The plight of Syrian refugees has been much in the news of late — as has the subject of immigration in general. Chances are that even young children have heard about families leaving war-torn countries with little more than the clothes on their backs, and while they may never come into contact with a child from Syria — or some other troubled land — they are bound to have questions.
Not surprisingly, those who create children’s books have started addressing the topic — sometimes obliquely. This Is Me, by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell asks children what they would pack if they had to leave home with only a few defining possessions. Others are tackling the subject head-on, like these two remarkable picture books:
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, by Margriet Ruurs (Orca Book Publishers, 28 pages, $20), caught my eye because of the pebble art gracing its cover. And while I’m normally put off by a lengthy author’s note in a picture book aimed, for the most part, at kids just learning to read, in the case of Stepping Stones I was happy to see the author’s three-page foreword. It answered any questions I had about the book’s genesis, and I hope parents and teachers will provide a synopsis for young readers and listeners when they introduce them to this eye-opening volume.
Ruurs, born in the Netherlands but a longtime Canadian citizen, lives in Salt Spring Island, B.C., and begins by describing an image she saw on Facebook one day. It showed a mother tenderly holding a baby, the father following behind with a heavy load on his shoulders. The picture was filled with emotion, Ruurs writes, but “the amazing thing was the medium. The image was not painted; it was not drawn. It was composed entirely of stones.” One of those stones was signed Nizar Ali Badr, and that set Ruurs on a journey of her own — to find the man in Syria who could convey so much feeling with such a modest medium, and to write a story he might be willing to illustrate. It took many months, but the effort on the part of a dedicated team of individuals — including the author’s friend in Pakistan, who reached the artist and acted as translator — and the publishing house in B.C., which agreed to publish a book that had not yet been written and to set aside a portion of any proceeds to aid organizations that work with refugees, paid off.
The result is a by-now-too-familiar story about a family whose peace is shattered by war, and whose members relocate in search of a safe new home. But while the story might be familiar, the images depicting that story are unique. The artist, an accomplished sculptor who has lived his entire life in Latakia, Syria, often walked along the seashore and admired the stones he found there. These days, he gathers them up and brings them to his rooftop studio, where he uses them to build his art. The results tend to be ephemeral — surviving only in the form of the photos he takes. He cannot afford “to buy the glue that would give permanence to his art,” Ruurs explains in her foreword, so after taking a photo of a piece, he “often has to take it apart again.”
The author introduces the fictional family of narrator Rama, her brother Sami, their parents, and grandfather Jedo in peaceful times, and explains how their lives have changed since the war, right up to the day their parents decide it is time to join the exodus in search of safe haven. The family walks for miles, eventually boarding a crowded little boat. “And not everyone made it safely across. / We said prayers for those whose journey / ended at sea.” Back on land, more walking until, finally, “we came to our future.” People whose words they didn’t understand smiled and welcomed them, and the family eventually found a new home, grateful for their new memories and new hopes, but wondering all the same if they would ever return to their homeland.
It’s a beautiful book, published in English and Arabic (translation by Falah Raheem). It is bound to spark conversation — and should prompt our own children to realize how lucky they are to live in freedom, and encourage them to approach newcomers with open hearts. As for Nizar Ali Badr’s remarkable artwork, a wise parent or teacher will use it to encourage children to create their own art from items found in nature.
Francesca Sanna, an Italian artist living in Switzerland, turned to more traditional media to create her book, The Journey (Flying Eye Books, 44 pages, $25.95), but the message she conveys is much the same.
Again, we have a family living a comfortable life in a city close to the sea. The narrator is a little girl and war changes the lives of her parents and brother forever; it creeps across the land as inky black hands and grasping arms. In this case, war takes the father, and the mother is left to plan an escape with her two children. They start out in the dead of night, changing vehicles several times and leaving more and more of their belongings behind in the process. Eventually, they come to a border (depicted as a huge wall) and looming, red-bearded guards deny them access. Only by paying a shady intermediary does the mother get herself and her children over the border and onto a dangerously overcrowded boat.
Eventually, after a lengthy train journey across many borders, the three approach their destination. The narrator, looking out the window, notices a flock of migrating birds in flight and hopes that “one day, like these birds, we will find a new home. / A home where we can be safe and begin our story again.”
On Facebook (facebook.com/francescasannaillustration), Sanna shows that her first picture book had its start as a master thesis project at art school. “After two years of research and work, sleepless nights and terrible nightmares, collecting stories and very interesting discussions, my book made it to the bookshops!” she writes, posing with a copy of The Journey and its Italian version: Il Viaggio. She has explained that she did “all the sketches with pencils and sometimes I use watercolours or collage to create the textures, but in the end I scan everything and paint digitally on the sketches.”
Her art is colourful and sophisticated and has an element of the old-fashioned fairy tales about it, even though it deals with a decidedly contemporary theme. Just as the Brothers Grimm told stories about ogres and witches and vulnerable children to tell cautionary tales of their times, so Sanna plays with perspective and colours as she relates a family?s escape from the horrors of war and border guards to find safe haven far from home. On that overcrowded boat, as they cross the seas, the refugees tell each other stories that serve both to keep them safely in the boat, and filled with hope of a better life in their eventual landing place.
Stories, both Sanna and Ruurs realize, have the potential to humanize — they can take news that plays itself out in another part of the world, and bring it closer to home, opening our eyes and making us care. As such, these picture books are for all ages.