What About Thao is about an enduring friendship between the two new kids, Thao and Kadir, in a small country town, Megulla. This tiny community is turned upside down when two new families moving in. One Australian-Vietnamese family escaping the busy city lifestyle, and a Syrian family, escaping their war-torn country. Both families are looking for a peaceful and quiet life, and trying to fit in new surroundings, even more so for Kadir’s family who struggles to find peace in his heart.
Thao and Kadir are both yearning to fit in. Thao is a city kid looking to belong in a rural town, wonders why Kadir has chosen him to be his only friend. Thao helps Kadir find his voice through the love of words and poetry, realising that Thao’s own migrant experience is not so different from Kadir’s.
What About Thao is a love letter to all the country towns that I’ve visited over the last decade as a touring author. I have been to places that feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere. Some of my best memories on my travels were visiting kids in small schools. Some schools only have a handful of students, and they kind of feel like a big family. I wanted to capture some of these moments in What About Thao.
I wanted to write a story where a third generation Asian-Australian kid, experiences what it’s like to be new and different. Thao is one of many cultures in the big city, but in Megulla, he stands out for being the only Asian family. I’ve always observed any Asian kids when I visit small towns, and wonder how they feel. All of them seem to fit in, and I feel like it’s because they realise that they are pretty much Australian in their mannerisms and interests. Thao embraces his second chance to stand out at school. He was a nobody in a crowded primary school, but in Megulla, he finally gets some attention.
I also wanted What About Thao to be a parallel new arrival story. Kadir opens up to Thao because he thinks that Thao understands what it’s like to be different, which is quite strange to Thao up until this point. When Kadir forms a bond with Thao, it allows Thao a chance to reflect back on his own family’s migrant experience. It also brings up some feelings that he’s never experienced before such as the feeling of not belonging or being told that they’re not welcomed somewhere. Through their enduring friendship, both boys learn a whole lot of empathy, as well as cementing their place in Megulla.
Thao Truong is a cheeky kid who loves to make up silly songs, though he keeps that a secret until he meets Isaac. Thao’s initially excited to be moving to a new town, but it sinks in that he’s worried that he might not fit in. A part of me in Thao is the love of making silly songs. I used to make them up in my head back in primary school, which includes Turtleland and Pat My Tummy.
Kadir Mafi is a headstrong and volatile refugee from Syria. His English is surprisingly quite good, but he hardly makes an effort to speak or connect with any of the classmates at Megulla School. Kadir’s only solace is his notebook, where he writes his own poems. Poetry is such a powerful form of expression for someone is quite stunned or shocked from trauma. I wanted to highlight the power of poetry through Kadir, coming out of his shell through his words.
Isaac is a funny and good-natured kid who also has a knack of making up silly songs too. He’s an all-rounder and pretty much is made up of a number of country kids that I’ve met over the years. They’re easy going and pretty much don’t have a care in the world, which makes him the perfect friend for Thao.
Jess is Isaac’s twin sister and school captain. She’s a know-it-all and can be a little bit bossy, but she’s also quite empathic and caring. She has a deep concern for people in her town, especially Amira and Jamila when they first arrive. Jess likes being in a small town but she does sometimes wish that there was a little excitement.
Xander loves his sports and can be a little snarky at times, especially towards ‘city slickers’ like Thao. Despite Thao’s best efforts to try to convince him that he’s here to stay, Xander’s still sceptical. He has seen many kids come to Megulla School, only for them to leave after a few weeks, so he does Thao a tough time. But he does come to warm up to Thao, and will defend his friends and town when the time comes.
Ava can’t wait to leave Megulla because it’s so boring. She’s so keen on visiting the city and plans on living near there at boarding school.
Amira and Jamila are Kadir’s twin sisters, who have opposing sides when it comes to wanting to stay in Megulla. Amira is quite content to live in Australia, where Jamila is keen to head back to Syria, like her big brother. Mrs Mafi is a wonderfully resilient woman who holds up the family well, wanting her kids to have a better life. She does worry for her missing husband, and for Kadir as well.
I was fortunate to speak to a few Syrian refugees from my church and some of their stories have shaped the experiences that Kadir and his family had to go through.
