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Talking to Kids About the Refugee Crisis, Again

In advance of Passover, thinking about the most vulnerable

Marjorie Ingall
March 17, 2020
Simon & Schuster
From 'Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln,' by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael LópezSimon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster
From 'Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln,' by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael LópezSimon & Schuster

National Refugee Shabbat takes place on March 20 and 21, 2020. You may recall that in 2018, this event triggered the Pittsburgh shooter; he posted on social media that part of his motivation for killing Jews was the fact that we were secretly smuggling undocumented immigrants across the border. Now, with xenophobia in the United States at a new high, and with kids crowded into overpacked cages in unsanitary conditions with insufficient medical care in Texas, it’s even more important not to forget about the plight of refugees, even as we worry about our own families’ health.

As a parent, you can tap Passover as an opportunity to draw parallels between what the holiday celebrates—our people’s escape from slavery and intolerable living conditions in Egypt—and the experiences of people living in modern-day slavery and persecution today. To that end, here are some beautiful, age-appropriate new children’s books about refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers. (The fact that I picked up most of them at three longstanding Lower East Side libraries was not lost on me; all three existed when many of our own families arrived as immigrants; one, Seward Park, was the library frequented by both author Sydney Taylor and her All-of-a-Kind Family characters.)

I’ve written about refugee-themed kids’ books before, in 2016 and 2017, so I’ll limit myself to books published since 2018.

Picture books:

Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus, is my favorite new book for the youngest readers about refugees. Not too scary, with gorgeous, bold art by Egnéus, it’s a simple story from the perspective of a little girl named Lubna who picks up a smooth gray pebble on a beach at night. In the morning, she sees that she and her daddy have landed in a World of Tents, where Lubna takes care of Pebble (upon which she draws a smiley face) and Lubna’s daddy helps. Soon a scared little boy named Amir arrives on the beach, and Lubna (and Pebble) help him feel safe. When Lubna’s daddy tells her they’re leaving the beach for their new home, Lubna gives Pebble to Amir. The message of caretaking that runs through the book—even a child can help soothe and nurture others—is lovely and encouraging. And oh, the art.

A Different Pond by Vietnamese American poet Bao Phi, illustrated by graphic novelist Thi Bui, was a 2018 Caldecott honor book. It tells the story of a long-ago, father-and-son fishing trip, using a combination of full-page art and inset comic-book-like panels. It’s so full of rich detail, both in the depiction of the trip—the early-morning dark, the chill, the squirmy bait, the little boy’s pride in building a fire—and in the art. I loved Bui’s endpapers, which depict little snippets of early-’80s Vietnamese American identity: a jar of Miracle Whip, a deep plastic bowl of noodles, a fishing bob, pair of vintage sneakers, one of those windup bathtub scuba diver dudes. Phi’s text is quiet and lovely.

A kid at my school says
my dad’s English sounds like
a thick, dirty river

But to me his English
sounds like gentle rain.

Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopéz. A Different Pond is a hushed, meditative book; Dancing Hands is full of musical notes and riotous color. It’s about a little Venezuelan girl with a gift who uses it to comfort others. (Sense a theme here?) “Music was Teresita’s delight, but suddenly when she was 8, a war changed everything,” Engle writes. “Guns blazed, swords flashed, and poor Papá had to rush the whole family down to the seashore and onto a ship, into a storm where wind howled, waves rolled, barrels tumbled, ropes snapped, and clouds bucked and kicked across the wild sky like angry mules.” Teresa’s family flees to America, where the little girl’s piano-playing makes her so famous she’s invited to play for the president, who is grieving after the death of his little son Willie. Dancing Hands is based on a true story (back matter offers insight into the real Carreño). Cuban-born author Engle’s father was Jewish (Tropical Secrets, her equally musical young-adult novel in verse about Jewish Holocaust refugees in Cuba, was on Tablet’s best Jewish books list in 2009); she and Lopéz have produced a kid-friendly, bright, and compelling story.

Story Boat by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by former Sendak fellow Rashin Kheiriyeh, is another beautifully illustrated picture book about a little refugee girl whose family helps her feel safe in a time of uncertainty. Her family is on the run, but little tokens of their history—a cup, a song, a story of home—help buoy their spirits and propel them forward, even when “Here isn’t always the same.”

Here is a blanket
Patterned and soft, color of apricots

Every night,
When the world feels not quite cozy,
And everyone seems weary
From hoping and hurrying,
We snuggle and dream
Under this blanket.

And this blanket is a sail.

At the Seder, too, a story is a boat. It’s a reminder of a journey that formed us, one that perpetually recreates our sense of self.

