The Journey From Here to There: Children's Picture Books about Refugees
Many people have come to Canada as refugees throughout the 20th century and more and more in recent years, in times that reflect the global waves of wars, violence and conflicts, poverty and distress. The refugee story is the story of humanity, our neighbours, friends, elders, communities at large – they have all experienced and told stories of displacement and suffering and also of helpers, love and kindness.
There has been a lot of media coverage about the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the arrival of refugee families in Canada. As of January 2, 2017 Canada has welcomed 39,671 Syrian refugees in just over 13 months (source: Government of Canada: Canada resettled Syrian refuges).
Discussing global issues with children can be challenging. When we take the time to talk to children in age-appropriate ways, we help them feel safe and teach them compassion. They become more informed, educated and empowered as well. If you aren't sure how to talk to kids about the current refugee crisis, start with a book. Public libraries have many wonderful children's books about refugees from various times and parts of the world.
Nizar Ali Badr - Syrian artist, illustrator of the book Stepping stones': A Refugee Family's Journey [Photo credit: Syriaartasso.com]
There is one Canadian picture book that I found to be very moving and poignant – Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey, a story told in stones, illustrated by Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr. You can see a sample of the artist's artwork above. A young girl and her family are forced to flee their village to escape the civil war in Syria and make their way to Europe. The book is bilingual, in English and Arabic, and the story of the book itself is even more fascinating. Canadian author Margriet Ruurs saw the artwork on Facebook and was very moved by it. After months of searching, she connected online with the artist Nizar Ali Badr who still lives in his home town Latakia, Syria. Nizar Ali Badr is an established Syrian sculptor, whose stone sculptures tell complex stories. His art captures the tragic and hopeful moments many Syrian families endure after fleeing the country's ongoing violence. Here is the full CBC story on this most extraordinary Canadian picture book.
Wordless Picture Books to Share with Refugee Children
Check out a wide selection of outstanding wordless or "silent" picture books on the library's website: stories without words. In another TPL blog post: Silence is Golden: The Astonishing Power of Wordless Books to Inspire, Delight and Unite Us, you can learn about the Island of Lampedusa off the coast of Italy, a transit point for many migrants and refugees, and Lampedusa's first children's library of "silent books", established by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) in response to the waves of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Wordless books are a great choice for any young reader and book lovers of any age, but even more so suitable to share with young refugee children, who come from a variety of cultural backgrounds and speak different languages. Find out more about IBBY's Silent Books project and feel free to use this pdf booklet created by IBBY Sweden which gives you ideas about how to use "silent books" with children. Wordless books bridge over barriers of language, culture, age and intellectual ability with the power of their artwork and narration – and help bring more tolerance and understanding among people of the world. Toronto Public Library was honoured to host the travelling IBBY Silent Books exhibition in the fall of 2015.
Picture Books About Refugees
Below is a list of several excellent picture books about refugee children to share with your family. Some will also be helpful to read in class and among newcomer friends. You can place a hold on them and borrow them from Toronto Public Library.
Four Feet, Two Sandals, by Karen l. Williams, 2007: Two young Afghani girls living in a refugee camp in Pakistan share a precious pair of sandals brought by relief workers.
How I Learned Geography, by Uri Shulevitz, 2008: As he spends hours studying his father's world map, a young boy escapes the hunger and misery of refugee life. Based on the author's childhood in Kazakhstan, where he lived as a Polish refugee during World War II.
Journey Home, by Lawrence McKay, 1998: Mai returns to Vietnam, the land of her mother's birth, to discover both a new country and something about herself.
The Journey is an exceptional recent book that deals with the heartbreaking topic of refugee families. Published in Great Britain in 2016, this debut picture book by Francesca Sanna, an Italian illustrator and graphic designer based in Switzerland, tells a very moving story in a loving fairy-tale style with striking illustrations. This book will stay with you for a long time. The story of a widowed mother fleeing a war-torn homeland with her two children clearly reflects, without naming places and time, the harrowing and very real experiences of today's Syrian refugees and others crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.
