stories that knit our hearts to Haitians and Afghanis

Today I want to offer some titles for those of you who would like to read and talk with children about the sorrows in Haiti and Afghanistan.
These books illuminate the beauty of these places as well as touching on some of their challenges, opening the door to further conversations as you think best.
I’ve also included some of my favorite reads on refugees for young children.
There’s a link at the end of the post for more books about refugees, many of them suitable
for older kids and teens.


Tap Tap, written by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Catherine Stock
published in 1995 by HMH Books for Young Readers

As Sasifi walks to market with Mama she looks longingly at the brilliantly-colored tap-taps — the truck taxis of Haiti — and asks if they can ride one. Mama is too frugal, though, and they continue on foot all the weary way.

At the market, Sasifi works hard and sells so many oranges that Mama gives her some coins to spend on whatever she pleases. What will Sasifi choose? Peanut candy? Icy cold juice? No, siree. Sasifi buys two spots in a tap-tap so they can enjoy a thrilling ride home. It turns out to be quite a squished ride…but a happy one, nonetheless. Along the way we learn why the trucks are called tap-taps!

Catherine Stock’s watercolors bring the landscapes, people, markets, and tap-taps of Haiti to vivid life. This is an old favorite of mine for ages 3 and up.
If this book is unavailable in your library, you might try:

I Want to Ride the Tap Tap, written by Danielle Joseph, illustrated by Olivier Ganthier
published in 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Although I prefer the older story, this book is undeniably vibrant and joyous, and may be much easier to locate as it’s quite new.

Painted Dreams, written by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Catherine Stock
published in 1998 by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books

Ti Marie has the soul of an artist. With just a chunk of orange brick, a bit of charcoal, and a cement wall, she creates beauty in her small world. What she really would like, though, are tubes of paint like Msie Antoine’s.

Mama thinks all that drawing is foolishness. She’s got real troubles — her unlucky corner of the marketplace means she’s got puny sales. But when Ti Marie’s charming artwork transforms Mama’s business outlooks, Ti Marie’s wishes start coming true. A cheery story incorporating ordinary life and Haitian religion, with an Author’s Note telling more about Haitian artists’ practices.  Lovely, for ages 4 and up.

Running the Road to ABC, written by Denizé Lauture, illustrated by Reynold Ruffins
published in 1996 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Haitian poet Lauture weaves a lyrical story of a group of six children who run “up and down steep hills six days each week, forty weeks each year, for seven years of their short lives.”
Waking up to roosters, cooking up yucca and Congo beans, flattening slugs with the bottom of their running bare feet, passing acres of sugarcane — they run and run and run. Where can they be going?

Gorgeous depictions of the Haitian countryside and the hopes of the children are accompanied by vivid paintings in this joyful story for ages 5 and up.

Auntie Luce’s Talking Paintings, written by Francie Latour, illustrated by Ken Daley
published in 2018 by Groundwood Books

Each December, one little Haitian-American girl flies to Haiti for an extended visit with her Auntie Luce.  Luce is an artist. Her home is full of portraits she’s painted of Haiti’s famous leaders as well as the beloved elders within their own family. Ti Chou, as she is affectionately called by her aunt, would like to have her own likeness painted.

As she sits for her portrait, Ti Chou hears from Auntie Luce about Haitian history, how it is one of both bright and dark moments. She learns, as well, how she can feel and be both Haitian and American all rolled into one. It’s an unusual, fascinating glimpse of Haitian culture and pride, illustrated in bold, tropical color. An Author’s Note adds more depth to the brief history of Haiti. An excellent read for ages 6 and up.

Haiti My Country, poems by Haitian Schoolchildren, illustrated by Rogé, translated by Solange Messier
published in 2014 by Fifth House

The pretty flowers of my country are to me
Like pink butterflies
That smile at the sun.
I especially like the pink flowers! The pink ones!
The charming pink flowers in my garden…

When I first heard of this book of poetry written by Haitian schoolchildren, I imagined a series of broken images in response to the devastating 2010 earthquake.
Instead, what I discovered was in the main a celebration of the beauty of their island home.
Poems about a “ripe mango, fresh mango, yellow mango” and the dancing Haitian trees. Poems telling of the cool shelter of a humble hut, of Haiti’s “dazzling greenery,” and the tastiness of the peppers and sweet potatoes in a peasant’s garden.

