Tag Archives: Refugees

PPBF – The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee’s Story

I discovered today’s Perfect Picture Book in the bookstore at the New England SCBWI 2017 conference this past April. The gorgeous stitched illustrations and evocative title drew my attention even before I saw the tag line, a refugee’s story. Interestingly, it’s not one I’ve found on any of the many lists of picture books about refugees…yet!

As this is the story of a grandmother and grandchild journeying together, with their love and the strength of the female community so prevalent throughout the tale, I thought this is a Perfect Picture Book to feature for Mother’s Day:

9781563971341_p0_v1_s118x184Title: The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee’s Story

Written By: Pegi Deitz Shea

Illustrated By: Anita Riggio

Stitched By: You Yang

Publisher/date: Boyds Mills Press/1995

Suitable for Ages: 3-8 (per the publisher; I’d say older)

Themes/Topics: refugees, Hmong, needlework folk art

Opening:

After Mai’s cousins moved to America, Mai passed the days with Grandma at the Widows’ Store, watching the women do pa´ndau story cloths. She loved listening to the widows stitch and talk, stitch and talk – mostly about their grandmothers’ lives in China a hundred years ago. All Mai could remember was life inside the refugee camp, where everyone seemed to come and go but her.

Brief Synopsis:

With the help and encouragement of her grandmother and the women stitching, and selling, Hmong story cloths, Mai learns this traditional art and shares the tale of her losses.

Links to Resources:

  • Shea provides a Curriculum Guide on her website and there is a Glossary and Foreward that provide Hmong words and story background;
  • Learn about the Hmong peoples and culture;
  • Learn about Hmong embroidery and try some embroidery stitches;
  • Learn about Southeast Asia, including Laos and Thailand, the setting of The Whispering Cloth;
  • Create story pictures about your life or the life of an older relative or friend.

Why I Like this Book:

As is evident from the synopsis, the refugee in today’s picture book hails not from the Middle East, Africa, or Central America. Nor is Mai’s story a contemporary tale. Published over 20 years ago, The Whispering Cloth is the story of a young, orphaned Hmong refugee living with her grandmother and dreaming of a better life. Tragically, while the setting and ethnic group are different, this story is as relevant today as when it was written. And while children like Mai may now be settled in the US and have children of their own, I believe that learning what they experienced is important for all of us. Reading The Whispering Cloth together may even help these survivors share their experiences with children and grandchildren.

The bond between Mai and her grandmother is another reason I like this story. That older women have talents and traditions to share with grandchildren is a valuable facet of this tale.

Finally, I love how the arts are at the heart of The Whispering Cloth: as a way to earn money by selling the pa´ndau story cloths and as a means to both tell and process the horrific experience of losing parents, fleeing home, and living in a refugee camp. The folk art pa´ndau is also central to Hmong culture, making it particularly relevant to the story of Hmong refugees. This makes me wonder about the folk art traditions of current refugees: whether the children are learning them, whether they serve as therapeutic outlets, and whether they are surviving the transitions to new homes and cultures.

The Whispering Cloth includes scenes and references that might prove upsetting to younger children (blood, soldiers and bullets figure in the embroidered story). However, they are integral to the story, and the combination of rich watercolor and embroidered artwork may soften the potential impact of these troubling details for younger children.

A Note about Craft:

Authors and illustrators know that we must find the kernel of a story, the nugget at its heart that helps the story resonate with readers. But how do you identify that nugget? At least when writing a story set in a particular place or describing a particular culture, I think the nugget must provide insight to that place/culture. Additionally, it must play a significant role in the character development and story outcome. I think the nugget in The Whispering Cloth is the Hmong pa´ndau. Its centrality in the text and illustrations provides a window into Hmong culture, a culture about which many readers may be unfamiliar. It also acts as a mirror, for those who journeyed through the refugee camps and beyond, as they share this story with their children and future generations. And mastering the techniques enables Mai to remain tied to her traditional culture while earning the money necessary to escape from the refugee camp.

