Blogger Tess Prendergast

Exploring refugee child experiences through picture books

Mirrors and Windows

You have likely come across the metaphor “mirrors and windows” as it relates to children’s books before. It is a metaphor coined by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop when she discussed how books can mirror a child’s own experiences – thereby legitimizing them by showing that people similar to themselves are important enough to be in books.  Additionally, she said that books can also be windows through which children can see the lives and experiences of children who are different from themselves. (Bishop, 1990). I am going to apply this wonderful metaphor to some of my favorite picture books about refugee child experiences.  Come with me as I explore the ways in which these books can be mirrors (for children with refugee backgrounds to see reflections of their family’s lives) as well as windows (for other children to grow in their understanding of people who have refugee backgrounds).

Finding Safe Harbor

Cover of Story Boat

Story Boat takes a poetic and metaphorical view of the refugee child experience. The book opens with images of a group of people taking a journey. At first, everything seems like it could be a family hiking holiday. Soon, the adults start looking very sad and tired, and it becomes clear that they are refugees. Throughout the book, the child narrator names objects that each take on metaphorical significance related to their journey towards a safety. Finally, a boat brings them to a safe harbor where they are greeted with warmth. Young children today from all backgrounds are likely to have classmates and friends who are from refugee backgrounds. Using Story Boat as a window could help guide developmentally appropriate conversations about what that experience might be like. As a mirror, I think this book holds great promise as well, especially for very young children who have no recollection of their families’ journeys. The story is generic in its settings, so will resonate with refugee children from various communities.

A Path to Peace

Cover of Stepping Stones

In Stepping Stones, a young Syrian child named Rama wakes up to the sound of her family’s rooster. She spends her days laughing and playing with her brother and their friends. She enjoys life with her loving family. When war breaks out, Rama’s family joins a “river of strangers in search of a place” and they walk and walk.  Carrying their belongings, they get so tired  but eventually they take a boat ride and must walk some more until finally they find welcome and safety in a new place. The writing is riveting and readers will feel the love and loss emanating from the astonishing stone sculpture illustrations. Written in Arabic as well as English, this book is perfect as both a mirror and a window. The author’s foreword describes how she sought out the book’s Syrian illustrator after seeing pictures of his stone sculptures on the Internet. Finally, a portion of the book’s proceeds go to resettlement organizations that help families like Rama’s once they arrive in their new countries.

Family Reflections

Cover images of Wishes

Wishes is simply unforgettable. Using simple, poetic text of only one line per page, Mượn Thị Văn tells the story of a Vietnamese child’s escape to safety in Hong Kong. As they prepare for and take their journey, a series of objects “wish” for things that will ease the family’s great burden. For example, on a page showing the refugees being tossed around in the stormy ocean the text reads “the sea wished it was calmer.” The book’s exquisite illustrations by Victo Ngai lend even more emotional impact to the wishes conveyed on each page. The child’s face is shown as smooth and clear before the journey begins. After a difficult and perilous journey, a very sunburnt and smudged child’s face is shown in close-up. Drawing on the author’s own family’s refugee experience, this story will have special resonance for children with Vietnamese heritage. It will also serve as both mirror and window for all children into some of the hardship and loss inherent in the voyages taken by refugees all over the world and throughout history.

For further reading

For more explorations of refugee experiences as they relate to children’s literature, I recommend the following freely accessible links.

Heras, T. (2019). Readers and refugees. Horn Book Magazine, September/October, 47-49.

Oke, M. M. (2018). Kids on board: Handling the plight of refugees with care. Canadian Children’s Book News, 41(3), 4-7.

Do you know of other refugee themed books that can be both mirrors and windows? Please share in the comments!

Tess Prendergast was a children’s librarian for over twenty years and now teaches librarianship and children’s literature courses at The School of Information, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She has served on many ALSC committees. You can read more about her work here and here. 

One comment

  1. Suzi Wackerbarth

    This is something that a teacher who gets books from our branch is working on, so I have started an unofficial list.

    Where Butterflies fill the sky by Zahra Marwan (a girl moves to New Mexico from Kuwait.)

    America Border Culture Dreamer: The Young Immigrant Experience from A to Z by Wendy Ewald (a photograph book, sort of a dictionary, or lexicon, of words in the immigrant experience.

    A Thousand White Butterflies by Jessica Betancourt-Perez (Author), Karen Lynn Williams (Author), Gina Maldonado (Illustrator) (A girl moves to the US from Colombia and thinks that snow means she won’t make any friends because there is no school. Instead, she learns about snow angels and such.)

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