Author Spotlight

Choosing Books for Young Readers about “that stranger who sits next to me” — Refugees and War

Isn’t it ironic?  For over ten years our young people have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for the freedom of their citizens.  During this same time, refugees from those countries have sought asylum here.  But when these refugees arrive, they are seldom welcomed.  When returning soldiers and their families — or a refugee child — looks for a book that tells their story, few exist.

These families from the Middle East have become part of our communities. Often these refugee children remain strangers. Few know their stories.  They are left out, even shunned.

How can children learn about these newcomers?  Story is one way.

A few years ago I wrote, Warriors in the Crossfire, that tells the story of the native people living on the island of Saipan when American troops invaded.  Islanders thanked me for putting their experiences into a “real book,”  which gave respect and validation.

A similar emotion is expressed in, “Our America”, an essay from This Mad Game–Growing up in a War Zone.  The essay’s author, Marcie, was born in the Tule Lake Japanese American Internment Camp. For many years, the very existence of these camps was denied.

Marcie writes:  “In the 1970s, I decided I needed to know…I went to the NY Public Library, but even with the help of the librarian, I found only two references….I  began to weep inconsolably. ..it was [from] relief at finding confirmation that the camp where I was born did exist.  It was documented in a book.”

Marcie’s story was finally in a book; her story was real.

Another reason we need stories about war and being a refugee is to increase understanding about “that stranger who sits in the classroom.”  We fear what we do not understand. Acts of violence against Muslims in mosques, Somali or Salvadorian refugees in schools, occur daily. Bullying is the most frequent behavior problem in schools.

Books can help change this. One way of writing about tough topics is using metaphor.   Young readers can take in what they understand and are ready to assimilate.  Different thematic levels can co-exist, from the concrete to the abstract.

Hans Christian Anderson wrote about refugees using metaphor.  The Ugly Duckling is a refugee swan in a pond of ducks.  Like refugees everywhere the swan was different. He was ridiculed, shunned, excluded, and bullied.

Shaun Tan created images of the emotional loneliness of being “the lost thing: “I must have stared at it for a while.  I mean, it had a really weird look about it — a sad, lost sort of look. Nobody else seemed to notice it was there.”

For older readers award-winning books are described in a bibliography on my website.  For middle grade readers, excellent choices include:   Dog-Tag Summer by Elizabeth Patridge, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai and Gary Schmidt’s Trouble and Okay for Now. The Good Braider, by Terry Farish, shows what it means to recreate one’s self and life as a refugee.

For the youngest readers, titles that stand out: Mali Under the Night Sky, a Lao Story of HomeBaseball Saved Us;  Four Feet, Two Sandals; and Dia’s Story Cloth, the Hmong Peoples Journey of Freedom.

One more book – created from a letter written by Wilhelm Grimm in 1816 and illustrated 150 years later by Maurice Sendak, Dear Mili. One passage reads:

“…the brooks and the flowers and the birds come together, but people do not…But one human heart goes out to another; undeterred by what lies between…Thus does my heart go out to you…And you say: ‘Tell me a story.’”

Our responsibility is to find, celebrate and make available the stories children want to hear, stories about their own experiences, as well as stories about the stranger who sits next to them.  No matter how old we are, we look for books that tell our stories.

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Our guest blogger today is Nancy Bo Flood. Nancy lives and teaches on the Navajo Reservation where she hikes, rides her bike and attends local rodeos. She is the author of several award-winning books including Navajo Year, Walk Through Many Seasons and Warriors in the Crossfire.  Recent titles are No-Name Baby, Sand to Stone and Back Again, and Cowboy Up, Ride the Navajo Rodeo.  Learn more at  www.nancyboflood.com. The full essay, “Lost Children of Hiroshima,” and bibliography are available at: http://nancyboflood.com/lost-children-of-hiroshima-and-todays-refugees-where-are-their-books/#more-941

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.

2 comments

  1. Jeanette Larson

    I just finished Shadow by Michael Morpurgo (author of War Horse). Although the ending is, in my opinion, pretty obvious, the book was enlightening. It focuses on a boy from Afghanistan and his mother who are refugees in England. Shadow is a dog he rescued in Afghanistan and was separated from when the dog was returned to the military (the dog detects bombs and IEDs).

    In this story the refugee boy was welcomed at his school and supported by another boy when he was bullied. After Aman and his mother are arrested and scheduled for deportation, the school rallies around him, lobbying for their release. Probably a little pat and too easily a happy ending but the author’s note also talks about the realities for refugees to give a little more perspective.

  2. Nancy Bo flood

    Thank you for adding another good book to the list. The lonely and difficult experience of refugee children are important stories for us all to hear. The books by Deborah Ellis are excellent nonfiction interviews for the older readers. Nancy

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