Neither Shea nor Riggio is an #OwnVoice author or illustrator, but a Hmong artist, You Yang, rendered Mai’s story as a pa´ndau, adding richness and authenticity to this story.

Pegi Deitz Shea is also the author of a middle grade book, Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story (Clarion, 2003), that follows Mai as she starts a new life in Rhode Island.O8Sg9_KvFq0C

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!

PPBF – Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey

For Earth Day, I’m reviewing a picture book that combines natural, earth-derived artwork with the story of a Syrian refugee and her family. I believe a picture book that reminds us of our connections to the earth and with each other is truly a Perfect Picture Book:

9781459814905_p0_v3_s192x300Title: Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey

Written By: Margriet Ruurs

Artwork By: Nizar Ali Badr

Translated into Arabic By:  Falah Raheem

Publisher/date: Orca Books Publishers/2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-8 (and older)

Themes/Topics: Refugees, Syria, stone artwork

Opening:

“Rama, wake up!”

the rooster crowed

every morning when we still lived at home.

From my warm bed

I listened as Mama prepared breakfast—

bread, yogurt, juicy red tomatoes

from our garden.

Brief Synopsis: Inspired by the stone artwork of Nizar Ali Badr, Stepping Stones is a fictional story of Rama and her family who leave Syria during the current war, to seek safety and security in Europe.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about the history, culture, and geography of Syria (information is all pre-war);
  • Create art from natural objects like stones and sticks. For ideas, see Orca Books’ Gallery;
  • Orca Books Publishers provides a list of organizations that are aiding refugees. Join their efforts to make a difference.

Why I Like this Book:

War and families undertaking dangerous journeys to find freedom, security and peace are difficult topics for young children and even adults. Ruurs’ sensitive text focuses on the beauty of everyday aspects of Rama’s life before the war and gently recounts the mounting problems that cause the family to leave – loss of freedom to “sing our songs, to dance our dances, to pray the prayers of our choice”, lack of food, “the birds stopped singing” and others began to leave, first “a trickle, then a stream.” Ruur doesn’t conceal that leaving is difficult and mentions explicitly that Rama is frightened and cries; but she also reminds readers that Rama and her brother “still had Mama’s hugs”. Papa tells Rama that they’re “walking toward a bright new future.” Ruur ends this story with words and images of hope, freedom, welcome, smiles and sharing. Stepping Stones is published in English and Arabic.

Syrian artist Nizer Ali Badr’s stone artwork, as Ruur recounts in a Foreword, displays “strong emotion,” helping readers connect with Rama’s story, and the stories of the refugee children she represents.

A Note about Craft:

Writers and illustrators understand that inspiration can be found anywhere. In Ruurs’ case, as she recounts in the Foreword, the inspiration for Stepping Stones was a Facebook post featuring an image created in stone by Nizar Ali Badr. Thankfully, Ruurs persisted in learning more about Badr and his artwork, eventually reached him in his village in Syria, and contacted Orca Book Publishers about writing this story. The result is a book that reflects not just the experiences of Syrian refugees, but one that is a beautiful and timeless reminder of resilience in the face of war as love and caring prevail. In addition to sharing this story, both Ruur and Orca Book Publishers have donated proceeds from publication to help refugees. I think this is a wonderful example for writers everywhere of the power of the written word.

As writers, we often hear that non-human characters are better suited to stories involving difficult topics such as war or death. I think that by rendering the characters in stone art rather than illustrations, Ruurs and Badr achieve a similar result, without sacrificing emotional connection.

For another account of the refugee experience, see Francesca Sanna’s The Journey.

See Susanna Hill’s insightful review of Stepping Stones here.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – Welcome

As the days lengthen and snows begin to melt, and as we learn of yet another ice chunk breaking off from an ice shelf in Antarctica, a book about polar bears marooned on an iceberg seems to be a timely Perfect Picture Book:

9781499804447_p0_v10_s192x300Title: Welcome

Written & Illustrated By: Barroux

Publisher/date: Little Bee Books (Simon & Schuster)/2016

Suitable for Ages: 3-6 (4-8, per publisher)

Themes/Topics: refugees, sharing, global warming, polar bears, modern fable

Opening:

I am a polar bear.

