refugee

Refugee Stories

One thing I always knew I had to instil in my own children, and in the children I work with, is a sense of history. Where they come from, from whom they are descended, how they got where they are today. Whether it’s tracking a grandparent’s entry here via kindertransport, or a boat, smuggled on a truck, or simply purchasing a plane ticket, most of us have a story if we look back further enough, and dig deep enough. Not many of us were born and bred where we live today.

But not all children equate their own great-grandparents’ journeys with the stories of refugees and migrants they see in today’s news headlines. How do we make our children see and understand their plight, and how do we explain what we mean when we say ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’? Luckily, there are a whole host of books that can help guide us in this education, teaching compassion and empathy at the same time. In fact, the number of new ‘refugee’ stories being published is quite startling. Here’s my pick…

Three novels that take away the label and instead highlight individual stories – so that we can see the people behind the headlines – are A Dangerous Crossing, The Bone Sparrow and A Story Like the Wind. There’s not just a stark photograph of suffering here, splashed across a newspaper, but fully rounded characters, with hopes and fears, with pasts and futures. They all desire food and shelter, but they all have different ideas of home, of safety, of the kind of future they want. They are all individuals. What they have in common is the need to move from the place they called home.

A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell
When 13 year old Ghalib Shenu is caught in a barrel-bomb explosion in Kobani’s souq in Syria, his family decide enough is enough and they must leave. Together with his siblings, parents and grandmother, Ghalib begins the long journey from Syria to Europe.

The compelling force about this book is that it feels completely real – from the dangers surrounding the family, to the banter they engage upon on their way. The questions posed are real and immediate – what should they take with them – Ghalib is reluctant to leave his belongings behind, but the further into the journey he gets, the more he realises how it is just the essentials that matter. There are other realities – the images of other people living their normal lives even as the refugees are passing through their territory; the stigma attached to refugees, as Ghalib realises how unwelcome the Syrian people have become:

“We look. A cardboard sign in Turkish and Arabic is stuck inside the door. No Syrians. The Arabic is not written properly but the message is clear.”

Because the reader is so involved with Ghalib and his family, the hurt and humiliation sting. Mitchell also allows the reader to dwell on things that we ordinarily might take for granted – the wrench to leave the future you had assumed would be there for you in your home country – the bonds at home – family, friends, a business, books, belongings – all those things which give a person a sense of individual identity – something that’s stripped when you’re labelled as a refugee.

As Ghalib and his family progress further on their journey, the book becomes tenser, at first crossing the border, then leaving the refugee camp, and finally attempting the boat crossing. This last piece causes stomach-churning anxiety – Mitchell’s writing prickles with tension.

Mitchell portrays the family’s powerlessness brilliantly, and although the language is English and written with literary style, using challenging vocabulary such as ‘redolent’ and ‘pulverise’, the reader does get a good sense of the Syrian lifestyle – the smells and tastes of Ghalib’s home, the way of life.

Told in first person, the text feels immediate, but the secondary characters are also fleshed out well, each bringing authenticity to the story, but also highlighting different issues, from the treatment of the elderly, to treatment of women, as well as those who are too young to have experienced any other Syria than one which is at war.

This is a powerful book, well-researched and written, and achieves its aim of encouraging sympathy and understanding, but importantly, telling a really good story.

The publisher recommends the book for 11+ years, but I would wager a fluent reader aged 10+ would be capable of understanding the text too. You can buy it here.

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
This is a gripping story without a physical journey, and tells the story of one boy who was born in a detention centre, and has never known anything different, and highlights a group of people who aren’t brought to the media’s attention very much. Subhi, aged 10, is a member of the Rohingya people of Burma, but has never known his homeland, relying only upon the memories of the older generations. This gives the novel both the grief of the elders for what was known about Burma, but also gives Subhi a grief for all the unknowns too.

Fraillon excels at highlighting the extreme hardships and terrible conditions of the refugee camp without the book becoming too depressing or maudlin, by the fact that Subhi possesses an overwhelming optimism – a sunny disposition no matter how hard things get.