Middle-grade books:

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga won a Newbery honor in 2020. It’s a masterful novel in verse for kids in grades 4 to 8. With plenty of white space and lots of humor, it will appeal to even reluctant readers. Jude is a girl growing up in a seaside tourist town in Syria, but as the threat of violence and civil war come ever closer, she and her mother flee to her uncle’s home in Cincinnati. Jude’s father and older brother Issa (who is in perpetual danger as he fights for revolution and freedom from dictatorship for Syria’s people) must stay behind. Jude, 12, has to get used to a new home and new family members—including a very American, very popular, not very nice cousin named Sarah—while worrying about her friends and family back home and debating whether to audition for the school play despite her shaky grasp of English. The depiction of a kind ESL teacher and of middle-school interpersonal drama is perfect, and there’s so much observational humor (“I discover/a Middle Eastern restaurant/which back home would just be called/simply/a restaurant”) as well as sharply observed little moments and spiffy use of language:

Sarah walks with purpose
like she is not afraid of being heard.
She has that same American boldness
that I’ve seen advertised on billboards
like the restaurant down the street
That brags about their
that comes with everything,
but really only includes
peppers, onions, and cheese.

I’ve decided it is very American
to have the audacity
to claim that three things
add up to everything.

Warga completely taps in to the rapidly shifting emotions of a preteen and the stomach-dropping dread of not belonging. When Sarah takes Jude sledding, but orders her not to be “weird” like her hijab-wearing new friend Layla, we feel Jude’s excitement about the outing and joy about her pretty new coat evaporate:

All the warmth that had built up in me during the car ride
rushes out of my body
and I shiver inside the blue puffy coat.

BUT—I think and my mind
floods with all those thoughts
that I try my best to keep at bay,
that are like wolves in the night,
howling that I am not from here,
that I don’t belong here,
that I will never belong here.

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani is a more somber book, for more ambitious readers. It’s set in 1947, when India, newly independent of British rule, is divided into two countries, India and Pakistan. India becomes Hindu; Pakistan, Muslim. It’s now too dangerous for 12-year-old Nisha and her family to stay in Pakistan, so she and her dad and twin, along with thousands of others, must flee across the border. Nisha’s mom, who died giving birth to her and her brother, was Muslim, making Nisha feel caught between identities. The book is told in Nisha’s letters to her mom, scribbled in her journal at night. The language is poetic; the luscious descriptions of food (chapati, unleavened bread; dal, spiced lentils; pakoras, deep-fried potato knish-esque pastries) are positively All-of-a-Kind Family-esque. Hiranandani explored a different twist on feeling betwixt-and-between in her earlier book, The Whole Story of Half a Girl; that one’s about a 12-year-old who is half Ashkenazi Jewish and half Indian American, and it was on Tablet’s Best Jewish Books list in 2012. Of course, for an American Jewish reader, any story about postwar Middle Eastern partition will recall the founding of the state of Israel. Nisha’s observation, “When you divide people, they take sides,” and “I will never understand, as long as I live, how a country could change overnight from a line drawn,” well … those words resonate.

Young adult:

You may remember Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin from my list of the best Jewish children’s books of 2019. It’s a story about Eastern European Jewish Holocaust refugees in Shanghai. What I said then was that the book “reads like a beautiful and frightening fever dream”; since then, it won the Sydney Taylor Award for the best Jewish young-adult novel of last year.

Butterfly Yellow is the first young-adult novel by Thanhhà Lại, who won the National Book Award and a Newbery honor for her gorgeous debut middle-grade novel in verse, Inside Out & Back Again. Butterfly Yellow, a verse novel for older readers, is more complex; it’s also profoundly moving, slyly funny, and deeply humane. Hằng is a semireliable narrator, and much of the novel is about language barriers, which initially makes the book (deliberately) confusing. Rest assured that all becomes clear, and the ending is a cathartic, healing tour de force in which people prove to be truly kind. Adults and sophisticated teen readers will love it. It begins at the end of the Việtnam War, as our protagonist Hằng tries to flee the violence with her little brother Linh. Linh is ripped from her arms, and Hằng is left behind. Six years later, in 1981, Hằng is 18 and has arrived in Texas as a refugee, dead set on finding her brother. She meets up with LeeRoy, who has just graduated from high school and whose UT Austin professor parents seriously do not get his desire to be a rodeo cowboy when he’s never even ridden a bucking bronc. (Lại mines a lot of humor from LeeRoy’s determination to talk and act like a cowpoke.) Hằng finds Linh, but he’s been adopted by a white American family and doesn’t remember her. There’s a wild cast of characters: a slick Vietnamese American businessman, a white cantaloupe farmer, a Southern belle Tiger Mom. These vivid, disparate folks, and the way the fierce and determined Hằng slowly wrestles with her past trauma, are spectacularly drawn.

Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience, edited by Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond, opens with a quote from Simone Weil: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Most children’s poetry collections are mediocre at best; this is emphatically not. It spotlights great poets who write for adults as well as accomplished poets who write for kids. Some are Jews, reflecting on their arrivals from Russia in recent years or on a parent’s experience in the more distant past. But my favorite poem is one we read at our Seder last year, called simply “Refugees,” by British poet Brian Bilston:

They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not OK to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way.

Now read the poem from the bottom to the top.

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.

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