What if one were to imagine the refugee experience from the eyes of a couple of imaginative, ever-positive, Zen-like kids? Sounds improbable, but the picture book Story Boat pulls it off with aplomb. Written by award-winning author Kyo Maclear, this soothing, lyrical, abstract tale begins with a simple statement: “Here we are.” A group of people walk in a line. Some carry suitcases, others push or pull carts, and a few hold babies in their arms. Bundled for warmth, the travellers trudge, their cheeks red with cold. This gentle introduction posits many possibilities for the meaning of “here”: it can be an X scratched in the dirt, or a girl waving a book. “Here isn’t always the same,” Maclear writes. “Sometimes it’s here just for a moment.”
The people are refugees, but the word “refugee” doesn’t appear. Similarly, the story doesn’t say the young protagonists are brother and sister, as noted in the inside jacket flap. Indeed the more harrowing details of the refugee experience are omitted, leaving space for the children’s perspective. There, positives outweigh negatives, and imagination and symbols offer respite from the terrors and hardships adults know too well from news media.
The two young heroes find strength and hope in simple objects and shared experiences. In a comforting scene, they and their feline companion sit with huge round mugs on their laps. Despite the constant change in their daily lives, they “sip, sip, sip, / Sippy, sip, sip / Ahhhh / From this cup.”
Then, with the turn of a page, fantastical elements emerge as the trio bounces over waves inside a cup-shaped boat. Their blanket, “patterned and soft,” forms a sail for the floating cup; a lamp, “big and bright,” is a lighthouse showing the way; and a flower, “bold and sweet,” provides a sturdy ladder that affords a distant view.
Maclear shifts between the children’s fantasy adventure and realistic scenes of a refugee camp, a long-distance trek, and an actual raft crossing until, at last, the migrants land and are greeted by concerned citizens.
The illustrations by Iranian-American artist Rashin Kheiriyeh present a warm palette of mostly grey-blue and tangerine. Crayon lines smudge into softness and deft pencil strokes depict buttons, buckles, children’s sketches, lowered eyes, and sweet smiles. Birds in flight accompany the travellers throughout, adding another heartening symbol of hope.
Elegantly composed and beautifully depicted, Story Boat is the perfect vehicle to spark sensitive discussions and foster compassion for newcomers.