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Kids on Board: Handling the Plight of Refugees with Care.

Exposing Canadian kids to unimaginable horrors endured by millions of global refugees is a delicate operation. Honesty, compassion and a gentle hand are required to lead young readers into the ravaged lives of displaced children--who, for the most part, are just like them.

Driven by devastating facts, personal history or a human instinct to somehow help, five well-known authors reveal how they transform this urgent situation of relentless despair and precarious hope into thoughtful dialogue and an informed world view.

What motivated you to write this book?

SD: My children were asking about the Syrian conflict after seeing coverage in the media, so I began searching online for more kid-friendly resources to begin a discussion. I came across a short article about a young boy who fled with his family to the Za'atari camp, where he encountered and began a friendship with an assortment of wild birds. This article really stayed with me and was the tiny spark that inspired me to begin writing My Beautiful Birds.

MFS: The refugee experience of Vietnamese Canadians has interested me for decades. Millions were affected, yet there was virtually no mainstream literature on the topic. A publisher introduced me to Tuan. As soon as I met him, I knew I had to write his story.

SK: I was a reporter based in Beirut covering the resettlement of Syrian refugees to Canada for The Globe and Mail. An editorial director approached me with the idea. Though I never thought I'd ever write a graphic novel like Escape from Syria, formulating the narrative and writing the book was easy. I had years of reporting on refugee families as a foundation, and a grasp of their everyday problems and issues that often went under-reported by the mainstream international media.

ML: In the fall of 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants were risking their lives on the Mediterranean Sea, seeking asylum in Europe. I was distressed by the dangerous crossings and the growing hostility toward them. I wanted to take action in some small way.

MR: I wanted my two young grandsons to know about war and refugees, but in a gentle manner. My actual writing of this story was inspired by the images I came across on Facebook of stone art made by Nizar Ali Badr, an artist living in Syria. I knew kids would like his rock art as much as I did and I felt that his pictures told a story about war and refugees.

Your story is vivid. How do you balance the facts, visceral emotion and expression of hope when writing for young readers?

SD: Finding that balance was very important. I wanted to honestly depict the real struggles faced by the Syrian people, in a child's first person point of view, along with their incredible capacity to be hopeful and to see the beauty around them, even during difficult circumstances. I wanted to incorporate children's universal loves, like animals, sports and art--they bind us together as human beings.

MFS: Books for young people must be scrupulously researched and factually accurate. I use my research as a scaffold for the emotion and humanity. That emotion in Adrift at Sea is all Tuan's--we were both in tears as I interviewed him and I wept as I wrote the narrative. As I write, I am Tuan. My goal is to make the readers feel like they are Tuan.

SK: My main focus was to stay true to the facts. If readers found the novel to be emotional, I think that was a product of my staying true to the actual experiences of refugees in incredibly difficult circumstances. I wanted to give an accurate account of what refugees who had their lives turned upside down by this conflict experienced. Jackie Roche, the illustrator, was key, I think, in emotional aspect; she used colours to portray the atmosphere and highlighted certain symbols to emphasize them. I think the novel is all the more gripping because of that.

ML: Sharing Ruth, Phu, Jose, Najeeba and Mohamed's stories was a huge responsibility and especially daunting. Even though their crossings were years ago, their harrowing journeys were still vivid in their minds and painful to discuss. I wanted to tell the truth and honour their experiences, yet make it bearable for children. The hope that shines through the book comes from their stories--accounts of the kindness of strangers, of friendships forged, of the bonds of family and their courage and resilience.

MR: A few just-right words can paint a more powerful picture than an elaborate piece of prose. I very much had my six- and eight-year-old grandsons in mind while writing the text. I also realized that this story is not exclusive to Syria. I grew up with similar events in Holland right after World War II. I think the story formed itself as I grappled with emotions.

Why is it important to explore and share the hardships faced by various communities around the world--in this case young refugees and their families?

SD: Children are smart and deserve to know what is going on in the world in a child-friendly, responsible manner, so that they can become informed, mindful, thoughtful, empathetic leaders of tomorrow.

It is so wonderful to see more books coming out that are both 'mirrors and doors.' A teacher in British Columbia shared with me how touched and happy two of her recently resettled Syrian students were when they read My Beautiful Birds. One said, "This was me." To see oneself reflected back in a book is very empowering.

SK: I write mainly for a North American audience who have a vague, very general, even misinformed understanding of what is happening in Syria. And yet, it's in the understanding of these complexities that decision makers and informed citizens can make a stronger case to their governments for why resettlement is important, even necessary.

MFS: I have dedicated my life to writing refugee stories. My first book, Silver Threads, was about my Ukrainian grandfather who came to Canada for freedom, only to be interned as an enemy alien in World War I. The pain that he suffered and the ripple effect through the generations of my family made me realize how important it is to air these stories.

