Heard on the news: “No one wants to be a refugee.”
“Long before I became a ballerina,” Michaela de Prince writes in Ballerina Dreams:& From Orphan to Dancer, “I was an orphan in Sierra Leone.”
Because Michaela had a skin condition called vitiligo that caused white spots on her brown skin, some of the other orphans laughed at her and called her names, but her best friend Mia never did. Michaela’s parents had been killed in an ongoing war, and whenever she missed them she would sit alone by the orphanage gate and cry. One day a magazine blew by with a picture of a prima ballerina on the cover, and Michaela, seeing the picture, knew she wanted to be “happy and beautiful” like the woman in the pink tutu. She folded up the picture to keep it safe and showed it only to Mia and her teacher, who explained that the woman was a ballerina and that Mia could become one, too, if she took lessons, worked hard, and practiced every day.
When the children must leave the orphanage, Mia and Michaela are adopted by the same person (who eventually adopts six West African orphans). When her new mother asks Michaela what she wants, she shows her the picture she has saved of the ballerina and dances on her toes. “In America you will dance ballet,” her mother says. Once she learns enough English, Michaela takes classes, learning the five positions and falling in love with the grand jete, the great leap. Her first part when she is eight years old was as one of children in the Nutcracker, the only black dancer in the performance. Eventually she danced the role of the Sugarplum Fairy and was also the youngest principle dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem.
Now Michaela dances with the Dutch National Ballet. Her favorite step is still the grand jete. “Every dream begins with one step,” she writes at the end of the book. “After that, you must work hard and practice every day. If you never give up, your dream will come true.”
From war orphan in Sierra Leone to ballerina with one of the world’s top classical ballet companies, Michaela has indeed taken a grande jete. Her story, written with her mother Elaine de Prince and illustrated by Frank Morrison with both photographs and art, shows children everywhere that every dream starts with a first step. The book is dedicated to Magali Messac, the ballerina on the cover of the magazine that a young orphan found and that inspired her dancing dream.
A documentary First Positions was made about Michaela, inspiring black girls to be become ballerinas just as the ballerina on the magazine cover inspired Michaela. You can also watch a brief documentary to learn more of Michaela’s story.
Stepping Stones by Magriet Ruurs (illustrated by the Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr) is also an exploration of the refugee experience. Magriet Ruurs saw Badr’s work and was inspired to write this book. And indeed, the illustrations are stunning — created from stones the artist collected by the seashore. In an interview he expressed his profound love for this area in his native Syria:
It is there at the foot of the Zaphon that I collected from the seashore thousands of beautiful pebbles-stones blessed with a stunning variation in colour and form, and transported them to my workplace to create ten thousands of sculptures. Mount Zaphon is known in Ugaritic texts to be the dwelling of Baal, god of the mountain, storm, and rain worshipped by ancient Syrian cultures. This place on earth is all my pride. … My inspiration comes from my profound love for the Zaphon stones and for my homeland Syria.
Badr’s illustrations give heart to the story, narrated by a young girl, of strife then war coming to her country. She recalls playing on “sun-baked soil” and says “In that not so distant memory we were free — free to play, free to go to school. Free to buy fruit and vegetables at the market. Free to laugh and chat, drink tea with neighbors.”
But that freedom of daily life did not last. “War came to our country. Life in our village changed.” Birds stop singing. People began to leave, but the narrator’s family did not want to leave their homeland.
When bomb blasts became a daily occurrence the narrator’s parents decided they must leave. The narrator tells us, “That night [before departure] I lay in bed and cried because I knew I would never again hear the crow of the rooster, the creak of the gate, the bleat of our goat.” The homeliness of these details is so moving. Leaving the bleat of the goat, the crow of the rooster for an unknown future is a powerful evocation of all the great and small experiences that refugees must say good-bye to.
“We walked to the end of the earth, set sail on waves of hope and prayer.” Not everyone survived this sea journey and the narrator and family planted flowers at the shore for all those who did not make it.
