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Written by Nadia Wheatley
Illustrated by Armin Greder
Windy Hollow Books, 2015, 32 pp.
Named the 2016 Picture Book of the Year in Australia, this book challenges readers to reconsider the status quo in how refugees are currently perceived around the world. The title and cover image suggest that the book is a retelling of the familiar Nativity story when Mary and Joseph flee with their new baby into Egypt to escape King Herod. The author uses the Biblical story as the groundwork for a contemporary version, where the seemingly historical context of the Holy Family on a donkey traveling through the night gives way to Middle Eastern refugees fleeing from armored tanks. The star they follow is the glow of smoke and fire from a city under siege and their donkey is frightened away by the explosions. The young family struggles on alone, barely surviving their long desert journey, until they finally arrive safely at a refugee camp. The story ends several years later in the same camp as the young boy tells his mother, “One day, we will reach our new home.”
This fable is simply told with sketchy charcoal drawings that evoke the emotional uncertainty of a shifting desert and a family’s desperate hope. Nadia Wheatley is an Australian author who grew up in Sydney. She says that her family background provided a continuous sense of refugees—“not as an issue, but as real people of flesh and blood.” Her parents worked in relief efforts at the end of World War II with survivors of concentration camps in Germany. As a young child, a continuous stream of refugees whom her mother had known in various camps came to live in a flat attached to their home. Wheatley talks about the images of desert settings in her mother’s photo albums from her time stationed in camps in Palestine. In 2002, while living in Rome, Wheatley was transfixed by a nativity scene in a church that depicted Mary, Joseph, and the baby alone in a contemporary shelter in the middle of a huge expanse of sand surrounded by helicopter gunships and tanks. That image stayed with her for years until this story started shaping in her imagination. She envisioned a story set 2000 years ago that suddenly shifted to events on the evening news.
The illustrator, Armin Greder, initially turned down the manuscript because he felt the writing was overly descriptive, even though he was drawn to the theme. He says that Wheatley contacted him and offered to revise the text to provide “enough holes for my images to fill” and he began putting charcoal to paper. He was drawn not only to themes around refugees, but also to the silence and emptiness of the desert. He states that he is drawn to deserts due to their inhospitality and inherent threat as unforgiving landscapes. Typically, he does initial sketches in black and white, but with this book he went immediately to color to provide depth since the book occurs at night, and so the images are “little more than two equal horizontal rectangles, the one representing the sky and the other the ground.” The characters provide the only relief on the pages and their arrangement on each page provides a minimal composition.
This moving book leaves the reader with a feeling of uneasiness as they recognize that the family’s hope for a new home may never be realized. By connecting the plight of current refugees from places like Syria with the Holy Family, readers are forced to reconsider depictions on news reports. The book thus provides many possible pairings for readers, such as retellings of the traditional Nativity story, particularly the flight into Egypt as found in Refuge by Anne Booth (2016). The book could also be paired with stories of refugees, such as Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2007), Mary Williams’ Brothers in Hope (2005), Luis Garay’s The Long Road (1997), Frances Park’s My Freedom Trip (1998), and Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow (2016), or books that reflect different kinds of forced journeys such as From North to South by René Colato Laínez and Joe Cepeda (2010). See Volume IV, Issue 2 for reviews of books with forced journeys.
Nadia Wheatley grew up in Sydney, Australia and has a long career in children’s books, including My Place (1989), illustrated by Donna Rawlins. She is recognized as an historian and author committed to social justice issues. She has engaged in long-term collaborations with Aboriginal students and educators, leading to co-authored books such as The Papunya Country School Book of Country and History (2001) and Playground (2011) on Indigenous principles of education. Going Bush (2006) with Ken Searle is about a project with children from Catholic, Muslim and public schools who explored a patch of bush in their local area and built friendships and understandings across cultures. She was nominated by IBBY Australia for the 2014 Hans Christian Anderson award for Writing.
Armin Greder is from Switzerland and migrated to Australia in 1971, where he worked as a graphic designer and taught design and illustration at an art institute. He has written and illustrated other picture books with difficult themes, such as The Island (2008), The City (2010), I am Thomas (2011), and The Great Bear (written by Libby Gleeson, 1999). He has received a number of international awards, such as the Bologna Ragazzi Award, and has been nominated for the Hans Christian Anderson Award. His illustrations reflect his European background with his use of charcoal. He now lives in Lima, Peru.
This picture book blends words and images together seamlessly to transform an ancient story into a fable for our times, inviting discussions about displaced people around the world. The book is a reminder of the inhumanity that has existed over centuries and the need for safe havens to provide a glimpse of hope for a better future.
Meet Nadia Wheatley, http://readingtime.com.au/meet-nadia-wheatley/
Meet Armin Greder, http://readingtime.com.au/meet-armin-greder/
Kathy G. Short, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