Tag Archives: Syria

PPBF – Leaving My Homeland: A Refugee’s Journey from Syria

I discovered today’s Perfect Picture Book in my local library. I’m so happy that our children’s librarian acquires such timely titles!

9780778731849_p0_v2_s192x300Title: Leaving My Homeland: A Refugee’s Journey from Syria

Written & Illustrated By: Helen Mason

Publisher/date: Crabtree Publishing Company/2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-11

Themes/Topics: Syria, refugees

Opening:

Leaving Syria: A terrible civil war has been fought in Syria since March 2011. The war is between the Syrian government and rebel fighters. The rebels are fighting for democracy.

Brief Synopsis: Pimarily a non-fiction, encyclopedic account about Syria, its civil war, and the refugee crisis, interspersed with the facts is the fictional account of Roj, a young boy who flees Aleppo with his family to seek safety in Germany.

Links to Resources:

  • Check out the ways “You Can Help!”, including making newcomers feel welcome and learning welcoming words in other languages;
  • A Glossary and Learning More sections help spur further study.

Why I Like this Book:

Leaving My Homeland is a hybrid of non-fiction facts that provide background information and context to the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis, and the fictional account of one child and his family fleeing Syria. This picture-book sized book is divided into chapters, each of which is a mixture of text, colorful text boxes, photographs and other graphics. For instance, A “Syria’s Story in Numbers” graphic is repeated in several chapters and highlights that people have lived in Damascus for 11,000 years, that almost every child in Syria attended school before the war, but that now 2.8 million lack access to education, and that more than 420,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Germany in 2015. This quick-facts format is visually engaging and will enable kids to gain greater understanding of the enormity of the Syrian refugee crisis and what they can do to help.

I particularly like that Leaving My Homeland includes information about the UN Rights of the Child, as this information can help readers understand the rights and privileges they enjoy and that refugees seek.

refugeesyria-1

reprinted from the Crabtree Publishing Company website

A Note about Craft:

Leaving My Homeland is part of a “curriculum-specific book series” created and published by Crabtree Books. I have not yet read the others in the series; however, the cover art looks similar for all 10 titles, and I imagine they follow a similar format. This will make them particularly valuable for classrooms and libraries. For non-fiction writers, thinking about similar topics that could form a series and addressing those topics using identical formats are ways to increase your publication potential.

Interspersing factual sections with a fictional story helps kids relate to the issues presented and build empathy for refugees, such as the fictional Roj, whose story appears here.

Finally, especially in books written with older children in mind, a mixture of illustration types and breaking the information up into “sound-bites” are important to focus attention on these important details. I think all authors and illustrators profit from thinking in this kid-focused way.

Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books provides reviews of picture books by topic. While Susanna is taking a break for the summer, you can still check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – My Beautiful Birds

The stunning cover of today’s Perfect Picture Book drew my eye on the library shelf. When I read the jacket flap, I knew that I had to read, and review it, as it takes places primarily at the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, a camp which my daughter visited when she volunteered with Syrian refugees in Jordan in 2013 and 2014. Without further ado, today’s Perfect Picture Book:

9781772780109_p0_v2_s192x300Title: My Beautiful Birds

Written & Illustrated By: Suzanne Del Rizzo

Publisher/date: Pajama Press

Suitable for Ages: 6-10

Themes/Topics: Syria, refugees, birds, refugee camps, Jordan

Opening:

The ground rumbles beneath my slippers as I walk. Father squeezes my hand. “It will be okay, Sami. Your birds escaped, too,” he repeats. His voice sounds far away. I squeeze back, hoping it will steady my wobbly legs.

Brief Synopsis: After a bomb destroys their home, young Sami and his family flee Syria and settle in a refugee camp. But Sami worries about the pet birds that can’t accompany the family, and only finds emotional solace when he discovers new birds at the camp.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

My Beautiful Birds is a beautifully written and gorgeously illustrated book about a young boy coping with the loss of pets and home and adapting to life in a refugee camp. While the subject matter is understandably somber, Del Rizzo’s images of birds flying up to the sky and escaping, or others appearing in the camp to console young Sami, leave the reader with a feeling of hope, that Sami, and the refugee children he represents, will survive the ordeals and live a better life in the future.

Using a combination of Plasticine, polymer clay and other mixed media, Del Rizzo’s illustrations are the perfect compliments to the story. While they are detailed enough to convey emotion well, because they appear as theatrical vignettes, they provide some distance for the reader from a story which tackles a difficult subject.

Watch the Book Trailer:

A Note about Craft:

On the book jacket, Del Rizzo states that she “came across the article of a boy who took solace in a connection with wild birds” at the refugee camp and was inspired to write My Beautiful Birds. Similarly, author Margriet Ruurs saw the artwork of Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr on Facebook, and was inspired to write Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey. Authors and illustrators, what article, headline in your news feed, or tweet has inspired a story?

