children caught in conflict…refugee reads for young and old

Can you guess the number of children who are currently forcibly displaced from their homes around the world?

The UNHCR estimates it’s 34 million.
34 million is a staggering number of people under the age of 18 who cannot safely live in their own homes.
Besides the increase of both war and climate refugees, over the last few years over 300,000 babies were born each year into a refugee life as their families languish in camps sometimes for decades.

Whether children have fled Nazi Germany, Laos, or Syria, gang warfare in Guatemala or political reprisals in Tibet — these are tremendously challenging circumstances to share with our own kids.
Yet it’s vitally important for children to have a measure of understanding of what their peers around the globe are facing,
and to grow hearts of compassion and generosity towards those forced to flee their own homes.
To that end, I’ve included links at the end of the post
to several international organizations serving displaced children
if your family is interested in making a donation during this holiday season.

Through the years I’ve searched out and discovered quite a number of excellent titles depicting the refugee experience for children. A link at the end of today’s post will take you to an index of all these titles.
Today I’ve got seven more books to share, some of which will serve folks as young as 4 years old, others of which are best for older kids and adults.

Bright Star, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales
published in 2021 by Neal Porter Books, Holiday House

Yuyi Morales is an astonishing artist who brings a poet’s eye to her images and an immigrant’s heart to her perspectives. This gorgeous piece of work takes an oblique look at the experience of any young child who experiences painful, traumatic moments, but particularly focuses on the extremely difficult journey of an asylum-seeking child in the Mexican/U.S. borderlands.

The text simply seeks to reassure this child that she is a bright star, loved, dear to the heart of her accompanying parent. As their journey continues, the child is encouraged to be alert, to stay safe; she is coaxed both to breathe deeply to calm her fears, and to voice her fierce determination against dangers that threaten. She is led through dark and terrifying scenes to embrace the possibilities of beauty and survival.

Simultaneously Morales’ gorgeous, novel collage work engulfs us with the stunning colors, textures, flora, and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, the location of many an asylum-seeker’s formidable walk. These scenes are at times lush, blooming, bewitching, and at times thorny, menacing, deadly. Animals represent the human travelers for almost the entire book. Only in the final pages do we come face to face with the lovely boys and girls whose lives and passages are thus portrayed.

Morales includes a lengthy, fascinating, heartfelt author’s note explaining her numerous, disparate inspirations in creating this profound account. With care this can be shared with children as young as 4; the depth of artistry means it’s a great picture book to share with older readers as well. I’m expecting this one to win several awards this year.

From the Tops of the Trees, written by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Rachel Wada
published in 2021 by Carolrhoda Books

Minnesota-Hmong author Yang (author of The Most Beautiful Thing) brings us a poignant memory from her childhood in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand where her Hmong family lived after fleeing the violence and ethnic purging in their homeland of Laos.

Yang recounts the simple, mundane pastimes that made up everyday life in the camp, the homespun games of the children, the women’s outdoor sewing circles, the constant gnawing hunger and slim rations. Having been born into this insular, walled-off community, little Kao Kalia wonders aloud if the refugee camp comprises the entire world. Her dear father, who longs for his daughter to have an expansive view of the world, longs for her to one day freely venture into places beyond this impoverished space, devises a special plan.

Clinging to her father like a little tree toad, Kao Kalia is carried up, up, up into the top of a large tree, high enough to see out of the camp, to be mesmerized by distant hills and mysteries beyond the horizon. Yang’s father’s hopes did indeed come true for his children and Yang speaks to this — to their journey to the United States and the opportunities this has brought her — in her Author’s Note. Her story reveals both the distinct deprivation, fears, and losses faced by those living in refugee camps, and the universal love and hopes of parents for their children, including refugee parents. It’s an outstanding window onto the refugee experience accessible to ages 4 and up.

Escape: One Day We Had to Run, written by Ming & Wah Chen, illustrated by Carmen Vela
published in 2021 by Lantana Publishing

This compendium of brief accounts chronicles the stories of people forced from their homes for a variety of reasons. A dozen entries, each entitled with a verb correlated to the escape — cling, dart, disguise, raft, sprint, tunnel — relate the dramatic flights that have taken place around the world and across the centuries.

The oldest entry describes the disguise Bonnie Prince Charlie used to flee his pursuers in 1745, while the most recent is the harrowing 2015 journey by raft from Syria to Greece made by many including Yusra (detailed in the book Yusra Swims). In between are accounts from the Underground Railroad, World War II, and the Cold War, stories of Cuban and Eritrean refugees, and the plight of climate refugees such as those currently being forced off their island home of Kiribati.

Each story — just one paragraph long — is presented in journalistic style, like a news clipping. These short synopses allow the book to cover a lot of ground, drawing our attention to the many reasons people make the terribly difficult decision to flee from their own homes.  The reporterly tone also allows the authors to step back from the raw emotions that otherwise would be part of the stories, making the book accessible to younger readers. Vivid, bold design creates a lot of interest for each two-page spread. Ages 6 and up.

Hear My Voice: The Testimonies of Children Detained at the Southern Border of the United States
compiled by Warren Binford for Project Amplify, illustrated by seventeen artists
published by Workman Publishing in 2021
Simultaneously written in Spanish: Escucha Mi Voz

In 2019, as part of the routine inspections established in the U.S. in 1997 called Flores teams, a small group of people went to the Clint  Border Patrol Station in Texas to interview children detained by the U.S. government. For over twenty years these teams had conducted interviews to determine if detainees were being cared for as stipulated by federal law.

What they saw and heard on that visit shocked them. Conditions and treatment had deteriorated abominably. Basic human rights were being violated. The team chose to publish their findings in the hopes that a public outcry would move officials to reforms. This book emerged from those efforts.