Thao’s parents are second generation Vietnamese-Australians, and were both born in Australia. Thao’s dad has left his old engineering job to work at Avalon Mines, which prompts a treechange for his family. Thao’s mum is keen to go, longing for a place with plenty of space and more time to do other things, especially after the pandemic. While Thao’s mum does miss some of the city life (such as Japanese food), she is keen to shake up things a little at Megulla. Her skills in organising events as a librarian was one of the reasons why she was hired to run Megulla library. Thao’s Mum does take some time to adjust to the quieter life of Megulla, having been a social butterfly back in the city. However, she relishes the free time to cook more and take up gardening.
THEMES AND TEACHING ACTIVITIES
- How many cultures/nationalities do you have in your class? At your school?
- Thao often thinks people are saying he’s different because he’s Asian, but it’s more that he’s a ‘city slicker?’ What other kinds of identities can you have? Eg. A city person, a cat person, a footy supporter etc
- Thao just wants Kadir to fit in at school and in town. What would it take for you to belong to your own school or area?
- Thao experiences a little hostility about his own cultural background. What would you do if you had a similar experience?
- Thao’s Mum says sometimes people say mean things because they don’t understand. How could you make someone who is being racist or unkind, better understand about another person’s culture?
- Kadir says that he reached out to Thao because he’s different like him. What are the similarities between Kadir and Thao?
- Food is a big thing when it comes to introducing people to different new cultures. List the foods mentioned in the book, in particular the Vietnamese and Syrian foods. What kind of food could you bring to a multicultural feast/Harmony Day or an event to show your own culture?
Being the new kid…
What About Thao is a parallel new arrival story, where both Thao and Kadir get a chance to be the new kid.
- Discuss how would you feel if you were a new kid at school? What would you be worried or scared about?
- Isaac and Jess welcome Thao to the school with a tour. Describe how you would do a tour of your own school. What kind of secrets or quirks would you show them? How would you make a new kid feel welcome at school?
- Imagine if you were the new kid to a different country or even a different planet. What kind of things would you need to get used to a new place?
- Compare living in the city and rural areas with a list of pros and cons.
- Thao’s family wanted to move to the country. After reading the book, create an argument/persuasive piece trying to convince someone else to do the same thing.
- You could also make a counter-argument about why living in the city is better than rural areas.
- Van thinks living in the rural area is boring, do you agree/disagree?
- Megulla school only has 23 kids in their whole school. What similarities/differences does this school have with your own? How would you feel if you went a school like Megulla.
- Create a brochure of a made-up small town like Megulla. What would you include to attract people to come to the town. Is it the food, the attractions (such as a big statue or art silo) or an event like a festival.
- Look up images of big things in Australia (or the world), what is the most amusing big thing you’ve seen? What would you do if you had the choice to make one?
- The Mafi family have come from a war-torn country to live in Australia. Create a mood board on how the Mafi family must be feeling when they arrive in Australia. How would Kadir feel in particular.
- Thao has to ask his parents to ask about how his family came to Australia. Who would you have to ask/where would you get information about how your own family came to Australia?
- Interview people from your family and ask them what it was like to first live in Australia. Where did they live? What did they first do? How did they settle into Australia?
- The Mafi family represent the current wave of refugees coming to re-settle in Australia. What are some of the previous nationalities/cultures of refugees who have come to Australia?
- Students can have their own poetry slam in class, inspired by some of the poems in What About Thao.
- How can someone use poetry to express themselves? How does Kadir use poetry to express himself? Analyse one of Kadir’s poems to see what he’s trying to say/how he feels.
- Students can do the poetry activity described in What About Thao, where they find an image to match the colour/mood of their poems.
- Re-read the What About Thao? Poem. What is Thao trying to say about his experience with Kadir.
- Re-read the Quiet poem. Why does Kadir like about the Quiet?
- Find a jingle on YouTube and re-write the lyrics to make it a different song.
- Create a venn diagram with Thao and Kadir. What are their similarities and differences between the two new kids?
- Make a web diagram between all the Year 6 kids in Megulla school, what common interests do they have? What makes them friends?
- Why does Thao feel like he’s getting a second chance at making friends, being in Megulla School?
- What are some of Thao’s concerns about making friends in a small rural town like Megulla?
- Do you have a hidden talent like making up silly songs that you’re afraid to tell others? Why?
- Isaac says that in a small town, you don’t get to choose your friends, you have no choice but to get along. Would you agree with him? Is it easier to be friends with kids in a smaller school/town?