For the past six years, 24-hour news and social media have been beaming images of the Syrian war into our homes. We’ve seen and heard reports of levelled cities; of indignities heaped on asylum seekers pouring into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and farther afield in countries like Germany; of children rescued from bombed-out buildings or washed up dead on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. We’ve seen these things; so have our kids, and they have questions. In a spate of new and forthcoming books, authors and publishers are doing their best to try and come up with answers.
Attempting to respond to questions from her own school-aged kids about the war in Syria inspired illustrator Suzanne Del Rizzo to write My Beautiful Birds, a book about a young refugee. “I was having a really hard time talking about it in a non-scary sort of way,” says Del Rizzo. She started researching kid-friendly explanations of the crisis to share with her family and came across a UNICEF article about a boy in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp who kept a small bird coop behind his family’s caravan. With its theme of finding joy in unlikely places, Del Rizzo says she knew right away it was a story she wanted to explore in fiction.
Publishing in March with Pajama Press, My Beautiful Birds tells the story of Sami, a boy who flees with his family from Syria to a refugee camp. Using illustrations made of clay, polymer, and Plasticine, Del Rizzo depicts Sami’s journey through the desert while his homeland burns bright and thick in the background; we witness the boy’s initial despondency when he arrives in the crowded camp, and the swirling pastel sky and friends – avian and human – that eventually restore Sami’s hope.
Del Rizzo says she set out to craft more than just a beautiful book for kids; she wanted to provide them with a “window onto the world.” The reference nods to the oft-cited essay by Rudine Sims Bishop, which likens children’s literature to “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” in its ability to provide kids with new perspectives on the world, to inhabit those new perspectives through imagination, and to see themselves and their lives reflected “as part of the larger human experience.”
“Even though [kids] may not be leaving a war-torn country, they may have to move house because of divorce, or they may have found themselves caught in the wildfires of Alberta,” says Del Rizzo.
Seeing oneself as part of the wider culture is equally valuable for young refugees, says Lori Wilkinson, a sociology professor at the University of Manitoba with 20 years experience researching refugee settlement. Almost half of the more than 39,600 refugees who have arrived in Canada since 2015 are under the age of 18. Many of them now find themselves enrolled in Canadian schools and struggling to figure out their place in their new home. “Having the literature reflect their point of view is pretty important so that it makes them understand that they’re not alone, that their experience isn’t necessarily unique, and it gives them a better sense of fitting in,” Wilkinson says.
She points out that representations of the refugee experience typically fail to show the person behind the label. “We don’t tend to talk about refugees as whole human beings and we kind of neglect the fact that refugees don’t necessarily face a lifetime of trauma,” she says.
Writer Mary Beth Leatherdale and illustrator Eleanor Shakespeare address this complexity in their forthcoming book with Annick Press, Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees. The book recounts the true stories of five young people who fled conflict zones at various points in history. Each mini-profile includes photos of the young person, maps, timelines, direct quotes, and historical information. Importantly, they conclude with a follow-up that details the subjects’ post-settlement lives. The chapter on a boy named Mohamed, for instance, describes harrowing aspects of his escape to Italy from the Ivory Coast by way of human traffickers, but also offers glimmers of the life he lives now: we’re told he works as a hotel porter and mounts exhibits of his photography throughout Italy.
This balance was an essential part of the project from the beginning, says Annick editorial director Katie Hearn. “It offers a sense of knowing what happened to this person, whether that be the struggles that they faced, or the positive things that resulted from their journey. We wanted to make sure to include both,” she says.
By contrast, Second Story Press opts to focus on one particular aspect of the refugee experience in the forthcoming photo book Where Will I Live? by Rosemary McCarney, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. McCarney introduces young readers to her topic by imagining the questions a child might have if forced from their home: “Will I be able to sleep in the same place every night? Will my new bed be just for me? The questions accompany full-page photographs curated from UN projects in refugee communities in places such as South Sudan, Greece, Myanmar, and Hungary.
Though never graphic, the material is at times challenging, but intentionally so, says Second Story publisher Margie Wolfe. “This kind of book is important because it’s not a story,” she says. “We wanted kids to realize that these were real faces, real people, real children.”
Books about the refugee experience published before 2000 have mainly looked back to the Second World War. While current releases are more likely to address contemporary conflicts and refugee crises, some publishers are making a point of maintaining the windows onto the past. Publishing in March with Tradewind Books, illustrator Kathryn E. Shoemaker and writer Irene N. Watts’s Seeking Refuge (a follow-up to their 2008 title, Good-bye Marianne) is a graphic novel about a Jewish girl relocated from Berlin to Britain via the Kindertransport as Europe stood on the brink of war in 1938. In the months after her arrival in London, 11-year-old Marianne is sent to foster homes where she is treated as a housekeeper, pariah, and – in one Welsh household – a couple’s second chance at a daughter. All the while she is shamed for her accent, and scolded for speaking of her family and the rising conflict on the continent.
Shoemaker sees clear parallels between Britain in the late 1930s and the hyper-nationalist rhetoric surging through Europe today. “The whole story is very timely in terms of what’s going on with immigration and refugees, with anti-Semitism and nationalism and a rise of a sort of Nazism in Europe,” she says.
As the number of refugees grows worldwide, it’s increasingly important that artists and publishers find engaging and balanced ways to explain the harsh realities of war, forced relocation, and anti-refugee sentiment. What publishers like those featured here are calling for is not a publishing trend, but a thoughtful representation of the world today. As Wolfe puts it: “Our task is to give children some understanding of what is going on around them. It’s our duty.”