That’s me with my feet in the water near my friends.

Life is quiet and peaceful on the ice,

But wait a minute—

            what’s that noise?

Brief Synopsis: When an iceberg breaks off and a group of polar bears drifts out to sea, the group searches for a new home but are turned away by the animals that already inhabit those islands.

Links to Resources:

  • Explore polar bear activities, including Polar Bear  Hot Cocoa and Cupcakes (great to share while reading together!);
  • Make and study your own iceberg;
  • Be a Climate Kid and learn about global warming

Why I Like this Book:

This is a simple fable about some not-so-simple problems: global warming and its effect on species like polar bears, and the refugee situation. Although one reviewer questioned the over-simplification of these issues (Refugees forced to find a new home—sadly, an always timely subject—deserve better storytelling than this. Kirkus Reviews), I’d argue that it’s exactly the over-simplification that will help adults discuss these difficult subjects with younger children. As pointed out in a  New York Times review, Welcome is also appropriate for children starting a new school or facing some other new situation.

An illustrator and cartoonist, Barroux‘s bright, bold illustrations bring the sparse text to life. His large, leafy plants reminded me of Matisse’s work, lending an exotic air to the story.

A Note about Craft:

Barroux utilizes a very conversational tone in his first-person account of the bears’ search for a new home. I think first person is a wonderful way to lure the reader to empathize with these bears.

Like all good stories, we start with the “normal,” in this case sitting with our feet in the water, enjoying the day with our friends, and then the change occurs – But wait a minute—what’s that noise? Turning the page, we learn that the noise is a giant CRACK, splayed across a two-page spread, as three of four bears float away on the iceberg. Separating the friend group also is an effective technique to highlight refugees’ plights, as something, in this case someone, is always left behind.

Finally, Barroux presents several reasons for not welcoming the Bears: their fur and height, being “too bear-ish”, being “too many”, and it’s “too much trouble” to even see that they’re asking to land. Each of these reasons presents a discussion opportunity about issues of difference, attitude and what’s the right thing to do when someone needs our help.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – The Journey

Over the river and through the woods…

‘Tis the season for journeys – whether fighting cross-town traffic to bag bargains, purchase perfect presents, or track down tasty treats, or joining the millions of Americans journeying by plane, train or automobile to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends. It’s also, sadly, a season when migrants, those fleeing violence and/or lack of employment, continue to risk their lives and undertake perilous journeys in hopes of a better life.

This is such a difficult subject for young children and even adults, but I believe we must try to understand it, to picture ourselves in the story, to discuss it with children, which is why I’ve chosen today’s Perfect Picture Book.

9781909263994_p0_v1_s192x300Title: The Journey

Written & Illustrated By: Francesca Sanna

Publisher/date: Flying Eye Book (Nobrow Ltd)/2016

Suitable for Ages: 3-7 and older

Themes/Topics: refugees, migrants, journey, birds

Opening: “I live with my family in a city close to the sea. Every summer we used to spend many weekends at the beach. But we never go there anymore, because last year, our lives changed forever…”

Brief Synopsis: An unnamed narrator and her family flee from a warn-torn region.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn more about the refugee experience with materials from Amnesty International and UNHCR;
  • Choose three favorite toys or books that you’d bring on a journey;
  • Discuss journeys you and your family have undertaken;
  • Learn about animal migration.

Why I Like this Book:

The refugee crisis is such a difficult subject, but one that is, sadly, so timely. With a fairy-tale, storybook quality, particularly in the graphic, fantastical illustrations, this “collage” of refugee stories will, hopefully, enable adults to discuss the refugee experience with children and build empathy for those who have made journeys like the one described in The Journey. Spoiler alert: It also ends on a note of hope, of a new story in a new land for the child narrator and her family.

