Back in September, I wrote here at Kirkus about Francesca Sanna’s The Journey, released in September by Flying Eye Books. It’s a story of the plight–and flight–of refugees. I’ve watched with interest this year the release of a small handful of other picture books about refugee struggles and want to take a look at them today. There’s a little bit of something for everyone here, both in storytelling and artistic medium.
Let’s start with a moving offering from Groundwood Books, Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds, written by Jorge Argueta and illustrated by Alfonso Ruano. Argueta is a native of El Salvador and a Pipil Nahua Indian (the Pipils are an indigenous people who live in western El Salvador) and came to the U.S. in the 1980s during El Salvador’s Civil War. Though he lives in San Francisco now, he evidently spent most of his life in El Salvador. Illustrator Ruano lives and works in Madrid.
This is a series of free verse poems in both Spanish and English, describing as explained in Argueta’s opening Author’s Note–“the odyssey that thousands of boys, girls and young people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico undertake when they flee their countries because of extreme poverty and fear of violence.” These people give up everything, he notes, in the hope of a better life. The poems in this collection address these themes with, as the starred Kirkus review notes, “tenderness and humanity.” What an excellent addition this makes to school and public library collections, as well as classrooms.
There are bittersweet poems when the book opens about the neighborhoods in El Salvador that children leave, followed by a darker poem about La Campanera, the tattooed men and women with “hard eyes” that come out at night. (“They might bite me.”) There are children who say goodbye to friends; children crossing borders, remembering their homes and schoolyards (“Who knows / when I will see them again. / I look at the sky / and think, / We are like the clouds.”); refugees frightened of Bestia, the name for the trains that migrants travel on; and children who sleep on the desert sand, dreaming of family left behind. The poems are vivid and accessible, and Ruano’s earth-toned acrylic illustrations show people on the move who are both fragile and strong at the same time.
If it’s something a bit dreamier and more abstract you want (not to mention significantly more minimalistic), try Rebecca Young’s Teacup, illustrated by Matt Ottley, also the recipient of a starred Kirkus review and originally published in Australia in 2015. Here, we meet a young boy who leaves home with only a book, a bottle, a blanket, and a teacup. In this teacup is “some earth from where he used to play.” We are never told why precisely the boy leaves, why he weathers storms on sea to find and create a new home, making this story more of an overarching allegory for immigration. This inherent mystery, though, makes this one a conversation-starter for young readers, and it would serve as an effective writing prompt as well.
Impossibly, a tree grows in the boy’s teacup. After he makes it to land and makes himself a new home, a girl with a broken eggcup arrives, Young wrapping up the story with questions in our minds about what may happen next. Ottley’s illustrations here are cinematic, delicate, and detailed; some of these landscape spreads, in particular, will take your breath away. Ottley, who was born in Papua New Guinea and now lives in Australia, is definitely one to watch here in the States.
For your contemplative child, the one who ponders life’s endless existential questions, there is Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen’s Why Am I Here?, illustrated by Akin Duzakin and first published in Norway in 2014. This is a series of what-if questions a young child (could be a boy or a girl) asks, all about a sense of home or placement and children who have less-than-stellar living arrangements and have to pick up and leave. There’s wondering about homeless children, who probably dream of being somewhere else, the child thinks. There’s also wondering about the universe and “if there is anyone who knows why we’re here.” In between those two things, the child considers children who hide from war; leave home because of war; migrate from place to place; have homes destroyed due to natural disasters; and more. Why doesn’t this happen to me? the child wonders. What would it be like to live like that? No answers are provided, except to say in the end: “Maybe … I am my own house. And I will be at home wherever I am.”
The last and most striking one I’ve seen of late is Margriet Ruurs’ Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, illustrated by Nizar Ali Badr. I have blogger Betsy Bird to thank for telling me about the existence of this one, published last month in both Arabic and English by Orca Book Publishers. I was so intrigued after hearing and reading about it that I purchased a copy right away. This one, with artwork composed entirely of stones, has an unusual path to publication. The story is that Ruurs saw one of Badr’s illustrations on Facebook and was struck by how much emotion he conveyed with mere rocks. “Who is the artist who can breathe such life into solid rock?” she wondered. She searched Badr’s name and learned he is a Syrian, “and it soon became evident that much of his work was inspired by the war that has engulfed his country.”
Ruurs was determined to write a story to accompany Badr’s existing artwork. It took a while to reach him, but she persevered. Eventually, contracts were signed and a book was underway – one for which Badr eventually created new pieces.
Stepping Stones tells the story of war ravaging the lives of a young girl and her family. Ruurs conveys the happiness and warmth of the girl’s home, pre-war, and contrasts this with the uncertain life after bombings, a life where people die on their way to market. The girl and her family eventually leave: “We walked and walked and walked. … / I tried to hold Mama’s hand ….” They set sail on the sea, frightened, yet all ends well as they arrive at their “future. / New neighbors welcomed us with open arms.”
Badr’s bio notes that he retrieves the stones for his artwork from the beach where he lives in Latakia, Syria. It is remarkable the depth and fluidity he achieves with his rock compositions. This is a remarkable book, and you won’t see anything else quite like it this year.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.