Brothers in Hope, by Mary Williams, 2005: Eight-year-old Garang, orphaned by a civil war in Sudan, finds the inner strength to help lead other boys as they trek hundreds of miles seeking safety in Ethiopia, then Kenya, and finally in the United States.
Oskar and the Eight Blessings, by Richard Simon 2015: A young Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany arrives in New York City on the seventh night of Hanukkah and receives small acts of kindness while exploring the city.
The Long Road, by Luis Garay, 1997: Jose and his mother flee their home in a Latin American village when civil war breaks out. They travel on foot, always at night, seeking shelter "with friends, in a church, even in a shack full of feathery chickens." At last they cross the border to safety. Based on Garay's personal experiences after leaving Nicaragua; in 1988 he emigrated to Toronto, Canada.
Anna's Goat, by Janice Kulyk Keefer, 2001: The plight of a refugee family forced into the European countryside during World War II and the unique way their adoptive village helps them cope with their desperate circumstances. The story ends with a grown-up Anna, now living in Canada, creating clay sculptures of animals, and especially of nanny goats.
The Roses in My Carpet, by local Toronto author Rukhsana Khan, 1988: This very mature realistic story follows a day in the life of a young Afghani boy in a refugee camp who takes solace in the beautiful carpets he weaves.
How Many Days to America: A Thanksgiving Story, by Eve Bunting, 1988: After the soldiers come, Papa tells his family that they must leave everything behind and set sail for America. The journey across the Caribbean is dangerous and long, and our narrator and his little sister keep asking, "Just how many days is it to America?". Well-known children's author Eve Bunting, herself an immigrant from Ireland, shares the story of a new generation of pilgrims who are willing to risk their lives to look for freedom in America.
The Color of Home, by Mary Hoffman, 2002: a moving picture book follows first-grader Hassan through his first few days at school. Hassan has only recently arrived in the United States after he and his family were forced to flee Somalia, and he deeply misses the colourful landscape of his former home in Africa.
And my other favourite book in this selection is "My Two Blankets" by Irena Kobald, 2015. This multicultural story of friendship is about leaving home, moving to a foreign and strange place, and finding a new friend. Kobald is an Australian illustrator and a multilingual Austrian immigrant to Australia, who teaches aboriginal children in Australian outback communities.
Refuge by British author Anne Booth (2016) is a moving retelling of the nativity story from a perspective emphasizing the struggle of Mary and Joseph as refugees relying on the kindness of strangers. Booth wrote Refuge to raise money for children fleeing war and conflict today.
If you are also curious about books for older school-aged children and teens, here is a list to start with, compiled by American youth librarian, writer and blogger Kelly Bjensen: Stories about Refugees: A YA Reading List.
From free library cards, welcoming safe library spaces and books in many languages to ESL classes, settlement workers, employment workshops, Toronto Public Library welcomes everyone and partners with many community agencies to assist newcomers.
- How Libraries Are Helping Newcomers Adjust to Life in Toronto, by Nikhil Sharma, Torontoist, November 16, 2016.
For more information on library services for refugees in Toronto, please visit three previous library blog posts on New to Canada:
- Welcome to Our Friends From Syria, Dec 2015
- Library Resources for our Friends from Syria, January 2016
- Arabic and English Together on One Page: Dual Language Books at Toronto Public Library, April 2016
Syrian refugees settle down in Canada with the help of organizations including COSTI Immigrant Services, funded by the Government of Canada. March 21, 2016.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize winner Elie Wiesel once said: "No human being is illegal".
Seeking asylum is a human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was signed in Paris in 1948 was drafted as a result of the tragedies of the Second World War. Human Right No. 14 is about refugees: "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."
We hope that you find the recommended picture books helpful in better understanding the refugee experience.