A month ago, I, like many in the world, watched in disbelief and horror as scenes of refugees fleeing Afghanistan unfolded across our television screens, social media feeds, and in newspaper articles. One article, in particular, caught my attention: a few of the major US newspapers turned to what I thought was an unlikely source for help in evacuating Afghan coworkers: the Mexican government. And then I remembered this Perfect Picture Book sitting on my nightstand, waiting for me to reread and review it. It turns out that Mexico has a history of helping those from afar seeking refuge.
Title: Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War
Written By: María José Ferrada
Illustrated By: Ana Penyas
Translated By: Elisa Amado
Publisher/Date: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers/2020, originally published in Spanish by Alboroto Ediciones, Mexico/2018
Suitable for Ages: 7-10
Themes/Topics: refugees, Spanish Civil War, hope, resilience
At night I close my eyes and feel the waves beating. I think they are saying something to the ship. Mexique. That’s what it is called. Do the waves know that? Does the sea keep the names of all the ships?
Brief Synopsis: The story of one ship filled with 457 children of Spanish Republicans in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War.
Links to Resources:
- Learn about the Spanish Civil War;
- Have you ever traveled anywhere without your parents or siblings? How did you feel?
- Learn about Spain and Mexico;
- Learn more about the Mexique and the Spanish Civil War in the Afterword.
Why I Like this Book:
In sparse, poetic language, told from the viewpoint of one of the children on the boat, Ferrada relays the story of the departure of the refugee ship Mexique from Europe and its arrival in Mexico.
The children aboard were the offspring of Spanish Republicans who sought a place of safety for them to wait out the few months of a war about which many of us know little, if anything. But that war, readers learn in the Afterword, lasted longer than a few months. General Franco and his followers won that war, Spain was left hungry and in ruins, and the Spanish Republicans were persecuted by the victors. World War II quickly followed the Spanish Civil War. Afterwards, General Franco continued to rule with an iron fist until the 1970s. Many of the Mexique’s passengers never returned to Spain.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Thankfully, this picture book ends with the arrival of the children in Mexico, a place, as I mentioned above, that many of us in the United States generally don’t view as a place of refuge. During the journey, older girls befriended younger children, becoming the “sisters we didn’t have before.” The children sang, played at being soldiers, cried, and imagined where they were going. White handkerchiefs that looked “like stars or flowers” waving in the wind greeted the children. The children brought “the war in our suitcases”. But the story ends on a hopeful note, with those children still believing it would be only three or four months until their return to their families in Spain, like “summer vacation, only longer.”
Many of Penyas’ primarily black-and-white illustrations appear as panels, graphic-novel style, often across wordless two-page spreads. Several of the more difficult scenes, like leaving family and friends, scenes of war, and scenes of the difficult crossing, appear only in the illustrations.
Because Mexique ends on a hopeful note, because it illuminates a war and a period of history about which many of us know little, and because it highlights the generosity of our neighbors to the south and offers a new perspective for many about Mexico, I think this is an important picture book for classroom and home reading.
A Note about Craft:
The story of over 400 children leaving their homes and relatives behind is a difficult topic to share with children. But by focusing on the passengers of one ship and by using first person point-of-view, I think Ferrado helps readers empathize with the young refugees and eperience the hope they felt when they reached Mexico.
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!