Omega Writers

CALEB Children’s Picture Book Winner: Grandma’s Treasured Shoes

Coral Vass was the winner of the Children’s Picture Book section of the CALEB Awards in 2021, with her book, Grandma’s Treasured Shoes. We sat down with Coral after her win and asked her a few questions about her book and her process.

Q: Congratulations, Coral! Tell us what your book is about?

Coral: Grandma’s Treasured Shoes is a picture book, written from a child’s perspective about their grandmother’s journey as a little girl from Vietnam to Australia. The story is based around the pair of shoes Grandma wore as a child; playing in her village; fleeing the danger of war-torn Vietnam, an incredible escape, sailing for many months across the South China Sea on a small boat, arriving in Darwin as a refugee, and finally settling into a new life in Australia.

I was thrilled when the publisher told me Christina Huynh agreed to illustrate this book. Given her own heritage and background, Christina was able to add a deeper authenticity to this book with her beautiful and detailed illustrations. Christina says she would spend hours listening to stories of her mother, aunties and grandparents talking about their own journey in boats and at refugee camps, and her inspiration in illustrating the main character of this story, came from an old photo of her own mother taken back in Vietnam.

Q: What inspired or started you writing it?

Coral: Australia’s national anthem highlights many wonderful aspects of Australia, from golden soil to a land abounding in nature’s gifts. But the national anthem also speaks of those who have come across the seas to share our boundless plains. Australia has always had a rich history of welcoming immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers alike, to make what is known today as a unique and interesting multicultural country.

In recent years however, there has been an ongoing debate around asylum seekers and what Australia’s response should be towards those seeking refuge.

It is very difficult for anyone, let alone children, to comprehend what it is like to flee your home, your country, your family and leave behind your belongings in a war-torn country and escape for your life. Added to this complex situation is the issue of settling into a completely foreign country, with a new language, new landscape and new people.

As I was reflecting one day on the old adage ‘walk a mile in someone’s shoes’, I had the idea of using actual shoes as a motif to convey a refugee’s life story and how that gave opportunity for a new beginning in Australia. I’m sure many refugees lost their shoes on the journey or left their shoes behind on the boat at the point of rescue. However, as I tried to ‘put myself in their shoes’, I could only imagine that these ‘shoes that brought them here’ would become one of the most treasured pairs of shoes ever owned.


This collage of different refugees’ shoes was the picture that initially inspired Coral.

At the fall of Saigon in 1975, many children and families had no choice but to escape the effects of the war. This resulted in the biggest intake of refugees in Australia’s history and an international response and forced changes to migration policies across the world. And so, I chose to set my story in this era.

Before writing this story, I buried myself in extensive research; I watched videos, I read testimonies, books, old newspapers, and looked through many NLA archives. I became fascinated by the transcripts I read and listened to, as I tried to catch a glimpse of what it was like to embark on such a dangerous journey, the sacrifice made, the cost of freedom, the anguish to separate family members and the fear of being lost at sea, drowned or attacked by pirates.

It is my hope Grandma’s Treasured Shoes can offer a small window of understanding and appreciation into someone else’s very different life and to gain a deeper empathy for those who have ‘come across the seas’, for it is only as we seek to understand first, that we can truly be understood ourselves.

Q: Who’s the audience, and have you had feedback from readers yet?

Coral: The readership is 3+ however, the audience is for all ages. We can all afford to have more empathy for others, by intentionally choosing to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

I wanted to personalise the Grandma in Grandma’s Treasured Shoes . It was my intent to convey the fact that ‘she’ could be your grandma or my grandma. Many who came and still come to Australia as refugees, who have grown to be grandparents or great-grandparents of today’s young Australians, including the illustrator, Christina Huynh’s grandmother.

I’ve had great feedback and reviews of this book.

“Readers will love this book as it encourages the discovery of stories about the lives of refugees and migrants….and knowing makes people, especially children, more compassionate and tolerant towards those that are different. Meaningful and carefully considered, Grandma’s Treasured Shoes deserves a space on every bookshelf, especially those in schools and libraries, but more so, those in home.” – Kids’ Book Review

Grandma’s Treasured Shoes has also appeared on ABCTV Playschool (Tuesday 13th April 2021) and Storybox Library and has been used in classrooms across Australia as a teaching resource.

Where can people get your book?

Coral: Grandma’s Treasured Shoes is available in most bookshops and online sites across Australia.

We hope you’ll check out Coral’s winning title and leave a review for her. Congratulations to Coral and all our winners.