Birds play many roles in this story: as a link to the past; as a reason to hope for a better future; and as metaphor – “Like feathered brushes they paint the sky with promise and hope of peace.” Birds play a role in Francesca Sanna’s The Journey, too, also as metaphor for the migratory journey of the refugees, fleeing to a place of safety and greater emotional security.

See more of Suzanna Del Rizzo’s work here.

Established in 2011, Pajama Press is a “small literary press” in Toronto, Canada, producing “all formats popular in children’s publishing across a fairly broad range of genres.”

My Beautiful Birds is a 2017 Junior Library Guild selection and has received favorable reviews in, among others, The New York Times Book Review.

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 – 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 – The Jasmine Sneeze

I first learned of today’s Perfect Picture Book when I read a blog post last summer on the Picture Book Den, a blog written by an independent group of professional children’s authors based in the UK and Scotland that focuses on picture books (but does not review them).  In that post, Nadine Kaadan, the author/illustrator of today’s selection, addressed the issue of diversity in children’s books. While the post most directly addressed the UK market, I think the issue raised also is evident in the US market. In Kaadan’s words:

…even when there is an attempt by UK publishers to publish more inclusive and diverse books, they still fall into the danger of the single story. For example, looking at UK children’s books that feature Arab or Middle Eastern culture, I feel that there is an exaggerated focus on ‘cultural differences’ (in the name of cultural richness). Too many of these books strike me as quite orientalist, and seem to depict overly stereotypical clichés about Arab culture, such as the typical camels in the desert and fasting in Ramadan. Although these elements are very much a part of our culture, and the stories are absolutely worthy of publication, the problem is that they only present one aspect of who we are.

As I continue to feature picture books from areas experiencing conflict, relating the experiences of children fleeing those areas, and/or written or illustrated by persons affected by travel restrictions to the US and other regions, I will keep Kaadan’s words in mind and look for those universal aspects of the stories that reflect multiple aspects of the culture of the characters. And now, today’s Perfect Picture Book:

The-Jasmine-Sneeze-Cover-3-300x295

Title: The Jasmine Sneeze

Written & Illustrated By:  Nadine Kaadan

Publisher/date: Lantana Publishing/2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: cats, jasmine, sneezing, solving problems, Damascus, Syria, community, diverse books

Opening:

Haroun is the happiest cat in the world. He lives in Damascus, the city of a million and one cats. He spends most of his time sleeping on the marble floor next to the fountain in his favourite courtyard.

Sometimes he stays up late for a karaoke party with the other cats in the moonlight.

Brief Synopsis: Haroun the cat lives happily in Damascus, except it’s a city filled with jasmine flowers and he sneezes at the scent. When he tries to get rid of the scent, he sets off a series of misfortunes that he then must reverse.

Links to Resources:

  • Lantana Publishing provides education resources, including how to design tiles like those featured in The Jasmine Sneeze;
  • Learn about the geography and rich history of Syria before the current conflicts;
  • Discover jasmine flowers.

Why I Like this Book:

The Jasmine Sneeze is a sweet and humorous story of Haroun the cat with a sneezing problem who tries to solve it to the detriment of others in the community. There is a fairy tale quality to the story including a touch of magic with a Jasmine Spirit who punishes Haroun for his selfish mistreatment of jasmine plants.

I especially loved the setting of the story, Damascus, the longest continuously inhabited city in the world, and Kaadan’s depiction and lovely watercolour illustrations of it as a city filled with winding jasmine vines, karaoke cats, tiled courtyards with fountains, and most importantly, a community that cares about the cats, the plants and one another. In many ways, the setting itself is a character as are the jasmine plants, several of which are depicted with eyes. This vision of Damascus is a refreshing reminder of the culture and beauty of Syria that will be more accessible again someday, hopefully soon.

A Note about Craft:

This is Kaadan’s first English-language picture book as author and illustrator. I love that she has written a story about a region that currently few of us will visit, that presents a universal problem and that highlights everyday features that a child would care about, regardless of where he or she lives. By choosing a non-human main character, Kaadan more easily fosters empathy and encourages readers to focus on the similarities of the situation rather than on what’s different about life in Haroun’s Damascus.

Interestingly, the conflict Kaadan sets up is between two positive features of Damascus, one of the “million and one cats” and the beloved jasmine plant, that, Kaadan informs the reader, is treated like a member of “family” and is watched over by a Jasmine Spirit. Only when these two positive aspects are in balance, when Haroun realizes that his sneezes should not be a reason to deprive his community of the jasmine plants, can the problem be resolved – a resolution that I think presents a positive message for children.

Learn more about Nadine Kaadan and her other books (to date, all in Arabic) on her website.

Lantana Publishing, an independent publishing company in the UK “producing award-winning diverse and multicultural children’s books”, has been nominated for the Bologna Prize for Best Children’s Publisher of the Year 2017.

While not currently available in bookshops in the US, you can order The Jasmine Sneeze from the Book Depository, which offers free worldwide shipping (payment can be made via credit card in US dollars).

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!