By Susan Corapi
The process of adapting to a new country can take (at best) months or (more probably) years. Picture books about the refugee experience can give the false impression that the process of learning a new language and adapting to a new culture is quick because the narrative is compressed into 32 pages. In reality, the process should be represented as a multivolume work!
Current educational practices do not always give refugee and immigrant children the time and space they need to learn a new language and adapt to new ways of learning and interacting. The emphasis on adequate yearly progress in language learning puts a great deal of stress on teachers to push students to reach certain benchmarks. However, language learners need periods of rest, particularly if they have gone through any form of trauma in the migration process. Stories that allow children to enter into their imagination and move into another place — similar to walking through an imaginative space and time warp — can provide a safe haven for them while they adapt to new ways of living and communicating.
The books profiled below offer readers a chance to enter into an imaginative world, which can be restful and rejuvenating. The books also address the inevitability of change and give children the hope that good things can come out of difficult circumstances.
In The Branch by Mireille Messier and Pierre Pratt (Canada) a young girl hears an ominous sound when her favorite branch from her favorite tree cracks under the weight of ice formed during a severe storm. Brokenhearted because the branch had served as her ship, castle and spy base, the girl is about to throw it in a pile with all the other branches the neighbors have collected when a retired neighbor stops her. He helps her understand that the branch has the potential to change into something that will still allow her to play. The two of them spend the winter planning and building . . . a swing! Vividly illustrated with bright colors and bold lines, the book communicates the passage of time as the two new friends saw, plane and shape the wood and then play chess while they wait for the wood to season and dry. The story is also a wonderful depiction of cross-generational friendship and the idea that out of destruction can come something new.
Some Things I’ve Lost by Cybèle Young (Canada) does not have a story arc in the same way as The Branch does. Instead, Cybèle Young took everyday objects found in a house (e.g., watch, visor, umbrella, roller skate) and transformed them through paper sculpture into exotic underwater plants and creatures. The book demonstrates the power of a fertile imagination and the way something familiar can change into something entirely new. The book gives hope because old objects, or old situations, can come beautiful new objects, or new hopeful situations. Young calls the spreads “one act plays” where, similar to adapting to a new country, elements in a community interact with each other and create new relationships.
Oliver by Birgitta Sif (Iceland & USA) tells a story of a young boy who frequently dives into his rich imagination, creating stories with his assortment of hand puppets, stuffed animals and other toys. He is happy playing with his cloth friends for a long time, but eventually finds performing for a non-responsive audience not quite satisfying, and he feels different and alone. One day, as he plays tennis against the wall of his house, his ball bounces out of the yard. Oliver decides to go on a great adventure and follows the ball. In the process, he discovers a friend! Olivia is a kindred spirit, a girl who also loves creating stories with puppets. Together they begin the best adventure of all — friendship and telling stories together. The book encourages a hopeful attitude towards new imaginative adventures and change.
Turn on the Night by Geraldo Valério (Brazil & Canada) is an imaginative journey through the night sky. The first double-page spread is a normal night scene: a home with a dog, doghouse, chicken, chicken coop, and deer-shaped weathervane. Inside, a young girl is tucked in bed with a stuffed chicken. The girl begins to dream. She transforms into a huge flying dog and flies out the window into the starry sky. After meeting up with a chicken and deer, the three companions find a brilliant star, pluck it from the sky, and return home. The star is transformed into many stars and lights up the room as the girl continues to sleep. While the wordless book has a simple storyline, the rich illustrations take the reader on a delightful flight of the imagination.
The Conductor by Laëtitia Devernay (France) is an oversized narrow book rendered in detailed woodcuts. Titled Diapason (Tuning Fork) in the French edition, the original cover of horizontal musical staffs clues the reader that this will be a musical story. Similarly, the end pages in the U.S. edition look like vertical staffs. One of the book’s first illustrations is of a conductor in a tree, raising his baton and getting ready for the music, which lets us know this will be an imaginative composition! Then the extraordinary happens — leaves leap off the tree in swirls and patterns and morph into a glorious symphony of birds in flight. In Escher-like tessellations, the trees, leaves and birds encourage readers to let go and imagine new music and new stories in the midst of change.
Tiger in My Soup by Kashmira Sheth (India & USA) and Jeffrey Ebbeler (USA) relates the story of a young boy who desperately wants his sister to read to him. He tries all kinds of means to catch her attention and convince her to read his book but to no avail. She wants him to eat his soup instead. Meanwhile, his imagination is creating a dangerous adventure with an oversized aggressive tiger! When his sister finally reads his book aloud, she roars so loudly that the tiger leaps out of his imagination, and the boy decides he should eat his soup! While this book does not engage readers with the ideas of change or hope, it does include imaginative scenes with danger, something children who may experienced life-threatening situations can connect with.
While writing these blogs, I kept asking myself why imaginative narratives are critical in helping children process trauma. Photographer Mark Neville gave me part of the answer. Neville took photos of children at play in neighborhoods, war zones, and refugee camps and collected them in a new book called Child’s Play (2016). Under a photo of a girl in the Ukraine shortly after her city was bombed, he wrote that play is children’s “way of being resilient, adapting to life’s challenges by subverting and having fun with them or, when necessary, simply escaping from them into self-constructed or imagined other worlds.” Historically, children’s literature has always functioned as a portal to another world, but, in the case of refugee children, that imaginative world can be an important survival or adaptation tool.
Changing cultures and languages places unique forms of stress on children and adults. Across the last four weeks we have looked at wordless books, books with strong characters who overcome obstacles, imaginative narratives, and books in multiple languages. These books are all tools that can help refugees and immigrants begin to learn a new language, sustain the courage to keep trying, and gain small moments of rest that can reinvigorate them for the long and complex task of adapting to a new home.
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