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How to Explain the Refugee Crisis to Kids

New children’s books help parents broach a challenging subject

Marjorie Ingall
October 27, 2016
Illustrated by Francesca Sanna
The Journey, Flying Eye Books, 2016Illustrated by Francesca Sanna
Illustrated by Francesca Sanna
The Journey, Flying Eye Books, 2016Illustrated by Francesca Sanna

This election season, we’re hearing a lot about how horrible the people who aren’t like us are. Refugees are talked about as rapists, murderers, terrorists, poisoned Skittles. But the photo of a tiny boy in Syria sitting in the back of an ambulance, covered in blood and dust and staring blankly into space, was everywhere. So was the picture of a fully clothed toddler washed up on a beach in Turkey. No matter how we try to protect our own children, they’re seeing images like these. And given our people’s tradition of hachnasat orchim—welcoming visitors—and the just-past holiday of Sukkot’s emphasis on ushpizin (honored guests), and our potent history of fighting for social justice in general, it’s imperative that we explain the refugee crisis to kids.

Before you exclaim, “My kid’s too young for such a difficult subject!” know that your child may already know more than you think. Election rhetoric has made inroads even in kindergartens. And, like sex, politics is a topic you’d better address yourself—conveying your own values—unless you want playground chatter to have a bigger impact on your kid’s perspective than your own values do.

Fortunately, several new children’s books—including some for very young kids—can help parents talk about the refugee crisis with nuance and depth.

The book that prompted this column is The Journey by Italian artist Francesca Sanna, published a few weeks ago in English by Flying Eye Books. As with all of Flying Eye’s offerings, it looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s elliptical and allusive and fantastical but not pretentious.

Conveying distressing historical truth in an age-appropriate, nonbrutal way is important, and hard to do well. In my experience, Holocaust books that try to educate children through metaphor usually fail: Either the little reader has no idea that the book is supposed to be about an actual event, or the kid receives the message in such a sugarcoated way, it’s essentially lying. But The Journey strikes a perfect balance. It presents the story of a refugee family, told in the first-person present tense, as a tale without an ending. (Yet.) “I live with my family in a city close to the sea,” the book starts. “Every summer we used to spend many weekends at the beach. But we never go there anymore, because last year our lives changed forever…” The first spread, in pale oranges and reds, shows a little girl and her hipster-glasses-wearing dad building incredible sandcastles while her mother reads and her little brother puts on swim fins. But at the far right edge of the page, we see the lapping small waves of an oozing black sea creeping up on the family. On the next spread, the black has consumed almost the entire two pages, and the waves have become jagged hands smashing the sandcastles while the family, with dark gray shadows stretching behind them, flees off the edge of the page. The next spread says only, “And one day the war took my father.” The pages are entirely black, with one small pair of hipster glasses and bits of sand toys and seaweed.

Over the next few spreads, the family learns that as their world gets scarier, people are leaving for another country, “far away with high mountains.” The children filter what they hear through images from fairy tales—strange pointy yellow forests, reindeer, giant bears. How else can they imagine the unimaginable if not through images from books? The mother and two children escape, first in a car with all their belongings strapped to the roof, then in the back of a van filled with sinuous vases, then hidden in among bright orange, green, and yellow produce in the bed of a truck, and finally in a small trailer pulled by a bike. Each time, they have fewer possessions. They arrive at a wall, where a giant, red-bearded, troll-like man lurches up to scream, “You are not allowed to cross the border. Go back!” They hide in the forest—the mom protecting her children and only crying when they’re asleep—and run to the sea, where they board a packed ferry. Then they get on a train, watching birds fly overhead. “They are migrating just like us,” the little narrator observes. “I hope, one day, like these birds, we will find a new home. A home where we can be safe and begin our story again.” The final image shows the mom and kids, all smiling slightly, on the neck of a flamingo-like bird, part of a flock of many different species, flying off the final page into an unknown future.

Throughout the book, the art is spectacular—modern and angular, but not cool; it’s rich with color and feeling. The book conveys scariness and uncertainty without feeling hopeless. It’s a remarkable achievement. Of course, what you tell your kids about what it means is up to you.

Because whenever you read a picture book with a little kid, you’re not just reciting words. You’re having a conversation. All conversations have both text and subtext. You ask your kid questions about the book; you make sure they understand what they’re seeing and hearing; you share your own perspective on the story; you draw parallels with your child’s own world and feelings. And with your body and tone of voice, you convey that though the world is scary, your child is loved and safe.

Me, I would hug my child and use the words of the United Nations High Committee on Refugees, explaining, “Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution.” I’d say that international law is supposed to protect them. It’s supposed to ensure that they are “not returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk.” Unfortunately, reality is not so simple. Some people don’t want to help refugees, because they’re afraid. They think refugees are dangerous, or that it will cost too much money to help them. So refugees have to keep looking for a home, like the family in this book, or they wind up in settlements that aren’t very comfortable. And they wait. And with our votes, and with our money and advocacy, we can try to make life better for these suffering people.

(That’s what I would say. If you think refugees are terrorists and poisoned Skittles, feel free to tell your children that, while I feel sorry for them and for you.)

