Heard on the news: “No one wants to be a refugee.”

Ballerina Dreams from Orphan to DancerLong 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 a Refugee Family's Journey

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.

Stepping Stones
illus­tra­tion copy­right © Nizar Ali Badr, from Step­ping Stones: A Refugee’s Fam­i­ly Jour­ney,
writ­ten by Mai­gret Ruurs, Orca Books

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.

DreamersYuyi 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.”

illus­tra­tion copy­right © Yuyi Morales, from Dream­ers,
Neal Porter Books

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.

WishesWish­es 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.”

illus­tra­tion copy­right © Vic­to Ngai, from Wish­es,
writ­ten by Muon Thi Van, Orchard Books

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.

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David LaRochelle
8 months ago

A beau­ti­ful post…and WISHES was one of my favorite books of this past year.

8 months ago

These are some great books. I’d add one more title worth check­ing out: When Stars are Scat­tered, a graph­ic nov­el by Omar Mohamed and Vic­to­ria Jamieson.