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Children’s Books About the Refugee Crisis

How can parents even begin to explain the refugee crisis to children and young adults? Here, award-winning children’s author Gill Lewis shares her selection of vital primers – from simple picture books to challenging graphic novels – and discusses the role of ‘informed storytelling’ in describing this fraught and fragile human experience

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  • 1

    Small Finds a Home
    by Celestine and the Hare

  • 2

    The Arrival
    by Shaun Tan

  • 3

    Alpha 
    by Bessora Barroux

  • 4

    After Tomorrow
    by Gillian Cross

  • 5

    In The Sea There Are Crocodiles
    by Fabio Geda

Gill Lewis

After realising her childhood dream of becoming a vet, Gill Lewis worked in the UK and overseas, everywhere from Africa to the Arctic. Gill’s books for children – Sky Hawk, White Dolphin, Moon Bear, Scarlet Ibis, Gorilla Dawn and Story Like the Wind – were all published to critical acclaim and have been translated into many languages. Lewis won the Little Rebels Award in 2015 for Scarlet Ibis, the prestigious Environmental Prize for Children's Literature in Germany for Moon Bear, and has twice won the US Green Earth Book Award.

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Gill Lewis

After realising her childhood dream of becoming a vet, Gill Lewis worked in the UK and overseas, everywhere from Africa to the Arctic. Gill’s books for children – Sky Hawk, White Dolphin, Moon Bear, Scarlet Ibis, Gorilla Dawn and Story Like the Wind – were all published to critical acclaim and have been translated into many languages. Lewis won the Little Rebels Award in 2015 for Scarlet Ibis, the prestigious Environmental Prize for Children's Literature in Germany for Moon Bear, and has twice won the US Green Earth Book Award.

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Why do you think children and young adults should have an understanding of the refugee experience? Why is it important that there are books for children that explore this distressing and frightening human experience?

In my novel A Story Like the Wind it was important to me to demonstrate the importance of freedom. I write about the need to ‘sing a song of freedom for those who do not know they need it yet’. We are always going to have to defend our rights. We should never become complacent as tragedy, war and upheaval can strike in any country.

Stories of war and upheaval are all around us – in the media. The refugee experience is here and now. Unless we wrap our children up in cotton wool and protect them from all media they are going to see images and hear stories about refugees. Personally, I think it is right that they do.

However, I also think that how they hear or see these stories is important. In the media, I suppose it depends on the news source, but we are often faced with a very biased view. The general media often uses words like ‘hordes’ and ‘swarm’ – really quite vile words – in their descriptions. This is language that tends to incite more hatred, more prejudice and more misunderstanding. And fear. This type of reporting acts to raise a fear of the unknown because it isn’t actually very descriptive.

This language distances everyone, including children, from the real people that are in this situation. It becomes an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation. We are told of ‘swarms coming over’ but the reality is quite different. The reality is that human beings are struggling in very difficult circumstances, they are fleeing their own country because of circumstances that are beyond their control.

“There will be children who have been refugees reading these books. In this way, these books allow their voices to be heard”

It is, therefore, vital that we do have access to books (and other well-informed sources of information) that provide the facts and more depth of understanding. These facts can be adapted sensitively for appropriate age groups. Some of the harsher truths are extremely distressing. At the same time there will be children who have been refugees reading these books. In this way, these books allow their voices to be heard.

Children’s books can be a powerful tool for encouraging empathy. Sharing, empathy and understanding, especially going into school, is at the heart of what this is all about. Connecting people and understanding another person’s point of view; bringing compassion and trust between communities; sharing our differences as well as our common humanity. Learning this at a young age can be life changing.

Books are shared and available in schools and libraries – in the heart of our communities – so they are the ideal medium in which to explore these ideas. Books that deal with difficult subjects, as my choices do, are also a tool to help parents explain some of the news stories to their children.

Tell us about your first book.

The first book I’ve chosen is for very young children – but any age would enjoy it – and really is it a simple story about kindness. It is called Small Finds a Home by Celestine and the Hare.

