Today we celebrate World Refugee Day. Here in the UK, there has a been a whole week of online events highlighting the positive contributions of refugees. As its focus, Refugee Week 2020 has taken the Simple Acts that we can all do to stand in solidarity with refugees around the world. One of these Simple Acts is to read a book around the topic of exile. Taking this as our inspiration, here are three recent world kid lit releases all about this topic.
Boundless Sky by Amanda Addison, illustrated by Manuela Adreani (Lantana Publishing)
Written originally in English, this beautiful picture book is a great way to introduce younger children to the topic of migration. It follows Bird, a swift that “fits in your hand”, as it sets out on its yearly migration. Addison cleverly weaves together the story of Bird’s migration and that of human migration. Bird stops off at an oasis on the way to Africa. A little girl, Leila, gives her water, but on the return flight, Leila isn’t there. Once Bird arrives at her destination, she once again encounters Leila, who is now living in a different part of the world.
One of the things I love about this picture book is that it can be used on different levels. For younger children, it is a gentle story of a bird and a girl. There are, however, elements within the illustrations that can act as important conversation starters with older children, for example, the small boat packed with people floating on the waves.
I also like that you can download some accompanying worksheets that can be used in conjunction with the story to really open up a discussion with the children. On the same page, you can also watch the author reading the book.
The Refuge by Sandra le Guen, illustrated by Stéphanie Nicolet, translated by Daniel Hahn (AmazonCrossing)
This picture book is more suited to an older reader than the previous picture book. The protagonist in this story is a girl called Jeannette who has a new classmate, Iliana, who is always looking at the sky. The two girls become friends and Iliana shares her love of the sky. The girls are encouraged in their interest of astronomy – it’s lovely to see girls engaging with science.
Iliana also tells Jeannette some of her story and Jeannette takes this home to tell her parents. The illustrations in this section are really clever: the boats on the sea become the pattern on Mom’s skirt and barbed wire is traced across Dad’s trousers. There are more details in this about the family’s journey to France, which again serves as a great conversation starter. At one point when the girls are spending the night in Jeannette’s tree house, gazing at the stars and planets, Iliana tells Jeannette the words she associates with the sky: “the sky is a refuge for everybody. No barriers, no borders.”
There has been criticism about books where the refugee character plays a secondary role in the story – in this case it is always Jeannette relaying what Iliana has told her, rather than hearing the story directly from Iliana herself – and I agree we need more books with a positive, strong refugee character taking centre stage, but books like this can helpful in nurturing children to respond positively to new arrivals in the classroom. This book encourages children to communicate despite language barriers, showing that friendship can blossom despite our apparent differences.
The Other Side – Stories of Central American Teen Refugees Who Dream of Crossing the Border by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated by Rosalind Harvey
This young adult book takes us to a different part of the world, away from perilous sea crossings but to a journey no less treacherous. It tells the true stories of teenagers who are trying to cross the border into the USA. The children, for that is what they are, come from different parts of Central America and at their time of crossing are aged between 10 and 17. These short stories give an insight into the lives these youngsters are fleeing – gang violence, extortion, discrimination, poverty – and their experiences of trying to escape. In many cases they are trying to reach relatives in the USA. For one boy that person is his mother who he only knows from the sound of her voice; he hasn’t seen since he was six months old. Many of these young people are passed from person to person, vehicle to vehicle, along a seemingly endless chain, with the potential to end up being sent back to where they have come from.
One 14-year-old girl talks of the “freezer”, the term they use to refer to the immigration detention centres. In this centre, there is not enough space for everyone to sit down so they have to take it in turns to rest. Another teen tells of crossing a river where they witness a five-year-old girl get swept away by the current. They talk of fear, of vulnerability and of courage.
The Other Side was a finalist in the Kirkus Children’s Book Award 2019 and was called “a critical compilation of stories”. I would echo that sentiment.
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