These pieces were all written prior to the earthquake, by teens at Camp Perrin, a small village in the south of Haiti. The students were inspired largely by the landscapes of this area, as well as the welcome shelter of their thatch-roofed homes. There are splinters of sadness, but mostly an outpouring of adoration for the land and pride in their country.
In itself, that makes a rich, important contribution to our understanding of Haiti, an excellent opportunity to see its strength and beauty rather than only the wreckage from natural disasters and political upheaval. I love that about this collection.
Quebecois illustrator Rogé has contributed exquisite portraits of Haitian children that turned this book into an award-winner. Fifteen tender, warm, soft studies of  beautiful faces. Printed on full pages in the tall format of the book, they are simply ravishing.
haiti my country illustration2 roge
It’s a quiet book, full of dignity, that can open our eyes and hearts to our neighbors in Haiti. Ages 6 to adult.


I See the Sun in Afghanistan, written by Dedie King, illustrated by Judith Inglese
published in 2011 by Satya House Publications

This is part of the I See the Sun series from Satya House that follows one child through her day in various cultures.

Written in Arabic and English, it’s a simple, straightforward narrative of one girl’s Afghani life. There are surprisingly few books that provide these kinds of realistic glimpses of other cultures. Ages 4 and up.

Four Feet, Two Sandals
written by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Doug Chayka
published in 2007 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Two young girls, Afghani refugees living in a Pakistani refugee camp, encounter one another when they both find one of a pair of sandals during a clothing distribution.

As the girls negotiate an amicable solution to the sandals, a sweet and healing friendship emerges until the moment comes when one receives permission to immigrate to America.

It’s a touching, warm story based on Khadra Mohammed’s experiences with refugees in Peshawar and it’s handsomely illustrated in the sun-drenched colors of this region. Share this with children ages 4 and up.

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter
published in 2009 by Beach Lane Books

This is the story of a system of secret schools for girls operating during the reign of the Taliban from 1996-2001.  As you know, under the Taliban girls are not allowed to attend school. It’s a simply told story of not so many words, echoing the quiet secrecy with which these schools operated.

Nasreen’s grandmother tells of their life in Herat, Afghanistan, of the fearful raids by Taliban soldiers who stole away Nasreen’s father, and of her search for a school so Nasreen can learn the way she did in earlier days.  The school is behind an anonymous green gate.  With a little tapping the door is opened a crack and Nasreen can quickly slip inside to a hidden room in a hidden house where she not only learns to read and write, but finds friendship and solace among other girls.

The illustrations for this book are each drawn in a framed square resembling a series of snapshots or paintings documenting the story.  The pretty colors and patterns of the girls’ clothing and scarves contrast with grim, menacing soldiers.  The beauty of the land before the Taliban contrasts with the dark clouded landscapes of their regime.  Although it was written in 2009 looking back at the Taliban era, it is, of course, a timely book for the present moment as well. Ages 5 and up.

Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education
written by Elizabeth Suneby, illustrated by Suana Verelst
published in 2013 by Kids Can Press

Evocative mixed media collages accompany this story of a girl named Razia and her deep yearning to learn in school. This passion conflicts with the authoritarian voices of her father and oldest brother. Razia’s respect for her family and culture, along with her grandfather’s role in brokering a solution, honor the Afghani culture, even while the story illustrates the need for change. It’s another chance to talk about the need for equality in girls’ education around the world. Ages 8 and up.

Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan
written by Tony O’Brien and Mike Sullivan, photographs by Tony O’Brien
published in 2008 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Documentarians O’Brien and Sullivan traveled to Afghanistan to interview children, asking them questions about their families, lives, and hopes, what their wishes would be, what they would like to show children if they visited from America.
Meet street workers and pickpockets, girls and boys, children from Kabul and from the countryside. Hear the common theme of longing for an education. Striking, photographic portraits bring us face to face with these young, dear witnesses of devastation. Their own words serve as captions.
It’s a poignant, beautiful collection, best suited to slightly older readers, ages 9 through adult.

Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11,  by Alan Gratz
published in 2021 by Scholastic
304 pages + back matter

I’ll include one novel I recently read.

It’s September 11, 2001. Brandon Chavez, 9 years old, has been suspended from school and therefore is tagging along with his dad, a chef at the Windows on the World restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Dashing off by himself to run a quick errand, Brandon becomes trapped in an elevator when a plane rams into the building unleashing terror, destruction, and death.

Eighteen years later, on September 11, 2019, Reshmina, an 11-year-old Afghani girl living in a small village, discovers an American soldier wounded in a Taliban attack that morning, and despite her hatred of Americans born from her sister’s death in an American bombing, she is obligated by her Pashtun culture to offer him refuge. Bringing this soldier into her home unleashes a horrifying, destructive, deadly barrage of firepower from both sides in the conflict.

Two kids, a world and eighteen years apart, engulfed in heart-pounding danger and heart-rending losses. Their stories, told in alternating chapters, reveal the surprisingly parallel threats and wounds they suffer. Through their voices and choices, Gratz makes both of their experiences intensely personal. By tying Reshmina’s story to Brandon’s he shines an incandescent spotlight on questions about revenge which are woven throughout the novel.