I loved it because it reminded me of my childhood and playing outside. The illustrations are made up of photographs of felted characters. It’s a very gentle book full of cheeky fun. It’s a story about a little weasel who finds a lost small creature. There aren’t any questions like ‘who are you?’ or ‘where are you from?’. It is simply a description of acceptance of someone for who they are, and not expecting anything in return for this kindness.

My children adored this story. And I think they enjoyed the lack of cynicism and the simple message about the joy of generosity. It also inspired us to photograph our own teddies and toys as a way of making up our own stories. 

It’s not directly about the refugee crisis – but it is about not judging others and about the rewards of kindness.

Your second book is The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Why have you included this one?

I couldn’t not include this book, or graphic novel, in my choices. I particularly love the fact that such a wide range of ages can get something from reading this book. You can read it all in one go, dip in and out or just look at some of the pictures. It doesn’t matter, as there is so much to absorb or discuss on every page.

Right from the beginning of this story there is a sense of creeping dread. We don’t know what this dread is. As the reader you are following the character’s journey from their familiar life to their arrival in a whole new place where life is totally different. It has a dream-like quality which captures how surreal the refugee experience must be at times.

The reader is asked what it might be like to be dropped into an alien culture. The illustrations capture the subtleties as well as strangeness of the refugee experience. The illustrations draw on historic fact and familiar images and remind us that in many ways we are all immigrants. Or descended from immigrants.

I read it with one of my daughters who was about nine at the time and she noticed an entirely new story in the pictures which I hadn’t spotted at all. I found this delightful. In fact, every time I look at it I notice something new.

I found impressive the way he weaves layers of complex meaning, using multiple cultural and historic references, into what is really a simple story of displacement.

It is one of those books that grows and grows in your mind. It stays with you long after you’ve read the last page. The fact that it is only told through illustrations makes it accessible to anyone, no matter what their language or cultural background.

There is a benefit here for young children who spend so much time being taught to read – it must be a relief to be able to immerse themselves in the visual storytelling and not feel patronised. Because it is a demanding, important story. 

 

It is. And even so, it’s a safe version. It’s not going to disturb or distress the reader. It is really brilliantly balanced in that sense.

Your next book – Alpha by Bessora Barroux – seems less ‘safe.’

It’s a much darker book – a very stark, grim book that pulls no punches. It isn’t easy or comfortable at all.

It’s another graphic novel, crafted with sensitivity and intelligence.  This medium seems very effective for telling these exceptionally emotional or painful stories. 

There may be some children ready for this at ten years old but parents need to make that judgement. There are distressing images in the book. Children do have access to distressing information and images – found on the internet or in the news and the media – and this information is often just a glimpse with no explanation, no history, nothing linking it to real lives in a meaningful way. That is the worst way to come into contact with this type of information about the world.

Here, although it’s not a comfortable read, you do see the story behind the distress, revealed as you follow Alpha’s journey and all the events taking place around him. It tells a devastating true story about many people’s journeys and the hardships they have to bear.

“It has a dream-like quality which captures how surreal the refugee experience must be at times”

I was at the Islington Centre last week. The people there were saying that they hadn’t made the boat journey but instead had made the desert journey. They explained that in the desert the journey was just as terrifying as at sea. To be left in the desert would mean certain death just as a capsizing boat would. They were as isolated in an ocean of sand as in an ocean of water.

This story feels like so many people’s story. The terrible uncertainty of everything. Alpha’s wife and son have gone on ahead of him. There is no contact. This is so painfully beyond my understanding; I don’t know how people cope. The illustrations are very dramatic – pen and ink, very simple lines, simple splashes of colour. They effectively describe the boat journey. When someone falls over the side, it’s so quick, just a splash, and then they are gone.

Part of me hesitated about putting this book on my list. It paints a very dark picture. It contains a bleak hope but it is so slim. Things don’t work out for Alpha. This is important to understand, too – in real life there aren’t always happy endings. And this is how things are for so many people.

Yet this book doesn’t exploit the hardship or sensationalise the stories. It is incredibly moving.

Yes, and there are lighter human stories. One of the characters wants to be a footballer, and on page 53 he is described maintaining his form in the face of unimaginable hardship. This is how he retains his hope for his future.

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It also shows how war and conflict robs bright young things of their futures. How devastating it must be to have an education, to have such hopes and then to have them removed so forcibly. To have that taken away is so cruel.