Because Magriet Ruurs is committed to leaving readers with hope, when our narrator and her family finally come to a new place, she tells readers “At last we came to our future.” This refugee family is welcomed with food, clothes, even a new doll. We can wish that all refugees will be so welcomed. Between now and that reality we can marvel at the wonderful art of Nizar Ali Badr. In an interview he said, “my dream to reach people’s hearts and deliver a message.
The illustrations in this wonderful book do exactly that.
Yuyi Morales tells her own story of immigration in the beautiful book Dreamers (Neal Porter Books, 2018). This book starts in love — “I dreamed of you/then you appeared.” — and ends with dreams of future unfolding. And in between is the immigrant experience, exuberantly rendered in a palette that harkens us to Morales’s native Mexico. The mother and son “bundle gifts into our backpack and crossed a bridge.” Morales continues, “The sky and land/ welcome us in words/unlike those of/our ancestors.” Because she does not understand these words the mother makes mistakes, swims with her baby in a public fountain, cannot read maps. Morales does not gloss over the difficulties of being in a place where she cannot communicate, cannot understand customs or signs.
“You and I became caminantes,” she writes, walkers who travelled many steps until they found the public library — “unbelievable, surprising, unimaginable.” (This book is a paeon to public libraries): “Books became our language./ Books became our home,/ books became our lives./ We learned to read/to speak/to write/and to make/our voices/heard.”
In telling her story, Morales shows us the strangeness of making one’s way in a new land, and the unending gifts of public libraries. How many of us, new or not to this country, have been educated — are still being educated by public libraries?
We know the specific tells universal truths. And Morales’ own story is exhilarating. Because of the library “We are stories./ We are two languages./We are lucha./We are resilience./We are home./ We are dreamers/ soñodores.”
This gorgeous book reminds us all to look at the world with new eyes, perhaps with the eyes of a stranger, be surprised at its offerings, become lucha, become dreamers. Immigrants reminds us of the power of courage, the power of taking chances, the power of resilience, and the importance of welcoming the stranger.
Wishes by Muon Thi Van, illustrated by Victo Ngai, is 75 words long and tells the story of the author’s escape as a child from Viet Nam to Hong Kong, a story moving enough to make us cry every time we read it. The text is simplicity itself, with only a few words on each double-page spread:
The night wished it was quieter.
The bag wished it was deeper.
The light wished it was brighter.
The dream wished it was longer….
This repetition of wishes creates the sense that the whole world wishes for this small family to escape to safety, even when the sea is rough and the sun burns down.:
The sea wished it was calmer.
The sun wished it was cooler.
Only in the last few spreads as a boat takes them aboard and they approach the city of Hong Kong do readers hear the narrator speaking: “And I wished…I didn’t have to wish…anymore.”
Victo Ngai’s full-bleed art in a palette of deep colors combined with vigorous, swirling lines heightens the sense of urgency and danger. The artist writes that she “borrowed some of the cracks, dents, and peeling paints from my grandmother’s house …since they give tactility and temperature to the idea of home.”
In an author’s note Muon Thic Van reveals that this is her family’s story of escaping to Hong Kong from a vengeful Vietnamese government that wanted to kill her father. She writes, in part:
On the night of our departure, every one of the twenty-two passengers aboard our boat left behind a child, a spouse, a parent, a grandparent, or a sibling. Some we never saw again, including my grandfather. We left streets and neighborhoods that were as familiar as the lines on our hands; we left customs and traditions that had been handed down for generations; we left communities that had shared in our joys and our sorrows; we left our world, pursing and hoping for a better one.
Muon This Van ends her author’s note:
More refugees are made every day, not only from local violence and persecution, but increasingly from catastrophic natural disasters and climate change effects.
It is not always easy to decide whom to help and when.
But I think it is easy to open our hearts and to do what we can when we can….
I wish only for a safer, kinder, fairer, and more beautiful world.
I hope you’ll join me in this wish. Together we can make it come true.
As we are writing this post, nearly three million Ukranian refugees are fleeing an invading Russian army. We don’t know what will happen even by the time you read this, but our hearts hope that every refugee will be able either to return to their homes or be welcomed into new homes and hearts.