June 20th is designated by the United Nations as World Refugee Day.
I have no idea, really, how your heart cannot break for the plight of refugees, fleeing unspeakable violence, crushing famine, and intense persecution. Some are so terribly young, to have experienced such trauma.
These innocents then face long years in crowded refugee camps, repeatedly dashed hopes, painful losses. When they do finally arrive in a new land of hope, they are sometimes met with suspicion, resentment, and meanness.
Oh, dear world. We must do better. Let’s cultivate compassion in ourselves and our children. Today’s books are stepping stones in that direction. I’ve arranged them in order of accessibility by age. Links to past posts with many other excellent titles are included at the end of the post.
Where Will I Live?, written and photographed by Rosemary McCarney
published in 2017 by Second Story Press
Coming to us from Canada, this striking photoessay brings the contemporary refugee situation into brilliant focus for young children.
McCarney provides Mr. Rogers-esque words to explain this tragedy to the very young. “Sometimes scary things happen to good people. When soldiers fight or danger comes, families must pack their things and search for a safe place to live.“
As she traces their varied journeys, one little refugee girl wonders aloud where she will land and live. Brief photo captions essentially tell the story while McCarney’s excellent, child-centric photos reveal harsh realities in a palpable yet cushioned, non-traumatic way.
If you want to build a heart of compassion in young children, this is a fabulous, top-of-the-list title. Ages 18 months and up.
My Beautiful Birds, written and illustrated by Suzanne Del Rizzo
published in 2017 by Pajama Press
A young Syrian boy flees with his family to a refugee camp in Jordan when their home and city are destroyed. The hardest part of leaving is saying goodbye to his beloved pigeons.
Although this may strike us as surprising, it really does reflect the workings of a child’s heart, doesn’t it? The pieces of ordinary life and familiarity which glue a child to his home are often unknown and undervalued by adults, yet fasten these little ones to a place or a person with emotional superglue.
In his new refugee camp home, anxiety and grief weigh the boy down, silence him, while his family and friends try to begin new routines of life, until the day when a group of new, beautiful birds flutters into the camp and resurrects joy in his young heart.
Based on the experiences of a young boy in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, this glimpse of the overarching as well as deeply personal, individual losses for refugee children is poignant but not too heavy. Colorful, clay-sculpted illustrations create friendly, engaging visuals as well. Ages 4 and up. Thanks, Canada.
Azzi In Between, written and illustrated by Sarah Garland
first published in the UK in 2012; first U.S. edition 2013 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
War in an unnamed Middle Eastern country creeps ever closer to Azzi’s family, then with one pounce drives them from home in a sudden, frantic rush. Azzi flees with her mother and father, but her dear Grandma must stay behind.
Hiding under blankets, driving through darkness, anxiously making their way through checkpoints, racing to an overfilled boat, crossing tumultuous seas — fear and panic engulf each stage of their journey. Next comes the confusion of learning new ways in an utterly new land — new language, new clothes, new etiquette, new everything.
Gradually Azzi grows accustomed to her surroundings, but the separation from Grandma remains so very hard to bear. Their final reunion resolves this story happily, a necessary ingredient for this book’s young audience.
This superb graphic-novel narrative of the refugee experience will immensely help children (and adults) better understand and have compassion for refugees in our midst. Highly recommended for ages 4 and up.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, written by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr
published in 2016 by Orca Book Publishers
The incredible artwork in this book has been created by a Syrian artist from stones he finds along the Mediterranean coast near his home of Latakia.
Canadian author Margriet Ruurs glimpsed his work on-line and a global collaboration began, resulting in this poignant narrative. Ruurs weaves a simple, poetic account of a young Syrian girl, her happy life grounded at home, harrowing flight from war, and warm welcome to a new land of hope. The depth and spirit of the book come from Nizar Ali Badr’s powerful sculptural pieces. It is remarkable how much emotion is conveyed through his artistic compositions.
An Arabic translation is included along with a lengthy explanation of how the book was created. Inspirational in a number of ways, for ages 5 and up.
The Color of Home, written by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Karin Littlewood
first published in the UK; published in the U.S. in 2002 by Phyllis Fogelman Books
Hassan is a young Somali refugee, an overwhelmed newcomer in his school. Despite the children’s kindness, there is a dark cloud in his heart and an inability to communicate in those difficult English words.
At painting time, Hassan uses brilliant colors to create a picture of his former home, the sunbaked land and piercing blue sky flooded with light and happiness. When he layers angry strokes of black bullets, bruised purple skies, and snarls of blood red atop this scene, however, his teacher glimpses the pain he carries.
Through the help of a Somali translator, Hassan is able to tell his difficult story and move towards healing. The terror and violence of war are portrayed here, though with some subtlety and a rapid, hopeful resolution. Vibrant watercolor illustrations will draw young children into the story. I’d guess this would suit ages 5 and older but you will need to use your judgement.
Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival, written by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illustrated by Brian Deines
published in 2016 by Pajama Press
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.
The Banana Leaf Ball: How Play Can Change the World, written by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
pubished in 2017 by Kids Can Press
Again from Canada, this book is part of the fantastic Citizen Kid series from Kids Can Press. I have reviewed quite a few of these titles over the years.
Deo Rukundo flees from his war-torn home in Burundi only to be separated from his family in the midst of the chaos. He makes his way, barely, to a refugee camp in northwest Tanzania. There he finds enough food and water to survive, yet also bumps up against tough gangs which have formed and which make life miserable for other boys.
