Supporting Refugees and Immigrants through Silent Books

By Susan Corapi

On the heels of Lauren Freedman’s posts about the importance of stories about the refugee experience, this month’s blog posts will focus on practical uses of books to support refugees in ways that can help them feel welcome, negotiate the language learning and adaptation process, and gain a sense of a new home.

silent books

A selection of artwork from Bluebird by Bob Staake, listed below.

I chose this subject because I immigrated myself several times — once as a child, again as a young adult, and twice as a mom with a family in tow. My immigration experiences were not because of war, natural disasters or political oppression. But they were still incredibly difficult. I have vivid memories of being stared at because I was different and being profoundly unhappy because it was so hard to learn a new language and culture all at once. Even though my transitions were tough, they were not compounded by the danger and lack of resources that are part of the forced migration of many people today.

I believe in the power of books to help children through these tough experiences. So my posts are about what we can do with books that can help children make sense of the chaos they lived through, while they learn a new language and new cultural rules, and feel at home enough that they are able to learn and eventually thrive. Each week I will focus on one type of book that can support that process. This week we look at silent books.

In 2013 the Italian section of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) put out a call for what they called “silent books.” They wanted to help refugee children in Lampedusa, a small Italian island in the Mediterranean that serves as a landing place for thousands of refugees coming from Africa and Middle Eastern countries. The goal was to create a library for the local and immigrant children to help them recognize that their lives are not limited by political strife, or as the major of Lampedusa said, “learn to tell the difference between the horizon and the border.”

The Italian section of IBBY put out a call to other IBBY sections around the world, asking for the best of the best of their silent books. Translation was not an issue because there were no words, just superb storytelling with images. Children who spoke different languages could “read” these stories. The group of professionals collecting the books had criteria for what the books should do. They wanted books that:

– narrate a journey, during which characters are open to the world at large;
– project an ethos of welcome and respect, of coexistence and friendship;
– show the curiosity of childhood;
– tell stories because children need a world of stories to build understanding, exchange memories, and make sense of life;
– invite new stories and new dreams;
– portray agency, in which the characters take an active role in society;
– help readers gain a knowledge of themselves and others;
– prompt questions about worlds that are different than that of the reader;
– talk about the passage of time and the cycle of life and nature; and
– relay small moments of happiness.

Profiled below are short descriptions of some of the silent books submitted from national sections of IBBY. Each story fulfills one or more of the listed criteria.

The Arrival (Shaun Tan — Australia)
In The Arrival, an immigrant lands in an imaginative world. The challenges he faces reflect the real process of arriving in a new place and not understanding a word. Finding one new friend with whom he shares stories helps him eventually feel more at home.

Before After (Anne-Margot Ramstein & Matthias Arégui — France)
This delightful and lengthy concept book illustrates many sequences of events “before and after” from the real world (acorn and ancient oak; slingshot & broken window) and an imagined world (pumpkin & Cinderella’s coach; King Kong in the jungle & city).

Bluebird (Bob Stakke — USA)
A small bluebird watches as a lonely boy is bullied by neighborhood children. The bird reaches out to the boy in friendship, and the two spend many happy hours playing together. The bullies eventually return, threatening the boy, and the bluebird sacrifices himself to save his friend.

The Chicken Thief (Beatrice Rodriguez — France)
A fox kidnaps a hen from her home she shares with a bear, a rabbit, and a rooster. The three give chase across forests, mountains with underground caves, and a wild ocean, all the way to the fox’s home. Visually humorous (e.g., the rooster and rabbit use the bear as a boat), the story defies stereotypes when the three friends leave the hen to live with her very good friend the fox. The sequel, Fox and Hen Together, is equally humorous as fox and hen have a baby (fen? hox?).

Clown (Quentin Blake — UK)
A toy clown is tossed into the garbage with other stuffed animals. He comes to life and sets off on a mission to rescue his friends. He seeks help from several adults and kids with no success, until he finds a girl babysitting her brother. After helping her with her chores, they rescue his stuffed animal friends and are all welcomed into the home.

Here I Am (Patti Kim & Sonia Sánchez — Korea)
A young boy from Korea moves to the United States with his family and experiences the frustrations of dealing with situations that are unfamiliar. He carefully guards his one piece of Korea, a small red seed. When he accidentally drops it out the window, a girl who is jump roping through the neighborhood retrieves it. In a frantic effort to get his treasure back, the boy is forced out into the neighborhood where he experiences new things he discovers are pretty nice!

The Island (Marije & Ronald Tolman)
In a sequel to The Tree House, the polar bear again takes off exploring, but this time he swims to several odd-shaped islands, making many new friends, including dodo birds, a swimming rhino, and a violin-playing raccoon. The peaceful, serene tone of the illustrations communicates the joy of the bear as he travels.

Mr. Wuffles! (David Wiesner — USA)
Wiesner’s books with flights into the imagination are well-known (Tuesday; The Three Pigs; Flotsam). In this book, his cat, Mr. Wuffles, is fascinated with a new spaceship toy, but when he bats it too hard, the aliens who are piloting the toy ship must risk their lives and venture out into the cat’s territory to make emergency repairs. They escape into a hole in the wall where they make some new friends, a colony of ants, whith whom they receive help and exchange stories in ant-speak and alien-speak.

The Lion and the Mouse (Jerry Pinkney — USA)
Aesop’s fable of the unlikely friendship between the powerful and powerless comes alive with Pinkney’s luminescent watercolors. A mouse pleads for his life when caught by a hungry lion, stating that one day he may be able to return the favor. Skeptical but eventually receptive to the idea, the lion releases the mouse. Soon thereafter, when the lion is caught by hunters and tied up, the mouse saves his huge friend’s life by gnawing through the ropes keeping the lion captive.

Pool (JiHyeon Lee — Korea)
A shy boy in an overcrowded pool decides to be brave and dives below all the other swimmers. In the suddenly expanded watery world, he finds a fellow explorer. Together they discover a colorful world full of extraordinary sea creatures, including a furry whale and imaginative fish that look like they swam over from a book by Dr. Seuss.

Wave (Suzy Lee — Korea)
A young exuberant girl spends a day at the beach where she and her seagull companions chase the waves back and forth. As she becomes more confident and bold, she becomes more daring, standing her ground. Suddenly one particularly big wave doesn’t follow her orders and soaks her, but as it recedes it leaves seashell treasures to explore!

Next week we will take a look at bilingual books.

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