After writing his story, I felt a moral responsibility to search out other untold refugee stories. This led me to write a number of books about survivors of the Armenian Genocide and also the lesser-known refugee stories of WWII. Sharing these stories shows how much we all have in common. With context and awareness come empathy, sympathy and admiration for those who have persevered.

ML: In a world of 24/7 news and social media, it is impossible for children and youth in Canada not to be aware of the plight of refugees and the heartless response of so many. Books about young refugees go beyond the dehumanizing headlines and anti-immigrant rants to help children gain a deeper understanding of the situation, to see that refugees have families and feelings and needs just like them and go on to have productive, happy lives.

MR: I think it is important to share difficult concepts with children in such a way that they can develop empathy. Allowing you to put yourself in someone else's shoes is the power of books. I wanted to show readers that being a refugee is not someone's own choice. In my other books, like the Around the World series, I share information about real kids and their families and schools. I hope that books like these help to create understanding and tolerance, and respect for others.

Why are these stories relevant to Canadian children's literature and our society today? Why do they resonate?

SD: I'm thrilled to see more Canadian kidlit featuring diverse and 'own voice' stories that reflect the world we live in today. As books like these get published, more readers may see themselves in the characters. It is more important than ever that we encourage and model empathy, tolerance, communication and kindness to our children, our leaders of tomorrow.

MFS: Every single kid in the schoolyard today feels like they're living in a war. Reading these stories gives them context for their own experiences.

SK: I grew up in a neighbourhood of Toronto known to be a 'first stop' for new immigrants and refugees. There were people from all over the world in my grade three class. Those shared experiences as a newcomer greatly informed my understanding of 'Canadianness' and what it means to be privileged enough to hold a passport and call myself a citizen of this country. But it isn't a fairy tale either, the immigration story in Canada is rife with hardship and competing narratives of belonging, and these struggles ought to be reflected in literature, especially for young people.

ML: I'm grateful to visit classrooms across the country to see firsthand how relevant these stories are. All of us who aren't Indigenous are immigrants. The forces that brought you here seeking peace and security are probably not that different from those that forced the boat refugees in Stormy Seas to leave their homes.

MR: These are issues that face all of us today, in Canada and around the world. When a community welcomes refugees--that is Canada at its best. Reading a book about the issue can be more effective than just hearing about it on the news. I think global issues and global awareness are huge in schools. My favourite comment on Stepping Stones came from a 12-year-old who wrote, "Your book changed my mind about refugees."

What do you want the story to accomplish?

SD: I hope that My Beautiful Birds encourages children to listen to newcomers' stories, and to be loving, patient, friendly and empathetic to each other, especially when we have struggles.

MFS: I hope that slipping into Tuan's shoes for a moment in time will change the reader's perception about people who have newly arrived to Canada. To consider all that a person had to live through to get here and the fact that the challenges don't end when they get here.

SK: I wrote this novel for the young student who is curious about his or her refugee classmates. If reading it creates better understanding of their plight, then I consider my goal accomplished.

ML: Until we get a chance to really learn the stories behind the images of overcrowded boats, to see these people as just normal families like our own, making difficult choices in dire circumstances, we can't really understand their plight. I hope that young readers carry Ruth, Phu, Jose, Najeeba and Mohamed's stories in their heads and their hearts and remember them when they hear about refugees and think about the impact of their actions--or inactions.

MR: My hope with Stepping Stones was simply to share a story with children to open their eyes to the fact that some children, in different parts of the world, live under different circumstances. I hoped to help them to express compassion. If my book can change the mind, and attitude, of one child, then perhaps it can help change the minds and attitudes of more readers. That is huge.

How does the compelling artwork in your respective works impact the reader and contribute to the story?

SD: My polymer clay artwork has a dimensional quality that really captivates young readers. I used a more impressionistic approach with a limited colour palette to best convey the emotions of the main character, Sami's journey and the beauty all around, even though he is struggling with acclimating to the refugee camp. I wanted to juxtapose the soft textures of the birds' feathers with the gritty desert sand to show intuitively that there is always hope, even in harshness.

MFS: Brian Deines' artwork is able to show the vastness of the ocean and the sheer daunting nature of what Tuan's family was up against. He used models from the extended Ho family to create the faces and expressions and that made it so personal. It was such an honour to have Brian do the artwork for this book!

SK: Jackie Roche, the wonderful illustrator of the book, incorporated colour and style in the novel in brilliant ways to evoke the emotions the characters were experiencing and their environment. In the refugee camps, she used hues of orange and yellow to convey the poor hygienic conditions, the stillness and deprivation. In Canada, by contrast, she used blues to convey the cold of the winter, the unfamiliarity and the distance between the characters and what is to them a foreign and strange place.

ML: I had the incredible good luck to work with Eleanor Shakespeare, an extraordinarily talented collage artist. Eleanor delved deep, painstakingly researching historically accurate photographs and ephemera to use in her collages. Her illustrations and handwritten quotes bring the boat refugees experiences to life, revealing the multi-layered, complex factors that forced them to leave their homes. Eleanor's stunning artwork reminds you of all the beauty in the world and offers respite from the storm.