Much of his day is spent in drawing and stories. There is no entertainment, no outside distractions. His height is measured on the diamonds on the wire fencing, there is no school, scarce food.

In a Boy in the Striped Pyjamas allusion, Subhi is befriended by Jimmi, a girl who gets through a hole in the fence from outside and rejoices in Subhi’s ability to read stories to her. In return for his reading, she brings food from the outside. It’s never explicitly stated in which country the camp is, but the reader assumes it is Australia. Both children seem fairly oblivious to the fact that their meeting is unusual, and that the way Subhi is treated is profoundly wrong and must be changed. In fact, it’s not just Australia that isn’t mentioned – Faillon, one must assume deliberately, doesn’t show many traits of the Rohingya people. Also, the gap in the fence, set against the rules and severity of camp life, seems fairly unrealistic so that, as in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the story becomes fairly allegorical.

What does feel very real though is the depiction of the harsh life and treatment within the refugee camp – the terrible conditions, and the references to the horrible scarring – both mental and physical – that the older refugees faced before their arrival in the camp.

The crescendo of the story when it comes is horrible beyond words, and yet because the children have shown how powerful friendship and storytelling can be, there remains a great deal of hope at the end of the book – even if Fraillon’s afterword brims with anger.

Fraillon displays a wonderful lyrical lilt to her writing, a compelling voice with a gripping story, and has been shortlisted for both The Guardian Children’s Fiction prize and for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2017.

The overall message is one of hope, but also the meaning of freedom – it’s more than just being free from the containment of fencing, it’s the entitlement of a future. 10+ yrs. You can buy it here.

A Story Like the Wind by Gill Lewis
This highly illustrated book for seven year olds and over, meshes myth with reality in this storytelling tale about a boy who narrates a story over a night spent adrift at sea, to a boatload of fellow refugees escaping from their war-torn homeland. They carry nothing with them, except their names and their memories. Rami, the narrator, cleverly plays his violin to accompany his storytelling, using music as the universal language to bind humans together. In this way, reminiscent perhaps of The Mozart Question by Michael Morpurgo – which used music to highlight the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing the camps of the Holocaust – Lewis attempts to use the story of how the violin came about to tell a story of hope and freedom in a time of war and injustice.

Rami tells his fellow refugees the story of a young boy who rescues a wild foal from near death and nurtures him to life, whilst refusing to claim ownership of him. When he races the horse against the Dark Lord and wins, the Dark Lord banishes him, and takes ownership of the horse – treating it cruelly – until it escapes and finds its way to the boy in exile, before collapsing and dying. The boy takes the beast’s bones and carves a violin from them.

The story that Rami tells draws connections between the cruelty of the Dark Lord and his harsh treatment of his subjects, to the cruel treatment that the boat’s passengers have endured in their war-ravaged country from which they are escaping, as well as explaining the meaning of freedom and dignity. There is no resolution to the overarching story – the refugees remain floating in their boat with only the beauty of the music against the waves to succour them – but this is an interesting fable to disseminate the big issues that face humanity today.

Beautifully illustrated by Jo Weaver in a dream-like fashion, this is an unforgettable little story. You can buy it here.

Children In Our World: Refugees and Migrants by Ceri Roberts and Hanane Kai is a non-fiction text that seeks to explain gently what we mean when we label someone a refugee or a migrant. Who are they? Where have the come from? In very clear, unchallenging text, this square book – laid out like a picture book – presents a tame factual reality of what we mean by refugee and migrant.

It describes why people move from their homeland, what they have left behind and why they might leave in a hurry, as well as life in refugee camps, what it means to seek asylum, and lastly what the reader can do to help people.

The text is written for a Western audience, explaining to a child to make a new child welcome in their school, as well as repeating the usual rhetoric nowadays that children should discuss with an adult any worries or fears they have, making clear how unlikely it is that they themselves will become refugees. There’s a glossary at the back, and a ‘find out more’ section.

