Tag Archives: Syria

PPBF – Sea Prayer

The news, tragically, continues to be dominated by stories of refugees, whether those fleeing violence, those seeking better lives for themselves or for their children, or those displaced by climate change. Today’s Perfect Picture Book features a pair of refugees with prayers for a better life.

Title: Sea Prayer

Written By: Khaled Hosseini

Illustrated By: Dan Williams

Publisher/Date: Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House/2018

Suitable for Ages: 8 and up

Themes/Topics: refugees, family, Syria

Opening:

My dear Marwan, in the long summers of childhood, when I was a boy the age you are now, your uncles and I spread our mattress on the roof of your grandfather’s farmhouse outside of Homs.

Brief Synopsis: A father addresses his sleeping son to share his memories of the life they’re leaving in Syria and his hopes for a future free of conflict.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about the geography and rich history of Syria before the current conflicts;
  • Learn more about the refugee experience with materials from Amnesty International;
  • If you were going on a journey, what would you bring? Choose three favorite toys or books that you’d bring along.

Why I Like this Book:

With lyrical, heartfelt text, an unnamed father addresses his young son, as the pair await a boat to flee from the conflict in Syria. First recalling his hometown of Homs, as it was before the war and as he believes his son will never experience it, the father then anticipates the future, starting with the sea voyage itself. Like parents everywhere trying to protect their children from fear, Marwan’s father downplays the dangers of the journey, and he pledges to protect Marwan. The story ends as the father prays that the sea realizes how precious a cargo is about to embark. And there the story ends, leaving the reader to hope, and pray, that the pair arrive safely on a welcoming shore, and that, at some future time, they are able to return to a Homs free from war.

Although Sea Prayer clearly is targeted to an older audience, I think it’s a wonderful way to build understanding and empathy for the plight of refugees, whether, as here, they are fleeing conflict, or whether they’re forced to flee due to economic need or climate change.

Williams’ haunting watercolors are a perfect accompaniment to Hosseini’s emotional text. The image of a small, crowded dingy on roiling seas is particularly effective.

A Note about Craft:

In an end note, Hosseini shares that he was inspired to write Sea Prayer in response to the death of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy who drowned enroute to Europe in 2015 and whose photograph on the beach appeared worldwide. From this inspiration, Hosseini, an Afghan and author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns who has spent much of his life in the United States, penned this story. He utilizes first-person point-of-view which draws the reader into the scene, encouraging us to hope, and pray, that the unnamed father’s prayer is answered and that young Marwan does not suffer the fate of Alan Kurdi and so many other children and adults.

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 – Tomorrow

Regular readers may recall that I reviewed The Jasmine Sneeze, written and illustrated by Nadine Kaadan, in March 2017. When I learned that she had written and illustrated a new picture book set in Syria, her homeland, I reached out to the publisher for a review copy. I’m so happy that today’s Perfect Picture Book is releasing next week and that Lantana Publishing’s books, including Kaadan’s books, are now available in the US (See below).

Tomorrow-807x1024

Title: Tomorrow

Written & Illustrated By: Nadine Kaadan

Translated By: Nadine Kaadan

Publisher/Date: Lantana Publishing Ltd/16 August 2018 (originally published in Arabic by Box of Tales Publishing House, Syria/2012)

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: Syria; war; art; hope; #OwnVoices

Opening:

Yazan no longer went to the park, and he no longer saw his friend who lived next door.

Everything was changing around him.

Brief Synopsis:

Yazan, a young boy in Damascus, Syria, is stuck in the house because of the escalating conflict, but he’s desperate to go outside, visit the park, play with his friends, and even return to school.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about the geography and rich history of Syria before the current conflicts;
  • What do you do when you’re stuck at home? See a list of ideas to end indoor boredom;
  • Draw a picture of your “happy place”;
  • Yazan makes paper airplanes to pass the time. Make, and fly, your own paper airplanes.

Why I Like this Book:

Tomorrow provides a child’s-eye view of life in a Syrian neighborhood when war disrupts everyday activities. We learn that Yazan can no longer go outside by himself, play with friends, or go to school. His artist mother “stopped painting” and spends her days watching the news. At first, Yazan tried to amuse himself, even making “142 paper planes.” But despite his best efforts, we learn he was “BORED!” Finally frustrated at the lack of things to do, Yazan escapes outside, only to learn that the neighborhood, his world, has changed. But through the love of his parents and the creativity of his mother, Yazan learns to imagine his neighborhood as it was, before the conflict began, thus offering the reader hope that a better day will come at some future time, some tomorrow.

While several picture books published in the past several years have focused on the traumatic onset of war, the journey from a war zone, the plight of refugees, and/or the need to welcome refugees to our communities and schools, Kaadan’s focus is on the immediate onset of the conflict. She reveals only those aspects of war that would be visible to a young child sheltered at home. Rather than depicting injury, death, or flight – occurrences that could overwhelm young children, Kaadan highlights the inability to play outside and interact with friends, disruptions to education, and experiencing loud newscasts – all very kid-relatable occurrences. Through text and her evocative illustrations, she shows the emotions Yazan feels: confusion, anger, fear, and even boredom. I think kids will relate to both the changes highlighted and the emotions Yazan displays. Tragically, these are affecting both children still in conflict zones, like many places in Syria, and those who have fled to refugee camps and/or other communities and countries.

Kaadan’s watercolor and pencil illustrations have a child-like sense to them, as if Yazan is not only experiencing the situation, but recording it, too. Utilizing color, oozing dark grays and blues for the escalating conflict, bright yellows and greens for times and places of safety and comfort, Kaadan depicts both the changes and Yazan’s emotional reactions to them.

A Note about Craft:

Kaadan is an #OwnVoices author/illustrator who depicts her home city of Damascus as war erupts. Because she is so familiar with the locale, I think she includes details in the story that help place the reader in the situation. In a note to readers, Kaadan 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.”

Kaadan also focuses on disruptions to normal “kid stuff,” rather than on the aspects of war that often grab headlines. I especially appreciated the focus on Yazan’s boredom – an emotion not often mentioned in stories dealing with conflict but that is an understandable reaction to the loss of freedom to leave the house to play outside, visit with friends or even attend school. That Yazan tries to “keep himself busy” with pursuits most kids can relate to, such as doodling, building a castle from pillows, and making paper airplanes, will help kids empathize with his situation, I think.

Finally, Kaadan utilizes different color palates to contrast conflict and comfort and to display feelings, and she depicts items, like the paper airplanes and Yazan’s unused red bike, to symbolize freedom and its absence.

Visit Kaadan’s website to view more of her artwork. View a video of Kaadan discussing Tomorrow and the displaced children of Syria.

Lantana Publishing, is an independent publishing company in the UK “producing award-winning diverse and multicultural children’s books”. Both Tomorrow and The Jasmine Sneeze are available in the US, through Lantana’s US distributor, Lerner Books.

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 – 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!