Another picture book, Mama’s Nightingale, is about a little Haitian girl whose mama is being held in a detention center for illegal immigrants. It’s by acclaimed novelist Edwidge Danticat, and it’s lovely—poetic, sprinkled with mellifluous Creole words. It too talks about the power of storytelling to soothe and rescue. The art, by New Orleans-based illustrator Leslie Staub, is painterly, folkloric, full of flowers and stars and leaves and birds. In the story, Saya and her dad visit her mom behind bars; Saya’s mom calls her wosiyòl—“little hummingbird.” “Mama leans over and hums the wosiyòl’s song in my ear. The melody is as soft as Mama’s touch and as sweet as a real soursop.” Mama sends Saya bedtime stories, inspired by Haitian folklore, recorded on cassette tapes. One day, Saya brokenheartedly writes her own story back to her mother. Her dad sends it to a newspaper, and suddenly everyone is interested in why a mother is being kept from her child. The family is reunited. In an author’s note, Danticat explains that her own family was also riven by separation; she and her brother had to live in Haiti with relatives until she was 12, while her parents in New York tried to get the right papers to reunite the family. She notes that according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more than 70,000 parents of American-born children have been jailed and deported.

Of course, we Jews can always draw parallels to own relatively recent history as refugees. A new book for middle-grade readers (age 9-14) called The Ship to Nowhere by Rona Arato talks about the Exodus, the derelict ship smuggling 4,500 Holocaust survivors from displaced persons camps to British-controlled Palestine in 1947. British warships shot at the Exodus, refusing to let it dock at its destination, forcing it to go back to Europe. It was stuck in France and then Germany before horrified public opinion (spurred by the reporting of Ruth Gruber, who has a role in the book) finally made the British relent. The Ship to Nowhere tells the story of a real child, Rachel Landesman, who survived the journey. Copious endnotes explain what’s fact and what’s fiction. It’s an exciting story, somewhat amateurishly told. (Perspectives lurch around unexpectedly, facts get rephrased and repeated, and there’s a lot of rickety show-don’t-tell dialogue. One character on the ship says, “I heard that conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto were even worse than in the Budapest Ghetto,” and the other replies, “Very few people survived the Warsaw Ghetto. Those who didn’t die of starvation or disease were sent to Treblinka, Majdanek, and other death camps.” Yes, this is very natural and exactly the way people talk, and not stilted exposition in any way.)

Ham-fisted dialogue is not a problem in one of the most celebrated middle-grade books this year, Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale. Gidwitz, the author of A Tale Dark and Grimm, knows how to entertain, which is good because this book is hella ambitious. It’s 350 pages, designed like an illuminated medieval manuscript (with marginalia by illustrator Hatem Aly), and set in 1242. It’s about three fugitive children—a Christian peasant girl who has visions, a Jewish boy with healing powers, and a dark-skinned Muslim boy with superstrength—who, in the company of their magical ghostly greyhound, flee mercenary knights and punitive religious leaders in rural France. The children’s story is doled out in bits and pieces, along with strong ale and bowls of stew, by travelers in a tavern. As my smart librarian friend Jennifer Hubert Swan pointed out, it’s The Canterbury Tales meets the X-Men. There’s magic, and ethical and religious debate, and a farting dragon and bad guys who get tricked into digging in huge stinking piles of poop. (Gidwitz is good with effluvia.) The kids try to save volumes of the Talmud from being burned by the King of France—one of many incidents grounded in history in the book—and trigger discussions among multiple characters about faith, difference, intolerance, and why bad things happen to good people. This book is less accessible than Gidwitz’s earlier work, but it’s rich with ideas and humor, and for history-loving kids, there’s a ton of research in the back matter to explore.

The next two books on this list are very accessible, but deeply upsetting. Both are graphic novels, visually compelling and easy for kids 10-16 to read. Child Soldier, by Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine, illustrated by Claudia Davila, tells the true story of young Michel, growing up happily in the Democratic Republic of Congo until he’s kidnapped from an after-school soccer game at age 5 by rebel soldiers. He and other little boys are given guns and drugs and trained to kill. In one particularly terrifying scene, Michel is forced to shoot his best friend. After two weeks Michel escapes and finds his way home, his friend’s blood still spattered on his shirt. As the political situation in Congo gets uglier, Michel’s politically minded father is imprisoned, then killed. He and his mother and siblings finally make it to Canada, where they now live. The end of the book discusses efforts to help former child soldiers; it’s very well done and could help kids horrified by the story feel empowered to help. As Michel’s father always told him, “If you ever think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.”

An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar by Reinhard Kleist is another true story, this one about a Somali girl who competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Samia came in dead last in her qualifying run for the 200 meters, dressed in a baggy T-shirt and loose knee-length shorts instead of the high-performance athletic gear the other competitors wore. But the crowd cheered their brains out for this determined, unknown woman from a war-torn country who finished nearly 10 seconds behind everyone else. Samia was determined to do better in the 2012 Olympics in London, but she faced endless obstacles—especially the anti-woman, anti-Western militant Islamists of Al-Shabaab in Somalia, whose militia enforced Sharia law. (A woman running, let alone running in a T-shirt and shorts, was forbidden.) Driven by a desire to compete, Samia fled to Ethiopia, then traveled through Sudan and Libya, usually in shocking conditions, trying to get to Western Europe. Like the little girl in The Journey, Samia tried to escape by sea…but Samia’s story ended horribly, in the middle of the ocean. The book’s black-and-white, alternative-comics-style art is powerful, but the story is utterly bleak. And if there were any doubt, An Olympic Dream makes clear that Muslims can also be victims of terror. Refugee stories may not be all alike—every refugee is unhappy in their own way—but we who’ve had to escape violence and persecution have an awful lot in common.


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.