MR: When I first spotted Nizar's art, I realized that I have seen books illustrated in many different mediums, but never in rocks. His art is striking, fluent in its forms and full of feeling and emotion. Normally a picture book is illustrated after it is written. In this case, I wrote the text to accompany the art, and it seems to work well.

How did you feel when writing about such emotional subject matter?

SD: Even though this is a fictional picture book, it was inspired by real-life events. It was an emotional book to write. I have the deepest respect and admiration for the bravery the Syrian people have shown when forced to flee their homes. I created from my heart, from a place of respect, and I tried my best to create a book that illuminates their strength, resilience, love and never-ending hope.

MFS: As I was writing, I was Tuan. I felt his fear, his thirst, the sun beating down on his head, his despair at watching the other boat engulfed in flames. It's like opening up your vein and writing with the blood.

SK: I rarely think about it. My focus was on being fastidious with the facts, referring to my years of reporting. I felt an urgent need to tell the story as it was told to me by those who experienced it.

ML: Researching and writing Stormy Seas was often very draining. Coming to terms with the heart-break of millions of people around the world, many under 18, displaced by war, famine, natural disasters and persecution was difficult. But listening to the boat refugees talk about their experiences had the greatest impact on me--hearing the fear in their voices or the pain of feeling unwelcome in their new home. I'm so grateful for their generosity and honesty.

MR: I realized, as I wrote Stepping Stones, that the story of fleeing a war is universal. It is not just Holland in 1945 or Syria in 2016. I hope that Rama's specific flight to freedom paints a universally understood story of what it is to be a refugee and how to open our hearts to those in difficult situations.


Books noted in this article can be used across disciplines and to effectively introduce difficult subject matter.


* Make pictures with stones and other natural items.

* View artwork from students around the world.

* Write a poem based on the text about one's own family and illustrate it with a photo of rock art.

* Use first-person accounts of the journeys as a model for writing in language arts.

* Discuss the story and predict what might happen next.


* Plot the refugees' journeys on maps.

* Find countries and the sea on a map and discuss terrain and distances.

Social Studies

* Compare past and present media coverage of these refugee crises.

* Older students can discuss war, politics, religions, persecution, terrorism and more.

* Discuss how policies around the world directly impact the lives of refugees.

Student Activism

* Encourage and discuss ways students can take action to help refugees today.

Marylynn Miller Oke is a freelance writer. With experience in broadcast and public relations, she writes frequently for the academic and non-profit sectors. |

Caption: Suzanne Del Rizzo (SD): Her first picture book as a children's illustrator, Skink on the Brink by Lisa Dalrymple, won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award. Suzanne has also illustrated Sun Dog by Deborah Kerbel, Gerbil Uncurled by Alison Hughes, and Sky Pig by Jan Coates. Known for her dimensional illustrations, Suzanne is adding 'author' to her resume with My Beautiful Birds, a 2017 Junior Library Guild selection and winner of the 2018 Malka Penn Award for Human Rights in Children's Literature.

Caption: Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (MFS): Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is the author of more than 20 books for young people. Her specialty is writing about refugees and the effect of war on children. She won back-to-back Ontario Silver Birch Awards, the BC Red Cedar Award, the Manitoba Young Readers' Choice Award and the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. Her best-known book is Making Bombs for Hitler. Her latest title is Don't Tell the Enemy.

Caption: Saniya Kullab (SK): Samya Kullab is a Middle East-based journalist, currently in Iraq, covering oil politics, migration and conflict. She has worked in Lebanon, Turkey, Gaza and the West Bank.

Caption: Mary Beth Leatherdale (ML): Mary Beth Leatherdale writes, edits and consults on many award-winning books, magazines and digital resources for children and youth. Her book Stormy Seas is a Silver Birch Non-Fiction Honour Book, a Rocky Mountain Book Award nominee and a Quill & Quire Book of the Year. #NotYourPrincess, an anthology she co-edited with Lisa Charleyboy, recently won the American Indian Library Association's Youth Literature Award and was a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award finalist.

Caption: Margriet Ruurs (MR): Margriet Ruurs is the author of 40 books. She has an M.Ed. from Simon Fraser University and an honorary Fellowship from Okanagan College. Her book Stepping Stones was featured in The New York Times, on BBC and CBC and has so far raised $80,000 for refugees. Margriet conducts author presentations at schools around the world, combining her love of travel with her passion for sharing books with children. She runs a book lovers' B & B, Between The Covers, on Salt Spring Island, BC. Her newest book is a novel called Bus to the Badlands.
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Title Annotation:OPINION
Author:Oke, Marylynn Miller
Publication:Canadian Children's Book News
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2018
Previous Article:FROM THE EDITOR.
Next Article:Congratulations to the 2018 Hackmatack Children's Choice Book Award Winners.

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