The images seem to imply there are different families and children being shown, although always with the same cat, and although there is clearly a diverse range of nationalities from the clothes and hairstyles, the colour of skin remains the same. The imagery is supposedly generic in tone – pastel colours throughout, and the trees remain the same in all landscapes, presumably putting across the message that we are all the same the world over. The cat brings slight levity to the subject.

It’s a good text to have in a school library for a 6+ age group who may have questions, but I think for greater depth and insight individual stories, highlighting our differences whilst at the same time delineating our common necessities – love, shelter, food etc – will always win out. You can buy it here.

There are so many many more refugee stories, from the obvious, such as Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere, picturebook The Journey by Francesca Sanna, and the everyman refugee story, Close to the Wind by Jon Walter.

 

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

It was with some trepidation that I started reading this novel, advertised for young teens, but I think appropriate for mature nine year olds, because of Laird’s introduction. The novel begins with a foreword from the author, which gives an explanation of why the war in Syria began and poses a question at the end about how history will judge our treatment of refugees.

Literature is there to pose questions and make us think, as well as imbue empathy. And good literature should teach us things too – but above all there needs to be a good story well told, otherwise readers won’t get to the crux of the book. Elizabeth Laird is an experienced writer, and has written many great, distinguished and prize-winning novels. Is this more than just another ‘issue’ book, a book that has written a story around an issue, rather than starting with a story and drawing an issue out of it? This isn’t Laird’s best book in my opinion, and yet this is way more than an issue book, and it certainly makes the reader think, and so it deserves this week’s book of the week spot.

Twelve-year-old Omar narrates the story – in past tense. He lives in Bosra, isn’t keen on school, but makes money selling postcards at a tourist site. His father also works in tourism – but for the government. When war breaks out, the family’s troubles grow – not least because Omar’s father has to move for work, but also because his older sister is being married off (having reached the marriageable age of sixteen). Omar’s older brother Musa suffers from cerebral palsy and starts getting in with a group who are anti-government. It’s a complicated situation and Laird does her best to navigate through the family’s journey. As the bombs fall on the city, they move again, and again, until eventually they have to flee Syria completely and cross the border to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Laird has done her research – she has spent time in the refugee camps and has prior knowledge of living in the Middle East as well as a presenting us with a hefty acknowledgements section that clearly names all the various experts and refugee families who have helped to share their experiences with her.

It’s not a short novel, coming in at over 360 pages in the proof copy, and is fast-paced and hugely enjoyable. Yet, even at this length, it still feels like a skeletal piece. The descriptions of places are somewhat lacking – particularly the urban settings, although there are glimpses of what was once there – the tourist areas boomed, and the ordinary society was buzzy and lively – and yet there wasn’t quite enough description to give that emotional evocation of what has been lost.

The secondary characters too – Omar’s sister is desperate to stay a scholar and not get married, Omar’s brother struggles with his illness that sets him apart as different (just as any boy would anywhere in the world), but neither are portrayed in enough depth to give complexity to their issues. However, other relationships do spring from the page – Omar’s mother’s relationship with her grandmother, and likewise her relationship with her sister – these feel alive and real – with just a light touch. Omar – our protagonist – is likeable despite having many flaws; he comes across as real – that awkward age of boyhood into adulthood that’s particularly difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone in wartime, and when he’s dealing with an absent father and a physically weaker older brother.

Written from a very British perspective, the language used will be vastly familiar to the Western reader – words such as ‘bungling’ and phrases such as ‘ratting on someone’ and ‘I beg your pardon’. Perhaps this is on purpose, to make the readership feel familiar with the family portrayed – to show the readership here that this is something that could happen to anyone. And yet, as with the lack of physical description of Syria, it takes away some of the authenticity of the book.

But overall this book ticks the boxes for me because it’s gripping and fast (the book sprints through the plot) and portrays the Syrian war and the refugee crisis so that an average ten year old in this country could gain some insight and experience some empathy.

The book extols the virtues of bravery and hopefulness. Of learning to look out for your family and put someone else first. And it makes you think – how will we welcome a family such as Omar’s in our country? Who are these people? Are they just like you and me?

You can buy it here. Fifty pence per copy of the hardback book sold will be donated to an international aid agency supporting the Syrian refugee crisis.

