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Posts Tagged ‘humanitarian issues’

Refugee, by Alan Gratz
published in 2017 by Scholastic Press

I finally made it through the l-o-n-g waiting list at my library and had the chance to read this astonishing novel. And I am here to tell you — I rarely outright cry when I read a book, but I was weeping at the close of this monumentally human story.

Alan Gratz weaves together three distinct stories of young refugees which span almost 80 years of the 20th and 21st centuries. Josef, a Jewish boy evading the Nazis in 1930s Germany. Isabel, a Cuban girl whose family attempts to escape the Castro regime by raft in 1994. And Mahmoud, who with his family flees the civil war in Syria in 2015.

Children from Ravensbruck Concentration Camp

The nightmarish worlds each of these children finds him/herself in are presented here with the grim reality of shock, despair, intense grief, paralyzing fear, the relentless onslaught of another and yet another horrific wave of violence, suffering, loss, distress. As we follow their escape routes, we are overwhelmed, aghast. Our hearts are crushed along with theirs. These are not narratives wherein everyone comes through nicely with merely a scratch, rescued in the 11th hour. No, they are stories based on real children, composites of true refugee accounts, and as such they are strewn with enormous tragedy.

Yet it’s these very stories, so bleak and monstrous one cannot fathom experiencing them, that we comfortable ones must face, hear, acknowledge, mourn, that motivate us to live with sacrificial love and empathy, that cause a welling up of longing to be one of the compassionate ones in our world.

Cubans flee Havana, August 1994

Are you saturated with bad news from the current daily news cycle and feel you cannot bear to read something dark and depressing? Take heart. Because in the darkest moments, that is when Gratz ushers in the sunstreaked twists that’ll leave you reaching for a tissue. It’s not the onslaught of evil that made me weep, but the moments when gutwrenching depths of love, tough-won tenderness, pierced-heart kindness, reach into the morass of misery to bring redemption, mercy, and rescue.

Syrian refugees cross into Hungary, 2015

Gratz hopscotches back and forth between the three narratives so that we track the journeys of all three families throughout the novel. He then orchestrates a final movement in which the disparate lives impact one another in surprising, profound ways. Here is the hard won kernel of hope, goodness, humanity, here at “the end of all things” as Frodo and Sam would say.

Obviously timely. Highly recommended for ages 13 through adult. Be aware — if my review hasn’t cued you in already — there’s a boatload of grief and violence here, so be wise in handing this to younger readers.

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Portraits of mothers, children, and foodHow big is your world?

Those of us living in the U.S., sadly, really have to work at pushing the boundaries of our world past local affairs and celebrity gossip. News headlines omit much real, often painful, news of the rest of the world. It is terribly easy to be insulated from international issues.

Most of us want better for our kids. We want the hardships of children in Syria: children speak from Zaatari refugee camp - videoSyria to matter more than who said what on Facebook. We want them to see and feel others’ needs rather than mainly their own. To dream of ways to make a difference in the world.

guatemalan child from ifad dot orgI’ve got a round-up of some titles I’ve come across that beautifully draw us in to the welfare of children around the globe. Some of these have been on my blog before, and there’s a link to my longer review of them. I’d love to hear in the comments any other great books you know of in this category.

The entire new set of titles I’ve got today comes out of Canada.  Kids Can Press in Toronto has a fantastic series called CitizenKid, accessible to early elementary and up. You can find more titles in this series at their website. Here are a few I’ve seen and recommend:

razia's ray of hope cover imageRazia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education, by Elizabeth Suneby, illustrated by Suana Verelst
2013, Kids Can Press

Evocative mixed media collages accompany this story of Razia’s deep yearning to learn in school, which conflicts with the authoritative voices of her father and oldest brother. Razia’s respect for her family and culture, and her grandfather’s role in brokering a solution, honor the Afghani culture, even while the story illustrates the need for change. Discussion about how to help in this complex issue is included.

mimi's village cover imageMimi’s Village: And How Basic Health Care Transformed It, by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes
2012, Kids Can Press

A rather drab title, but the content is excellent. Mimi is a young girl from a Kenyan village. She lives under a cloud of concern as neighbors’ babies die and her own little sister becomes ill by drinking untreated water. After visiting a health worker in a nearby town, Mimi lobbies her own village to raise up a small health center for themselves.

Having lived in Kenya briefly, and in West Africa, I found the depictions of life and death in these village settings authentic. An Afterword tells more about village health workers and ways you can help through a variety of non-profits engaged in basic health care.

untitledOne Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference, by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes

Revolving loans and microfinance — not your typical subject matter for elementary students, but this story of Kojo from Ghana vividly illustrates the principles as he uses a bit of money to buy one hen, sells its eggs for profits, reinvests, and eventually achieves phenomenal success.

An Afterword gives the true account of a successful Ghanaian businessman and his Mustard Seed Trust that gives small revolving loans to tens of thousands of Ghanaians. There’s also a list of organizations who accept donations to their loan funds, and anecdotes of several small businesswomen — very often the beneficiaries of these start-up funds.

this child every child cover imageThis Child, Every Child: A Book about the World’s Children, by David J. Smith, illustrated by Shelagh Armstrong
2011, Kids Can Press

David Smith is a numbers guy. Here he has sifted through scads of statistics about the quality of life of our world’s children, and presented them in orderly, clear segments for upper-elementary students and older. Family sizes, kinds of homes, health, transiency, school, gender equality, work and war…Look through about a dozen lenses to see how children around the world are faring.child labor from ragamuffinsoul dot com

Smith brings the information to life with anecdotes about specific children in far-flung locations. Meet Ling, living in the densely-crowded Aberdeen Harbour in Hong Kong — what is her home like? Or Nasir, age nine, working in a rug factory in Pakistan. What does life hold for him? Discover that “if you have access to health care, clean water, adequate food and a healthy environment, you are better off than many children in the world.” And what do we do about that?

This is challenging material, and would be best absorbed in dialogue with an adult.

if america were a village cover imageIf America Were a Village: A Book About the People of the United States, by David J. Smith, illustrated by Shelagh Armstrong
2009, Kids Can Press

Though already 5 years old, the statistics in this book are cleverly presented and worth your time. Imagining the U.S. as a group of 100 people allows Smith to take percentages down to a child’s level of understanding. In a group of just 100 representative people, how many were born in Latin America? How many live in cities? What religions do they practice? What do we own? Fascinating stuff. 

A companion book If the World Were a Village was published in 2002. Though the stats are even more outdated, it’s still interesting and thought-provoking.

Here are links to a few excellent titles I’ve reviewed earlier:

A Long Walk to Water — a short novel by award-winning author Linda Sue Park about the Sudanese Lost Boys and the water needs of Sudan

Hamzat’s Journey: A Refugee Diary about a boy injured by an explosive device in Chechnya

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan

One Well: The Story of Water on Earth

Where Children Sleepa remarkable photojournal of children’s sleeping quarters around the world

There are many, many titles in the Cultures section of my Subject Index kenyan schoolgirls from bbc dot co dot ukwhich illumine another way of life as well.

If you have a favorite title highlighting global child welfare issues, please let us know about it via the comments.

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