We live in a booming time for graphic novels in children’s and YA literature. It’s hard to keep up with new titles sometimes, even when you write about children’s books for a living as I do. But I’ve got three today that stand out on shelves for the big topics they tackle—none other than the Syrian refugee crisis, gender conformity, and the patriarchy.
Escape from Syria comes to readers by way of journalist Samya Kullab, freelance cartoonist and illustrator Jackie Roche, and colorist Mike Freiheit. Kullab is based in the Middle East and writes about politics. She has worked in Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, the West Bank and Gaza, and she wrote for three years for Lebanon’s The Daily Star. That’s to say that she’s someone well-versed in all things Middle East.
The story Kullab tells here is a fictionalized one, and it comes from the point of view of a young girl named Amina. But it’s a tale that could be true for countless refugee families during the Syrian uprising and subsequent refugee crisis. It opens in 2013 in Aleppo City, where readers meet Amina, running home from school. She’s excitedly telling a family friend about the A she received on her test that day when her life is literally blown wide open from a bomb strike. “That day shattered our lives,” Amina says.
Fast forward to Toronto, Canada, in 2017, to which she, her father, her mother, and her younger brother have emigrated. Just as quickly, on the very next page, Kullab takes readers back to Aleppo City—but this time it’s before the government-led bomb strike. Kullab also delves into background information for readers. “No one ever thought war would come to Syria,” Amina explains, and then lays out the rise of the one-party state in Syria.
In this way, Kullab jumps to and from various points on the timeline of Amina’s life, all the while educating readers about the events that led up to the refugee crisis. Readers follow her and her family to a camp in Lebanon and are there for the heart-breaking moments of their now dangerous lives: Her brother becomes gravely ill; Amina herself must quit school; the family runs out of money; one of her friends is married off at the age of 13; criminal smugglers beat up Amina’s father; and much more. Kullab and Roche do not hold back: The story authentically captures the violence and harrowing moments of the family’s experience. As it should be. The more poignant, heart-wrenching moments, many between Amina and her parents, will linger with readers, and the book will go far in helping many American middle and high-schoolers understand the complexities of the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Witch Boy is the compelling story of a magical family, one in which the girls learn witchery and the boys are trained in shapeshifting. And that’s the way it is: No exceptions, please. But Aster is a boy, and not only is he drawn to the girls’ lessons, but he consistently fails in his shapeshifting efforts. He manages to eavesdrop on some of the witchery lessons and finds that he can cast spells quite effectively. There’s only one person with whom he shares his talents: Charlie, the girl from the non-magical part of town. The two become fast friends.
Mix in one particularly nefarious family demon, and you’ve got Aster’s opportunity to show his family that he, despite his inability to shapeshift, can help out with his witchery acumen. This notion that boys can do what they are specifically prescribed not to do is a revelation for both of Aster’s parents. Traditions be damned.
None of this comes across as heavy-handed at all. And Ostertag’s world is so vividly formed with memorable, well-developed characters that readers will want to re-visit. I certainly hope we get more stories about this family.
Finally, there is Pashmina from Nidhi Chanani, who was born in India and raised in California. It’s the story of another Indian-American girl named Priyanka, whose single mother, raised in India, never talks about her past, including why she left India to come to America. Priyanka, however, longs to know all about her family history. One day, she finds a magic pashmina that can transport her anywhere, and it is via this fabric that she visits India. And any time she travels, the graphic novel blooms in color, as opposed to the neutral gray tones of Priyanka’s real life.
Fortunately, she is later able to visit her aunt in India (the real India) after relentless requests, and it is here that she learns details about her mother’s life. She is also compelled, while there, to explore notions of patriarchy and her mother’s own self-empowerment in breaking away from that. It all adds up to an engrossing narrative about family heritage that is culturally specific yet will have universal appeal to middle-grade readers.
Three big subjects wrapped up in three spellbinding tales. Happy reading.
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.