Some children have lived with war all of their lives and deserve picture books in which they see themselves and their lives reflected; this is, as the great Rudine Sims Bishop once wrote, the notion of books as mirrors. But while children in this country may not live in a world with war on American soil, they may very well be curious about children in war-torn countries. Here, books are serving as windows or, as Bishop also puts it, sliding glass doors into other worlds, other realities.
We’ve seen a handful of picture books in recent years about war and refugees, but Tomorrow, which arrived on shelves last month, comes from a woman who is herself from Damascus, Syria (and now living in the U.K.). Her name is Nadine Kaadan, and this book was originally published in 2012 and has been translated from Arabic by Kaadan herself. Nowhere in the story is Syria specifically named, but in a closing note from Kaadan, addressed to readers, she writes: “I wrote this story because I saw children like Yazan in my hometown of Damascus. Their lives were changing, and they couldn’t understand why.”
Yazan is a boy. We see him on the cover with an almost-smile, war-torn buildings behind him. On the title page, he is anxious, a look of fear on his face. In both images, his bike is by his side. In the first spread, we read that he no longer went to the park or even saw his friend next door. “Everything around him was changing,” Kaadan writes. He’s no longer going to school; his mother, a painter, is glued to the television; and his father is also fretful. No one explains to him what is going on and why there is such stress and despair in their lives.
When Yazan can’t take it anymore, he heads outside with his bike. The park is his destination. But he is shocked to discover empty streets. When his father finds him and they return to Yazan’s mother, instead of being scolded, Yazan is met with a warm hug. His mother tells him, “Don’t ever EVER go out of the house by yourself again!” It is here that she finally gives her child an explanation as to what is going on. People are fighting in the streets, she tells him, and it is not safe.
Kaadan plays with color, perspective, and scale to accentuate Yazan’s fears. After he heads outside, for instance, he is dwarfed by his home, drenched in blood-red hues. When his father finds him on the street, he himself is portrayed as one of the tall, broken buildings that surround Yazan. Kaadan also doesn’t shy from the use of shadows to portray the fear dominating the boy’s life. In one spread, his mother watches television and grim shadows fly from the screen, consuming the room in monster-like configurations. There is no sugar-coating here. Kaadan knows firsthand that war is terrifying. In the end, there is hope: Yazan and his mother decide to paint the very walls of his bedroom, bringing the park inside. “Soon, you’ll be able to go outside and play again,” she tells him.
“Today,” writes Kaadan in the closing note,” we wait for a time when ‘tomorrow’ can be a better day for all Syrian children.” This book is their story, and it can spark discussions for American children about what is happening in Syria and what life is like for children of war. But it’s not as if American children can’t relate to anything else in this narrative. They can also relate to caretakers obsessively watching the news and/or so wrapped up in worry that they are not providing clarity for their children about what is causing them stress. The story reminds children everywhere that they are worthy of answers and do not deserve to be left in the dark, no matter what.
Author Nicola Davies also does not hold back in The Day War Came, which has been published in association with Help Refugees. Like Tomorrow, this is a book best read with children — at their side to answer any questions that may arise or ease any worries. In her closing author’s note in this book, Davies explains that in 2016, the government of the U.K. refused sanctuary to 3,000 child refugees; at this time, she heard a story about a refugee child being refused entry to a school due to lack of a chair for her to sit on. Davies was then inspired to write a poem, the very text of this book. (It was first published at the website of the Guardian, and in response, hundreds of people posted images of empty chairs, along with the hashtag #3000chairs.)
Rebecca Cobb has illustrated this picture book adaptation of the poem, which begins with “the day war came.” A content girl enjoys what she considers a normal day with her family, and she heads to school. When war comes, right in the middle of class, it is “all smoke and fire and noise that I didn’t understand.” Here, the pages are consumed by dark grey smoke. The war reduces her town to rubble, takes her family, and leaves her with nothing. “I can’t say the words that tell you about the blackened hole that had been my home,” Davies writes. And she does not shy from the realities of war: “I was ragged, bloody, all alone,” she writes of the girl, Cobb depicting the rubble, flames, and the utterly abandoned girl, brought to her knees in shock and sadness, in stark detail.
Thus begins the girl’s journey toward nothing; she only wants to flee the disaster and destruction. She walks; she rides on the backs of trucks; she finds herself on a crowded, leaking boat. (In this spread, where Cobb paints the drenched girl approaching a shore, she even depicts an abandoned pair of children’s shoes on the shore. It is sobering.) Though she runs, the girl can’t escape the war. “It had taken possession of my heart.” After the girl, dirty and alone, is turned away from a school (“there is no chair for you to sit on”), she very nearly gives up — that is, until a boy brings her a chair, welcoming her to his school.
Just as in Tomorrow, the book ends with optimism, an indication that life will take a turn for the better for this girl, now that someone has reached out to her in kindness. Both books capture the difficult, arduous realities of war — but make room for some sunlight peeking around the corner on the final spreads. Hope wins.
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.
THE DAY WAR CAME. Text copyright © 2018 by Nicola Davies. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Rebecca Cobb. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.
TOMORROW. Text, Illustration & Translation © Nadine Kaadan 2018. American edition published in 2018 by Lantana Publishing Ltd., UK. Illustration reproduced by permission of Lantana.