It asks us to compare our lives with those of others. Which leads us neatly to your fourth book, After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross.

Most of the refugee stories we see are stories about someone else making a journey to where we are. These books are great because they put us in someone else’s shoes. They give us a window through to someone else’s world. But After Tomorrow does something else. And it’s really very clever. After Tomorrow doesn’t put up a window, it puts up a mirror. It asks us to consider what if this happened here, in Britain? In this story the banks have collapsed. Food is being hoarded. Law and order has largely broken down. We join the family at this point. It is a terrifying read. If I was a child I would feel that this could happen.

It also asks how we, the reader, would react? How would we respond in these circumstances?

Yes, and it comes back to trying to look after your family. How do you look after those around you? The family have to get on a truck and go on a dangerous journey, ending up in a refugee camp with the villagers looking on with contempt. Feeling unwanted, yet having no choice but to ask for the kindness of others. It’s a poignant book and, while terrifying, is full of hope and some great characters. One I particularly liked is a kind of earth-mother type who generates a sense of togetherness.

It is a powerful book that asks important questions of the reader. Simple things like, when it starts raining how do you keep dry? Which queue do you get into?

There’s a sense of urgency, yet you have no control. Others have control over you. I think this creates an atmosphere of unease throughout the book – a fear of losing your identity. You don’t know if you’ll ever be able to return home, or to any kind of familiarity.

Why do these books resonate with you so strongly?

The broader picture is knowing how fragile freedom is. How easy it is to take this for granted. Yet, when you look historically, it is easy to see that we haven’t always been so lucky. I am aware that the next generation needs to understand that freedom needs protection.

These books show what a complicated web the world is today. We have a global responsibility for the displacement of people. The need for certain resources can cause tragedy and create war. In my book Gorilla Dawn I explore how the global demand for certain minerals, that are key components in the manufacture of mobile phones, has perpetuated civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We have a global responsibility to ensure that our supply chains are conflict free. If we want a safe world we have to take these steps.

“We have a global responsibility to ensure that our supply chains are conflict free”

One of the ways to ensure a safe future for your family is through education – books are very much at the heart of education. There are so many threads and factors about the refugee crisis and all of them affect us directly. Books are often a child’s first glimpse of the outside world. Education is central to empowerment – as are safety and love. Children, all children deserve this.

The search for a better future is very much at the heart of your final choice, In the Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda.

The author says this is effectively a work of fiction. But it is closely based on the true story narrated to him by a refugee, Enaiatollah Akbadi. In the foreward, Fabio Geda says that writing the story allowed Enaiatollah to take possession of his story. This is very important to many refugees I have spoken to.
What is interesting about this book is that we are regularly and suddenly pulled out of the story by snippets of interviews or interjections and questions from the author himself. For example, on page 93 Geda interrupts the story to ask Enaiatollah a question:
How can you just change your life like that? Just say goodbye one morning.

You just do Fabio. I read somewhere that the decision to emigrate comes from a need to breathe. 

The hope of a better life is stronger than any other feeling. My mother decided it was better to know I was in danger far from her; but on the way to a different future, than to know I was in danger near her; but stuck in the same old fear.

The timing of these interjections is perfect. Partly because I was thinking of a similar question as I read it. And this draws the reader even more closely into the story.

It makes you think about the enormity of the decision to leave home. And how will you ever create a new home. It is also a very readable book.

These books all ask us to explore the importance of empathy and understanding others – do you think they have a power beyond this?

There is a safety net for a child when they understand how empathy works, because if you can understand others then it follows that other people have the ability to understand you, too. Once you realise this it is easier to be tolerant. And tolerance brings happiness and peace.

The other thing these stories do is allow us to see the individuals in the news stories, not just the anonymous ‘refugees.’ This is vital for our understanding of the global tragedy.

The act of sharing our stories, even though many of these stories are devastating, is still an important thing. The more we can learn about other people’s lives the richer our own lives will become. Fundamentally, it is about widening our communities and sharing our stories. Stories are, after all, what makes us human.

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Interview by Zoe Greaves

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Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by visiting our site before you make purchases from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.