Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival

The first picture book to recount the dramatic true story of a refugee family’s perilous escape from Vietnam

It is 1981. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a fishing boat overloaded with 60 Vietnamese refugees drifts. The motor has failed; the hull is leaking; the drinking water is nearly gone. This is the dramatic true story recounted by Tuan Ho, who was six years old when he, his mother, and two sisters dodged the bullets of Vietnam’s military police for the perilous chance of boarding that boat. Told to multi-award-winning author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch and illustrated by the celebrated Brian Deines, Tuan’s story has become Adrift At Sea, the first picture book to describe the flight of Vietnam’s “Boat People” refugees. Illustrated with sweeping oil paintings and complete with an expansive historical and biographical section with photographs, this non-fiction picture book is all the more important as the world responds to a new generation of refugees risking all on the open water for the chance at safety and a new life.


When I come home from school that day, a jug of water and bags of dried food sit by the door.

Ma gathers me into her arms. “Are you leaving me now too?” I ask. A year ago, Ba had left with my older sister Linh. Now there is just me, and my sisters Lan, Loan and Van. We live with our aunts, uncles , and cousins in Ho Chi Minh City.

“I am leaving,” say Ma. “But you are coming with me.”


“Tonight.” She holds a finger to her lips. “The neighbours cannot know.”


“Tuan’s dramatic story of survival comes alive in Skrypuch’s capable hands. The heart-pounding action alone is enough to captivate readers, but Skrypuch also incorporates moments of great poignancy that add depth and emotion.” Quill & Quire.

Helen Kubiw’s review in Canlit for Little Canadians here.

“From the illustration of a lone boat adrift in a wash of dry heat that graces the cover of Adrift at Sea, to the dark and engrossing images of Tuan’s steps along the journey, Brian Deines’ art is evocative and integrative, resplendent in complementary colours of orange and golds and blues and purples.”—CanLit for LittleCanadians

“…detailed authors’ notes include history, photographs, and maps. The warm undertones in Deines’ oil paintings evoke tropical Vietnam.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Skrypuch uses one child’s story to give moving insight into the experience of the many children who escaped war-ravaged Vietnam to start new lives….Deines’s hazy oil paintings poignantly capture the family’s physical ordeal and anguish during their perilous journey.”—Publisher’s Weekly

“The text is terse and unembellished, leaving the images to capture the emotions through color and perspective—and they do so with compelling immediacy.”—Booklist

“[A] remarkable tale of perseverance that involved attacks from soldiers, a broken boat at sea, and a trip that was intended to last four days but went horribly awry….This is a solid informational resource that can be used for introducing a refugee’s experience.”—School Library Journal

From Laura Fabiani and Sandra Olshaski on their blog Library of Clean Reads:

Laura says “I highly recommend this book as a teaching tool and feel that it should be in every library. It’s books like this that will make history come alive for our next generation of children.”

And Sandra says “The soft-focus artwork done by Brian Deines that illustrates each page is amazing….The author has produced a very readable book that both parents and children should read together. I highly recommend this beautiful book.”

From Literacy Daily: “The evocative text and powerful illustrations, painted with oils, enable readers to feel as though they, too, are refugees adrift at sea during this risky journey to freedom.”

Sal’s Fiction Addiction says “The authors include personal photographs of Tuan’s family, before their escape and following their settling in Canada, to help readers understand this historical moment in time….Brian Deines (as he always does) has created truly beautiful artwork using oils on canvas to bring Tuan’s story to this book’s readers.”

Sherry Early’s Semicolon says: This nonfiction picture book opens with a bang. The illustrations in this book, full color paintings, are absolutely stunning….Brian Deines, has outdone himself in two-page spreads that bring this refugee story to life….[A] good introduction to the subject of the Vietnamese boat people…”

Midwest Review, Reviewer’s Choice: “Adrift at Sea is a heartwarming story that will prompt young people to be grateful for the good things in their lives, and highly recommended.”

Shannon K. O’Donnell of Book Dreaming says: This is one of the most beautiful and powerful picture books I’ve seen in a long time. I … was blown away by the emotional impact of both the story and the illustrations.

Victoria Pennell of Resource Links says: “What a powerful book! …. Brian Deines’ subtle double-page oil paintings add greatly to the mood and text of this story. ….This book is very timely as we have so many refugees from war torn countries in the Middle East now attempting to make their way to a better life under the same kind of conditions that the Vietnamese people experienced back in 1981. With so many refugee children attending schools in Canada now, books like this one can help young children appreciate what some of these children have experienced and develop an empathy for them as they integrate into Canadian society.

