her family from Laos to Thailand when she was five to escape the deadly toll of a war without borders. When they finally come to a different country, they are imprisoned. As heartrending as the story is, it also offers a glimmer of hope in the love people have for their homeland and each other. Mali Under the Night Sky is a soul-stirring picturebook about the difficulties faced by wartime refugees, and deserves the highest recommendation. (Featured as Reviewer's Choice)
Booklist
With a spare first-person narrative and affecting watercolor-wash illustrations, this biography by the author of Sélavi, That Is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope (2004) tells of a family’s escape from civil war in Laos.
With a spare first-person narrative and affecting watercolor-wash illustrations, this biography by the author of Sélavi, That Is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope (2004) tells of a family’s escape from civil war in Laos. The opening images celebrate family roots with open pictures of a young girl, Mali, playing safely in a forest, in her community, and at home. A glowing spread framed with traditional patterns shows the custom of tying strings around loved one’s wrists at festivals and partings to celebrate always being
together. In abrupt contrast, the images move to scenes of Mali alone on a tense, empty street. War is close, and the family flees at night across a wide river to “another country,” where they are arrested “for not having a home.” A view of the family behind bars in a crowded jail is juxtaposed with a double-page close-up of the strings around Mali’s wrist as she remembers her rich connections. The small child’s viewpoint will move young readers, and a final photo shows the real Mali, an artist and activist, today.
- Hazel Rochman, January 1, 2011 
El Paso Scene
Mali’s life as a young girl in Laos was surrounded by love, tight family bonds and rich cultural experiences, but was also filled with the hardship and trials of growing up in country torn by civil war.
Mali’s life as a young girl in Laos was surrounded by love, tight family bonds and rich cultural experiences, but was also filled with the hardship and trials of growing up in country torn by civil war. Mali not only recalls her fond memories of special times with friends and family, but of her own family’s fate as refugees traveling from Laos to Thailand.
Cinco Puntos continues to embrace cultures and topics not that are not just limited to the region. Their stories often come from real-life situations from the author that bring a real an authenticity to the story that even re-tellings of folk tales or well-known legends cannot.
‘Mali’ is prime example. Although not an autobiographical depiction, award-winning Youme made sure to grasp the experience of Mali’s story through not just the events, but also the language (including several beautifully-drawn examples of Lao text), food, traditions and even through the illustrations’ borders themselves, that celebrate the patterns and look of the region’s design. The book also includes a self-portrait and commentary by Mali herself. This makes for a package that is not only gracefully done but respectfully and graciously presented.
- Lisa Kay Tate, 
papertigers.org
Youme beautifully renders the true story of Malichansouk Kouanchao, who, the flyleaf tells us, “walked from Laos to Thailand when she was five years old.”
In Mali Under the Night Sky, Youme beautifully renders the true story of Malichansouk Kouanchao, who, the flyleaf tells us, “walked from Laos to Thailand when she was five years old.” Bordered watercolor paintings capture the simple beauty of her early life in Laos—napping with her family, catching tiny fish in the rice paddies, making spicy traditional foods with her aunts—with key words translated into Romanized Lao as well as the original Lao script.
“But something was changing where Mali lived…Fighting in neighboring countries was bringing danger to the land and the people. Even the birds were disappearing.” Youme pictures a child at the edge of her house, the wide space beyond empty to the horizon. It’s not safe to stay any longer. After a leave-taking that includes the traditional tying of strings around the wrists of each departing family member, Mali, her parents and siblings cross the broad Mekong, offering ritual flowers and rice with prayers for safety. They are met the next day by soldiers and are imprisoned with other refugees. Things look dark, but the strings on her wrists remind Mali of her home, and when she tells the others her happy memories, “their hearts were safe…soag sai—blessings.”
The real Mali, now a beautiful young woman, is pictured on the front flyleaf along with an introduction to her present work as an artist and anti-war advocate. At the back of the book, one of her paintings is reproduced beside her message to young readers: “…when we share about where we have come from, we all find that our homes are safe in our hearts…” A further statement by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Thavisouk Phrasavath describes the effects of war on children and how books like Youme’s about Mali are a balm to heal those traumas.
Cinco Puntos Press has made a significant contribution in publishing Mali Under the Night Sky. Its tender images and heartfelt words will touch children everywhere. While it ends with Mali in prison, young readers also learn of her subsequent success in life and dedication to healing the wounds of war. The book’s value to Laotian families in diaspora is of course incalculable.
- Charlotte Richardson, 

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