This summer, deeply troubling stories about migrants and refugees at the US-Mexican border have come to us in newspaper stories, recordings, photographs, and videos. In choosing to separate children from their parents, our government has shown a disturbing lack of empathy for people fleeing violence and turmoil in their home countries. It is our hope that these picture books will help foster empathy and shed light on the complex issues of migration for young readers, while giving a sense of the courage, resilience, and humanity behind each journey.
written and illustrated by Francesca Sanna
Flying Eye Books, 2016
This remarkable book had its beginnings when author/illustrator Francesca Sanna met two girls in a refugee camp in Italy and listened to their story. Soon, she began collecting many more stories of people forced to flee their homelands and decided to create a collage of these experiences in this stunning picture book. The Journey feels at once universal and specific as it follows one family on their long, dangerous voyage from their beloved hometown, which has become a warzone, toward an uncertain future in “a country far away with high mountains”, where they can be safe. We don’t know the details, but evocative illustrations use dark, abstracted shapes to great psychological effect throughout the book to depict the fear the children feel as they flee the war that “took” their father.
The journey is a precarious one as the family travels first by car, then hides in trucks, travels at night by bicycle and then on foot, only to arrive at a border, where they must hide and later be smuggled across. An illustration depicting the crowded boat passage feels achingly familiar from images in the news. After crossing many borders, the sight of migrating birds flying suggest the hope of a secure future for this brave and resourceful family.
A Different Pond
written by Bao Phi
illustrated by Thi Bui
Capstone Press, 2017
A Different Pond is a story from a Vietnamese refugee family living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A boy and his father go fishing at a city lake in the chilly, early morning dark: “We stop at the bait store on Lake Street. It always seems to be open.” When the two return home with their catch at sunrise, the boy’s parents will head off to their Saturday jobs. Author Bao Phi and illustrator Thi Bui have received major awards for this picture book, a Charlotte Zolotow Award and a Caldecott Honor, respectively.
Both the text and the art weave together three strands: the grittiness of life in the city, the trauma of refugee struggle, and the simple beauty of human experience. Take, for example, the moment when the boy and his father sit and eat together. Their breakfast is two sandwiches, plain cold bologna on white bread. The two talk for a moment about how the father used to fish by a pond with his brother who died in the war. And yet the moment is also beautiful. Bui’s illustration recreates the glow of a small fire and the play of light on their faces, while Phi’s text captures a bit of magic: “There’s half a peppercorn, like a moon split in two, studded into the meat.”
A rewarding reading project for adults interested in this book is to read it alongside adult titles also published in 2017. Bao Phi’s most recent book of poems, Thousand Star Hotel, published by Coffee House Press, and Thi Bui’s graphic novel memoir, The Best We Could Do, published by Abrams, are piercing and beautiful accounts of the experience of their refugee families.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey
written by Margriet Ruurs
artwork by Nizar Ali Badr
Orca Book Publishers, 2016
This story of a family leaving war-torn Syria is anchored by unusual and evocative stone collages created by Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr. A young girl, Rama, narrates the changing landscape of her daily life with her family, where she goes from the peace of listening to Mama preparing breakfast (“bread, yogurt, juicy red tomatoes from our garden”) to the violence of fleeing Syria “when bombs fell too close to our home.” As the family undertakes this perilous journey, the weight of stone in the illustrations conveys a sense of gravity and resilience as the family forges ahead and makes new memories “not of war, but of peace.” The text is bilingual in English and Arabic and a portion of the proceeds of this book goes to support Syrian refugees.
Two White Rabbits
written by Jairo Buitrago
illustrated by Rafael Yockteng
translated by Elisa Amado
Groundwood Books, 2015
This picture book, Two White Rabbits, is a work of art for all ages, told from the point of view of a young girl who is making her way north through Mexico with her father. The difficult world of the story is depicted with remarkable tenderness. Delicate shading in the drawings details everything from the feathers on hens, to the rolled sleeves of men riding atop freight cars, to the bushy tail of the chucho (mutt) that travels along on the harrowing journey. At the opening of the story, the little girl explains, “When we travel I count what I see,” and she counts cows, birds, clouds, people by the railroad tracks, while her ever-attentive father navigates their complicated route. She rides with her father through the night in the back of a pickup truck: “Sometimes, when I’m not sleeping, I count the stars. There are thousands, like people. And I count the moon. It is alone. Sometimes I see soldiers, but I don’t count them anymore.”
Author Jairo Buitrago, who lives in Mexico, and artist Rafael Yockteng, who lives in Colombia, have worked together on a number of acclaimed books translated from the Spanish, including Jimmy the Greatest! (2010), Walk with Me (2017), and On the Other Side of the Garden (2018), all published by Groundwood Books.
written and illustrated by Shaun Tan
Lothian Books, 2006
I think of The Arrival as an unusual and fascinating picture book/graphic novel hybrid. It is 128 pages, wordless, and makes use of both panels and full page spreads to tell the story of a man journeying ahead of his family to forge a life for them in a new country. This surreal tale begins in the man’s homeland, which has been overrun by the looming shapes of ominous monsters. The story unfolds after he arrives in an overwhelmingly foreign city full of strange animals, customs, and an unfamiliar language (creator Shaun Tan made up a visual language to simulate the experience of disorientation for the reader). The common struggles many refugees face of finding work, housing, and communicating are all present in the richly detailed pencil illustrations.
Through innovative use of fantasy elements and emotional specificity, Shaun Tan has created a sophisticated narrative that feels wholly original and is itself a visual journey.