A Note about Craft:

In this debut picture book by author/illustrator Francesca Sanna, she has chosen to not name the Main Character, the place from which the family flees, or the place to which they journey, thus providing an Everyman-type of story. She also weaves references to books, stories, and storytelling throughout the text and illustrations, bolstering a theme that the journey described is just one of many journeys being undertaken. In an Author’s Note, Ms. Sanna shares that the story is a collage of stories learned by interviewing refugees.

Ms. Sanna tells much of the story in illustrations only. Her use of light and darkness and her inclusion of birds and sea creatures that undertake long journeys, as well as scary forest creatures during the border-crossing scenes, act as metaphors of the journeying family and provide a way to help adults discuss the story with children. By ending the story with a reference to, and an illustration of, migrating birds, Ms. Sanna leaves us with an image of safe nests and a sense of hope.

The Journey received starred reviews in Kirkus ReviewsPublishers Weekly, and the School Library Journal. The New York Times Book Review also highlighted The Journey in an article about explaining the refugee crisis to children. To that list, I’d also add Two White Rabbits, which also uses animals as a metaphor for the migrating narrator.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

Perfect Picture Book Friday – Two White Rabbits

4cd78f1910As those of you who have read this book already will have guessed, and those who read on will find out, I didn’t choose to review Two White Rabbits today to prolong the Easter festivities (spoiler alert: this review does not contain chocolate) nor because I mistakenly think Easter is in April this year. The two white rabbits have nothing to do with this or any other holiday, although I did choose to publish this review on the eve of International Children’s Book Day. Instead, these rabbits have everything to do with those seeking a life in which celebrations are possible.

 

9781554987412_p0_v1_s192x300Title: Two White Rabbits

Written By: Jairo Buitrago

Illustrated By: Rafael Yockteng

Publisher/date: Groundwood Books, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-7 (per the publisher)

Themes/Topics: Migration, refugees, counting, journey

Opening: “When we travel, I count what I see. Five cows, four hens and one chucho, as my dad calls them.”

Brief Synopsis: Like the two white rabbits of the title, a young girl and her father journey together trying to find a way to, and across, a border.

Links to Resources: The unnamed narrator counts what she sees as she travels. Young listeners can also count what they see, either in the illustrations, in a room, house or garden, or during a journey. The narrator also counts clouds and finds shapes there, another possible activity for a young listener.

As I mentioned in my review of Mama’s Nightingale, there are a few teacher and classroom resources available online to explore immigration: Scholastic’s Immigration Stories: Yesterday and Today, focuses primarily on the Ellis Island experience, but includes oral histories, including child immigrants from more recent eras; TeachersFirst provides fiction lists by topic by age, including immigration–themed picture books.

Groundwood Books made a donation to IBBY to mark the publication of Two White Rabbits. To find out more about this not-for-profit organization that brings books and children together, click here. For a selection of other picture books exploring the theme of Latin American migration, click here.

Finally, for those looking to celebrate International Children’s Book Day, find ideas at Busyteacher.org, or read something by, or about,  Hans Christian Andersen, whose birthday was 2 April 1805.

Why I Like this Book: “Haunting” and “understated” are two words that run through online reviews. I would agree. We never quite know where the young narrator and her father come from, to where they journey, nor even the reason for the journey. We do know they are alone, except for a stuffed rabbit, the coyote (chucho) that joins them early in the story and the two white rabbits, a gift from an unnamed boy. The girl also alludes to the difficulty of the journey, “’Where are we going?’ I ask sometimes, but no one answers.”

Much of the reality of the situation is revealed through the illustrations: a tent city along railroad tracks; people riding atop the trains; soldiers; a toy “train” with soldiers and riders atop the carriages; the two rabbits heading towards a fence – will they be able to find a way through?

The plight of migrants is a topic that many adults don’t understand let alone are able to explain to young children. This is a timely book that could help spur discussion on many levels.

 

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!