When a man arrives with a whistle round his neck, a real, leather soccer ball, and a plan for these rival boys to play soccer together, Deo initially declines, but his world and relationships are transformed when the coach succeeds in drawing him in.
Highlighting the transformative power of play to help bring healing to children of conflict, this book soars via Shane Evans’ gripping mixed media illustrations, It includes an afterword about the man on whom this story is based and the work of Right to Play and other similar organizations. Ages 7 and up.
Dia’s Story Cloth: The Hmong People’s Journey of Freedom, written by Dia Cha, stitched by Chue and Nhia Thao Cha
published in 1996 by Lee & Low Books in cooperation with the Denver Museum of Natural History
Those of us in the Twin Cities remember well the arrival of thousands of Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia to our bitterly cold state back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Most of us knew almost nothing about them let alone the heroic roles many had played on behalf of our own nation. Now we have several Hmong state senators, hundreds who have earned doctorate degrees — yet many still do not really understand all that this people experienced.
This story of one 15-year old’s terrifying journey out of Laos to Thailand and eventually to the United States, dramatically informs us about their sweet life in Laos destroyed by war, the terrors and losses endured, the harrowing journey made, while simultaneously highlighting the incredible artwork of Hmong embroiderers.
The book is illustrated by photographs of an immense, detailed story cloth stitched by the author’s aunt and uncle in a Thai refugee camp. This painful story should be required reading for any Minnesotan as well as those in Denver, Fresno, and elsewhere who rub shoulders with Hmong Americans. Share it with ages 9 and up. The lengthy, fascinating afterword tells more Hmong history and craftsmanship.
Mohammed’s Journey: A Refugee Diary, written by Anthony Robinson and Annemarie Young, illustrated by June Allan
published in 2009 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
Mohammed was just six years old when he and his mother were forced to flee for their lives from Kirkuk, Iraq, but the dark times for his family had begun years before that. As ethnic Kurds, members of his family were harassed and killed by the Hussein regime. The last straw was a vicious beating for all, including little Mohammed, and the disappearance of his father at the hands of soldiers.
His harrowing flight was only bearable because there was literally no choice. Mohammed arrived in the UK an emotionally scarred boy, but through the compassion of those welcoming refugees there, he and his mum were able to begin new lives.
This book is part of a series from the UK in which young refugees tell their stories in their own words, accompanied by family photographs and illuminating illustrations. Harsh realities, made accessible to kids ages 10 and up.
Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees, written by Mary Beth Leatherdale, illustrated by Eleanor Shakespeare
published in 2017 by Annick Press
So many excellent humanitarian titles come from Canadian presses and I’ve tried to highlight this fact today. I am so thankful for this Canadian priority. Here’s a final one for today.
In a book geared towards older readers, probably ages 10 and older, Mary Beth Leaderdale unfolds the distressing, true stories of five children over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries who have fled persecution.
Ruth is a Jewish girl who fled Naziism by boat to Cuba. Phu is a Vietnamese boy who fled the communists as one of the “boat people” in the crisis of the 1970s. José fled Cuba in the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. Najeeba is an ethnic Hazara who fled Afghanistan for Australia. Mohamed left the Ivory Coast as an orphan and eventually crossed the Mediterranean from Libya.
Their stories are wrenching, with many shocking details spelled out. They bear the grit of reality and spare few punches for governments who denied or attempted to deny safe harbor to refugees or abused them upon arrival. Succinct background notes on the conflicts the children fled and maps of their journeys help give context. By-the-numbers lists provide bold relief from the longer narratives. Sections telling about the lives each of these kids grew up to lead, provide hope.
Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood, written by Ibtisam Barakat
published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Ibtisam Barakat was just 3-1/2 years old when the Six Day War erupted, displacing, traumatizing, and utterly changing her life, her family, her people.
Her powerful, gorgeously-written memoir of those childhood experiences brings us into the world of Palestinian refugees with eloquence and sorrow. The profound importance of home and family, the trauma of abandonment and separation, the grief of loss, are remarkably imparted through her lyric prose.
Understanding the on-going Palestinian heartbreak is critical for us. This year marks 50 years since the Six Day War. That’s an intolerably long time to be displaced, while simultaneously short enough to keep these memories sharp.
I highly recommend this book for ages 14 through adult. The cultural details are fascinating, and her war-time experiences offer universal insights into the lives of refugees fleeing other conflicts. It’s catalogued as children’s nonfiction in my library but this is really not a children’s book. War, trauma, memories of a sexual assault, and even some graphic descriptions of her brothers’ circumcisions at ages 7 and 8 — all are written with a measure of subtlety, yet with candor and vigor. They are emotionally challenging. There certainly are those younger than 14 who could handle this book, but I’ll leave that to your discretion.
I’ve reviewed many other excellent books about refugees in the past. I strongly encourage you to find them through these links to earlier posts.
I’ll highlight a few of those picture book titles here:
And here are links to some chapter books/middle grade novels about the refugee experience, any of which would make a fine read for an adult as well:
The Day My Father Became a Bush (undefined; vaguely European)
Home of the Brave (Sudan)
The House of Sixty Fathers (China)
Inside Out & Back Again (Vietnam)
A Long Walk to Water (Sudan)
The Red Pencil (Sudan)
Join me throughout the rest of the summer for a world tour introducing children to cultures from Greenland to Zimbabwe through fabulous picture books. Just follow the blog to receive notice of these posts via e-mail.
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