The Journey by Francesca Sanna

the journey

Einstein once said that if you can’t explain something simply then you don’t understand it well enough yourself. Trying to explain the modern world to our children can be hard. Take the refugee crisis – it’s a complex topic about statehood, citizenship, war, conflict, ethnicity, prejudice…and more. Francesca Sanna has boiled it down and made it simple – one journey, one perspective, one angle – one ordinary family.

It’s a picture book that shows the reader, through the eyes of a child, the fears, difficulties, stresses, vulnerabilities and strokes of luck that are part of being a refugee. The author has herself travelled and lived in many countries, and interviewed migrants, and this is reflected in her illustrations, which, at the beginning of the book, give off hints of the Middle East and Asia in their depiction of plants and flowers, landscapes and buildings. Then Sanna shows pictures of animals and images from the land in which the family may end their journey, which are clearly more Western European – reindeer, fir trees, rabbits, foxes and wintry leaves.

On the first pages, the family play happily at the seaside, before the dark hand of war stretches across the page. War is personified – it’s darkness but with encroaching fingers, which plucks away the father, and then threatens the rest of the family group. The mother’s friend talks of leaving, and the family pack and go, starting their treacherous journey.

Throughout the journey there are elements of fear, again portrayed with darkness, or emphasised by size that obstructs or scares or intimidates. There is the darkness of the border with its huge wall, the huge guard with pointing finger, the trafficker both dark and large, yanking the family away from the darkness but into the next fearfulness – the crossing of the sea.

Although there are these elements of fear, there isn’t the stereotypical ‘boo’ of a picture book to frighten young readers. Here, the fear is an implied emotion – an expression of the daunting obstacles that need to be overcome.

“The further we go, the more we leave behind.”

Pages from Journey PDF

And then there is Sanna’s portrayal of the overarching beauty of the mother, which dominates the story. She has exaggerated long dark flowing locks, which almost work as an extension of her arms – embracing the children in times of fear. Her hands are busy too. They also protect her children, or mother them – she reads them a book, packs, shushes them in times of danger, holds their hands, and uses them in a number of ways to perpetuate the journey – driving them in a car, or steering the handlebars of the bicycle.  Until the end on the train, where they are on their way to the new land, and the mother’s hair is driven freely by the breeze, and her hands lie idle on the window, her eyes looking to the future. The portrayal throughout conveys her strength – the reader sees her tears only when the children are asleep.

The journey takes them from car to van to truck to bicycle to boat to train, but this is no simple story of transport. The artworks are exquisite – worthy of their own place on the wall, as the images blend into each other, the imagery cleverly using bottle greens, oranges, reds and blues to define shapes that together assimilate to make a larger picture. The humans and nature are fluid, the transport is modular. The images feel part oriental, part fairy tale, as if telling of a myth painted on some ancient vase. And yet the text is modern, explaining with deep simplicity:

“From the train I look up to the birds that seem to be following us…
They are migrating just like us. And their journey is very long too, but they don’t have to cross any borders.”

There is hope at the end, an uplifting cliff-hanger as the family’s story is, of course, just beginning.

The book has been prepared beautifully – from the extraordinary artworks to the quality of the paper, the thought into the white space on the pages, and then again those pages of darkness where there is no white space. The small touches, such as the cat they leave behind, and the attractive bookcase, all help to detail the picture of a family.

This is a highly accessible book for anyone wanting to understand forced migration. Highly recommended for all schools, all children, and also for anyone who appreciates great illustrations. You can buy it here.

Seasonal Books For Younger Readers Part 2

refuge

Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher
If you’re only buying one Christmas book this year, make it this one (although the mind boggles as to why you’d just buy one!). Refuge is a charity book – £5 for every sale goes to War Child. It’s a partnership of two very special people in the children’s book industry – Anne Booth – a magical writer who manages to be continually altruistic whilst writing thought-provoking literature for children, and Sam Usher, whose beautiful illustrations light up my eyes.