I would highly recommend this book for all school and public libraries.”

Ashley Pamenter of Children’s Book NewsAdrift at Sea tells this difficult tale with a direct honesty that creates an opportunity for accompanied discussion, especially for some younger readers. Skrypuch maintains a strong sense of hope throughout, demonstrating the true strength of young Tuan. It is also a powerful story for all readers in light of the Syrian refugee crisis, providing an accessible way to build empathy toward newcomers to Canada.

Kids’ Book Buzz 5/5:  “This book is true, and it is really sad. It was really scary for Tuan to try to escape, and the worst thing was that his family couldn’t be together for a long time. The pictures really help you understand how it would have felt. This is a good book to help you understand how people feel and the things they have to do if they feel like they need to run away from bad things that are happening where they live.”

School Library Connection. Starred Review: Tuan Ho relates, in brief and easy to read passages, the true story of his dramatic escape from Vietnam when he was only six years old. His father and oldest sister had already left for Canada, hoping to sponsor the rest of the family. In the dark of night, the family is forced to dodge soldiers’ bullets to reach the skiffs that would take them to the overcrowded boat. Once on board they endure overcrowding, scorching sun, and lack of food and water. They must bail water when the ship springs a leak, and are hopelessly set adrift when the motor fails. Thankfully, they are rescued by an American aircraft carrier, and are eventually reunited with the rest of the family. The beautiful, full-page oil paintings effectively convey the dangerous escape, the blistering heat, and the loneliness of being adrift on the ocean. Photographs, maps, and historical background on the Vietnamese refugee crisis provide historical context and form an emotional connection with the story. This is an especially useful book to help students understand why refugees are still crowding into boats and risking everything for a better life even today. MaryAnn Karre, Retired Librarian, Vestal, New York
Highly Recommended
The Children’s War: Adrift at Sea is a powerful historical nonfiction story that can certainly help shed light on events of the past that share a similarity to those that are happening in the world today.

Smithsonian Book Dragon: Prodigious Canadian author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch has built an admirable, award-winning reputation by writing about difficult subjects for younger readers, including the Armenian genocide, world wars, and Canadian internment. Her previous focus on the Vietnam War featured survivor/refugee Son Thi Anh Tuyet in a two-part narrative nonfiction series, Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War and One Step at a Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way.In her latest picture book, Skrypuch presents then-6-year-old Tuan Ho who, with his mother and two older sisters, leave their Ho Chi Minh City home in the darkness of night, and dodge gunshots to board a fishing boat. After six days of drifting – the sun relentless, the boat leaking, the too-many escapees without enough drinking water – an American aircraft carrier brings the passengers to safety. With a rich palette of deep, vibrant colors, artist Brian Deines adds swirling desperation and swift motion across every detailed spread.

With Tuan safe at story’s end, his smile enhanced with a satisfied milk mustache, Skrypuch adds an additional three pages that provide further context about the Vietnam War and the “boat people” who risked their lives to leave their homeland. Tuan shares numerous family photos from decades past, culminating on the final page with two pictures from 2016, one with the Ho family all together, and another with Tuan with his wife and two young children. He reveals his continuing story after the family’s escape to their eventual arrival, reunion, and settlement in Canada – testimony to their resilience and perseverance against so many near-impossible odds. Filled with urgency, fear, and ultimately hope, Tuan’s real-life odyssey proves to be an illuminating inspiration for all readers.

Orange Marmalade Books says: This stunning book tells the story of Tuan Ho, who at age 6 was forced to flee Vietnam with his mother and sisters.

It was 1981. Tuan’s father, who had worked for the American army as a translator, had fled a year earlier as communist soldiers descended to execute all “enemies of the people.” It was now too dangerous for the family to wait any longer for word from him, and in a hail of bullets, Tuan races away from his home.

His flight would be traumatic: terror, grief, gunfire, strangers, and perilous days adrift at sea. This taut account conveys exceptionally well just what refugee children endure, enlarging our compassion and will to be among those who welcome, comfort, and receive them today.

Deines’ brilliant paintings easily carry the weight of this story and knit our hearts to Tuan’s family. An afterword, accompanied by some personal photographs from Tuan,  provides background to the exodus of the “boat people” from Vietnam and tells more about Tuan’s family’s journey. This picture book is clearly meant for very young children but because of it’s content, I’d encourage you to use your judgement. Probably ages 5 or 6 and up. Again, this one’s from Canada.

Author: Marsha

I write historical fiction, mostly from the perspective of young people who are thrust in the midst of war.