The text is comprised entirely of testimonies given by the children at Clint. Each two-page spread features artwork by one of 17 distinguished illustrators in his/her own unique style, along with brief, varied answers given to questions the children were asked: their ages, the homes they had left, their reasons for fleeing, their experiences at the detention center. It is a heartbreaking book to read.

Included in the book’s afterword are some questions to help young children process what they are hearing and ways to consider helping children in detention. The book is printed such that from one cover it reads in English, while from the other cover it reads in Spanish, the two converging in the middle. The way we care for vulnerable children fleeing violence and danger indicates whether or not we truly value human life and dignity. This is a critically important, yet hidden and politicized activity in our country.  Share this valuable resource with children ages 4 or 5 and up, as well as with adults.

Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War
written by María José Ferrada, illustrated by Ana Penyas, translated by Elisa Amado
originally published in Mexico in 2018; English edition 2020 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

The plight of children in wartime, their flights from dangers of which they are innocent victims, is as old as humanity. This striking book tells the story of one such evacuation, one lesser known in the U.S. than, for example, the removal of British children from London during WWII.

In 1937 a ship left from a French harbor sailing for Mexico with 456 Spanish children aboard, all of whom were endangered because of their parents’ democratic sympathies in a country warring to remain a monarchy. The level of violence and destruction in Spain was so horrific, these parents opted to send their children to safety in what was assumed to be a temporary move. They were received warmly by families across Mexico, but with victory in the hands of General Franco, the imprisonment or execution of their families, and the abysmal poverty after both the Spanish Civil War and WWII, the children never returned.

This account is written in the voice of one child who was put aboard the Mexique. She describes the experience of saying goodbye to her parents, becoming a part of a new community of children, undergoing a long sea voyage, arriving in a foreign land.

The spare, poignant text speaks volumes between the lines while the handsome illustrations convey tremendous emotion, distance, tumult. A lengthy afterword fills in the history for those of us unfamiliar with it and draws connections to all those who are forced to leave home, to cross seas seeking “a life without fear.” Outstanding, for ages 6 and up.

Niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile
written by María José Ferrada, illustrated by María Elena Valdez, translated by Lawrence Schimel
originally published in Mexico in 2019; English edition 2021 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Between 1973 and 1990, during the dictatorship in Chile of General Pinochet, thousands of people were executed or “disappeared,” violently disposed of for supposedly offending the governing elite. Among them, most grievously, were 34 children under the age of 14.

Chilean writer Ferrada pays homage to these innocents in this deeply moving book of poetry. One brief poem for each child imagines who they might have been if their lives had been untouched by such depravity. The poems all breathe tranquility, beauty, joy, childish wonderings and doings, and coincide to the age at which the child’s life was abruptly ended — some under a year in age.

In an endnote, Ferrada reveals that thirty-two of these children are known to have been executed, one remains listed as “disappeared,” and one was located in 2013 by a group of Chilean mothers who have organized in an attempt to relocate still-missing children.

Although the poems are all fragments of sweetness, the entire book is a deeply sorrowful reflection. The juxtaposition is powerful and draws us to consider the untold numbers of children across the globe who currently face extreme political violence. Suggested for ages 10 to adult.

Samira Surfs, written by Rukhsanna Guidroz, illustrations by Fahmida Azim
published in 2021 by Kokila
411 pages

This novel-in-verse turns a spotlight on the tragic plight of the Rohingya people who have been violently forced out of Burma yet have also been met with hostility in places they’ve sought refuge.  Layer upon layer, scene after scene, the story reveals the immense difficulty of a refugee’s journey via the particular story of one 11-year-old girl, Samira.

Set in the city of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in 2012, the story opens 3 months after Samira and her family have fled from Burma. As the official refugee district in their new community is full, Samira along with her brother and parents live precariously outside the camp, quietly evading government officials who would push them back into the deadly fray in their homeland.

Samira sells hard-boiled eggs to tourists on the beach as her way of bringing in funds for the family. Daily she has to dodge both the police and angry locals who despise these refugees.  At the beach, Samira meets a cluster of girls learning to swim and surf with some borrowed boards. As a Muslim Rohingya girl, both the joys of swimming with her new friends and the deep satisfaction of learning the tidbits of English her brother passes along from his school lessons are forbidden to her. Thus Samira confronts tensions in her life on many fronts as she struggles to fit into a new society, chafes against the strictures of cultural rules, and seeks to win a surfing contest which carries a cash prize that would be immensely helpful to her loved ones.

Samira is a complex, likable protagonist and I was easily caught up in her journey. I have followed the story of the Rohingya in part, but learned more from this account.  It is easier to see from a distance, I think, how inhumane and unjust it is to deny people their basic human rights, while in our own communities we too often remain unfazed by infringements and mistreatment of vulnerable populations. Thus this makes a great gateway to think and talk about the needs and rights of refugees.

The book has some elements that require a sturdy reader. For one thing, many Bengali words are used and with no glossary the reader is required to derive meaning from contextual clues and press into the unfamiliar.  For another, we are plunged into this setting and political history without any introductory notes or maps and many American tweens and teens will not be familiar with it.  For that reason, I’d suggest reading the closing Author’s Note first. Be aware, too, that drownings are a part of the story line.  With all that said, I’ve read quite a few middle grade novels on the refugee experience and found this to be a unique, quality read.  I’d recommend it for ages 11 and up.

If making a gift to help today’s refugee children is something
your family would like to do during this holiday season,
here are links to just three of the many organizations providing relief to displaced children.
United Nations Refugee Agency
International Rescue Committee
Save the Children
World Relief 

You can find dozens more fantastic picture books and middle grade novels about the refugee experience as well as many titles illuminating the immigrant experience — all on my list here.

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