Refuge tells the traditional Christmas story in a new way, highlighting very cleverly and simply the struggle faced by a family seeking refuge – a family who could be anyone –  not just people from biblical times. It particularly demonstrates the kindness of strangers who help them along their way, and then take them in. Told from the point of view of the donkey, he explains the generosity of the innkeeper, the harshness of the journey, and the final granting of refuge. Of course it draws attention to the particular nub of our time – refugees and homelessness, and questions our basic humanity.

The illustrations sing from the page – Usher has depicted the nativity seamlessly in pen and wash, but inserted a shrewd narrative device of light on each page to express hope and freedom and sanctuary.

It’s published by Nosy Crow publishers, who are kindly absorbing the cost. They are a fairly new publishing group, who shine with innovation and are proving to have oodles of integrity. Their books are always of the highest quality, and this book is no different, which makes it easy to support.

For all ages. You can buy it here from Waterstones, or in any good book shop.

Snow bear

Snow Bear by Tony Mitton and Alison Brown
A winsome rhyming tale with one of the cutest bears in picturebooks. Alison Brown’s bear is far more abstract and less traditional than most bears, a cute white ball of fluff with dots for eyes and a cylindrical shape, but endearing nevertheless. There is glitter on this cover, snowdrops in silver that will catch any shop’s lights – who can resist glitter at Christmas? The story is more wintry than strictly Christmas – it could appeal to any faith denomination.

The bear is cold and looking for warmth. The other animals can’t help, and then he finally stumbles across a house with warming features – a comfortable armchair, a roaring fire, and a small girl who needs a hug. There is no explanation for the girl’s loneliness or why the bear needs human kindness, but the illustrations show incredible tenderness between the two when they do finally meet – the girl reads to the bear, helps him climb the stairs, and wraps him up warmly. The book is about solving loneliness, finding friendship, and showing kindness. The rhyming works well, the vocabulary is lovely. But it is the atmosphere created that warms the heart – the cold blue winter turning to reds, oranges and purples inside. It makes the reader want to climb inside the book itself. Perfect for reading aloud with a cuddle. 3+yrs. Buy it here.

toothfairys christmas

The Tooth Fairy’s Christmas by Peter Bently, illustrated by Garry Parsons
It’s always great fun to bring together more than one childhood character – in this case a very cold tooth fairy seeks the assistance of Father Christmas so that she can pick up a tooth from a particular child on Christmas Eve. Not everything goes smoothly though, as Santa is a little clumsy and they very nearly wake the sleeping child.

Told in rhyme, this is a fun giggle:
“Thank you for helping me out in this weather!”
She said. “It was lots of fun working together!”

There are some beautiful touches from both author and illustrator, the tooth fairy’s lounge is beautifully decorated – with Christmas tree and stocking – but alongside the seasonal touches are the numerous portraits on the wall of gappy smiles! In this story the tooth fairy doesn’t like the cold, and the wind whirls up her knickers, whereas Santa’s bottom gets stuck in the child’s window. I love the pages in which Santa’s huge face takes over the entire page, and the daintiness with which he tries to leave the tooth fairy her own Christmas present. A real joy to read. You can purchase it here.

fairytale hairdresser and father christmas
The Fairytale Hairdresser and Father Christmas by Abi Longstaff and Lauren Beard
Another not entirely new book (published last year), but part of the fun series about Kittie Lacey, the Fairytale Hairdresser, that likes to splash with the glitter whatever the time of year. Like every other hairdresser, Kittie’s busiest time is Christmas. When she makes a home visit to Father Christmas to trim his beard and tend to all the elves, she discovers the Snow Queen has stolen all the presents.

Together with her hairdryer (isn’t it amazing what hairdryers can do?), and Father Christmas, Kitty melts the Snow Queen’s heart and they all deliver the presents together.

Some hilarious illustrations make this a sure-fire winner – look carefully for the page on which The Snow Queen tries different outfits for the party (the onesie is great), and the presents all the fairytale characters receive for Christmas (particularly Snow White’s). A lovely Christmas book (and Lauren Beard has even drawn in Father Christmas’ utility room). Fun indeed. You can buy it here.