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Article  •  3 August 2022


How Oliver Phommavanh wrote himself into his new book, What About Thao?

We sat down with Oliver Phommavanh to talk about his new book, What About Thao? Learn all about it and the personality traits he shares with the main characters.

There’s not much that Oliver Phommavanh doesn’t do.

He’s worked as a teacher, featured on panels at writing festivals across Australia, performed as a stand-up comedian on national TV, started his own YouTube channel, and published twelve children’s books throughout his varied – but never boring – career.  

His latest book, What About Thao?  is a fun, heartfelt novel centred around two boys in a parallel arrival story as they start at a new school in an Australian country town. Though Thao grew up in Australia, his move from the city to the country feels momentous. On the other hand, Kadir has come from a new country altogether. Nevertheless, he sees a kindred spirit in Thao and a lifelong friendship begins to blossom.

About What About Thao?

‘For me, the book is about a second chance to be a new kid and to be someone else’ says Oliver. Though they come from very different backgrounds, the book’s two main characters, Thao and Kadir, go through the experience of being new together.

Even though Thao grew up in Australia, he’s used to living in a big city where he blends into the background. Moving to the country, ‘he actually gets something that he never got ever which is the spotlight.’ Kadir is brand-new to the country and struggling to find his place in his new environment. Seeing Thao embrace being new, however, Kadir is drawn to him and the boys form a friendship full of empathy and understanding.

How Oliver put himself in the book

While neither Thao nor Kadir is directly based on Oliver, the author admits that the main characters do share aspects of his personality. ‘Most of my stories have a part of me in the main character or at least in one of the other characters in the book,’ the author says. In the case of What About Thao?, Kadir shares Oliver’s love of writing while Thao makes up silly songs like the author did as a child.

‘Like Kadir, I love expressing myself through words,’ says Oliver. ‘He has a habit of collecting words. . . and I do the same as well.’

‘With Thao, he was like me basically – he loves to make up silly songs. I did the same when I was a kid. They were just crazy songs that I made up with my little sister. For example, I would sing “turtle turtle land, I want to go to turtle land”. Really annoying things just to annoy my parents most of the time.’

While these details might seem purely coincidental, Oliver says that they’re ‘a little bit intentional.’

As an author, he is keenly aware of the way that he curates personal experiences to create something unique. ‘I always tell kids that being an author is like being an old-school Instagramer or TikTokker. We basically take our passions, whether it’s makeup, sneakers or gaming, and we just put them into our stories. And that’s our excuse to write about them, but we’re the experts, so you might as well!’


Want to read it with your class? Check out our teachers’ notes for helpful background information and plenty of activities to get your students excited about the book.

What About Thao? Oliver Phommavanh

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!

Buy now
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