This is an intense, devastating, sorrowful pair of stories and Gratz includes gritty, traumatic details especially of the scenes at the World Trade Center. Loved family members die in this story. Therefore I would caution sensitive readers and those with anxiety challenges. Although the protagonists in this story are ages 9 and 11, I’m suggesting it for readers ages 15 and up. It’s a vivid pathway for teens to learn what happened in the U.S. on that day before they were born, as well as be challenged by thought-provoking perspectives on the war in Afghanistan during the past twenty years and America’s military involvement.


What is a Refugee? written and illustrated by Elise Gravel
published in 2019 by Schwartz & Wade Books

Becoming a refugee involves a tearing away from one’s home culture and an abrupt entry into a new one, most often including a lengthy stay in a completely unique culture — that of a refugee camp.

This stripped-back, direct, highly-accessible account opens with such a lovely sentence: A refugee is a person, just like you and me. Gravel helps young children understand the reasons people become refugees and their difficult journey to safety. Her careful text, honest answers, and plainspoken empathy make this an outstanding choice for ages 3 and up.

Marwan’s Journey, written by Patricia de Arias, illustrated by Laura Borràs
first published in Chile, 2016; English edition 2018 by Michael Neugebauer Publishing Ltd.

Ravishing illustration work is coupled here with an expressive, innocent, moving text narrating one young boy’s foot journey across the desert, fleeing war, yes, but also distancing himself from the home he loves so dearly.

marwan's journey interior Arias and Borras

This account captures the rending of people from their homelands, the scourge of war upon sweet lives, the fatigue of a refugee’s journey, yet ends on a note of hope for a future return, for happiness, and peace.

marwan's journey interior2 by Arias and Borras

An outstanding choice for children ages 3 and up.

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 3 and up.

Why am I Here?, written by Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen, illustrated by Akin Duzakin
translated from the Norwegian by Becky Crook
originally published in Norway in 2014; first US edition 2016 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

This unusual, pensive title comes to us from Norway.
One young child poses a series of existential, important questions.
He wonders why he is here, “in this exact place,” asks what would it have been like if he had been born as someone else, in some far distant place?

What would it be like to be homeless? Or in a land where war rages? What would it be like to dwell in the desert or the Arctic? What would it be like if home was washed away in a flood? Why are we here, anyway? Why am I me? These heartfelt wonderings certainly occur to young children.

Duzakin’s dreamy, emotive illustration work conveys wonder and transports us masterfully into others’ scenarios. He imbues the pages with tenderness and respect. It’s a lovely entry point into conversation and compassion for ages 6 and older.

The Journey, written and illustrated by Francesca Sanna
published in 2016 by Flying Eye Books

Francesca Sanna’s phenomenal book brilliantly, incisively sets us in the midst of one family plunged into war, to experience along with them their chaotic nightmare of seeking safety.
To begin with, there’s simply a loving family. The encroaching darkness of war, though, spills into their lives like black ink flooding across a cherished picture, overtaking them.

With their father gone, a heartsick mother gathers her children to flee. Covert, exhausting, staggering — the phases of their journey unfold like ominous scenes from a Hitchcock film.

Sanna’s gorgeous images — her minute figures set against an enormity of obstacles — set our nerves on edge. By contrast, the palpable love and togetherness of this mother and her children tenderize and warm our hearts. I was staggered by her work, the way she captures the tumult and emotion of the refugee experience.


This particular journey ends in hope. Anything else would be unbearable for the young children whose hearts will be moved, certainly, by this story.

It’s an outstanding choice for engendering empathy in our hearts for refugees. Ages 7 and up.

Wishes, written by Muon Thi Van, illustrated by Victo Ngai
published in 2021 by Orchard Books

This extraordinary book narrates in powerful, pared-back text and lush, emotive illustration the flight of a Vietnamese family to safety.

At each step of the sorrowful journey, even the inanimate objects surrounding them wish for something else — for deeper bags to pack precious things; for time to slow so goodbyes might last longer; for a bigger boat and calmer seas to undertake such a perilous journey.

Most piercing is the child’s wish for a place of home and security so solid, so lasting, no one has to wish any longer. Even though this account depicts one particular refugee family’s journey, the emotions and profound challenges of all refugees are enfolded within it. With its stunning illustration and moving, insightful text, this is a brand new gem for ages 6-7 and up. Don’t miss the Author and Illustrator Notes which illuminate further this superb piece of work.

You can find many more books about the refugee experience on my list here.

I hope you find meaningful ways to engage the hearts of the children in your sphere
with the lives of hurting children around the world.
Peace to you all.