MTYT: Books that Support Young Readers’ Understanding of Refugees

Flight is the story of refugees fleeing in the desert. At first, it appears to be the story about Mary and Joseph’s journey before the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s actually a much darker parallel to the original story. It is a picturebook that introduces the idea of refugees to children and highlights the importance of sheltering refugees. Sometimes shelter is not enough; we need to give them a home, too.

“Refugee” is a word that can be confusing for children. Some adults use this word interchangeably with the word “immigrant.” This reflects their lack of attention to criteria that distinguishes the two. Refugees and immigrants both journey to other locations. However, their reasons for departure, final destinations and voyages vary. In a book we use in upcoming weeks, “refugee” is simply defined as “people who flee from their own country to another due to unsafe conditions” (Mason, 2016). Refugee is a significant term in today’s society. It reflects social issues, stories and strengths of individuals that face social challenges beyond their control. Children are members of the global community who will make complex decisions in the future regarding individuals that enter their country. It is critical they be informed.

For young readers, a beginning point can be understanding the stories of refugees. They conceptualize this notion through people whose lives change as a result of political, social and natural issues and events. Children’s picturebooks offer insights on “refugees” on a level they can understand. The illustrations and words allow for individual interpretations and open the door to progressive conversations between children and adults. This month’s My Take Your Take focuses on five picturebooks from different genres that tell refugee stories and support growing understanding of the term for children.

Jessica Edwards and Janelle Mathis from the University of North Texas respond to these books and invite your responses as well.

Flight by Nadia Wheatley & Armin Greder

Jessica: This beautifully illustrated story resembles the journey of Mary and Joseph before the birth of Jesus Christ, which is what the reader might believe this story is about at first. As soon as readers pick up other clues early in the story, it is clear that this story is its own. However, the story of Christmas has a strong presence throughout the whole book. Without the knowledge of this religious story, a child can still understand the events that occur and use them to further understand the journey of a refugee. Although we do not know why the family of three must flee, the authority’s presence is tracked through fire, sound and the image of tanks approaching.

These refugees are willing to abandon everything to find a new life that is safe for their child, with extra concern from the mother. She repeatedly soothes her baby with a lullaby. Their journey is difficult as they encounter many challenges while trekking through the sand with no sign of shelter in sight. They finally find a refugee camp where they stay for many years. It’s beautiful how the hope of finding a new home begins with the mother at the beginning of the story, and ends with the child as he comforts his mother years later.

In the illustrations, the characters only open their eyes during the most frightening parts of their journey. During the rest of their journey, their eyes are either too small to see or are closed in a peaceful manner. What’s interesting is that the image of mother and child on the last page shows each of them with their eyes open wide. They also do not have a smile on their face. This makes me wonder if the ending is truly a happy one. After the family has reached the refugee camp and lives there for many years, the author decides to continue with one more page. She may have wanted to show us one more event, which could be what the mother and child are looking towards. To me, the look on their faces is haunting.

The theme of religion, including a repetition of the Arabic phrase “inshallah” and the father praying on his mat, might make it difficult to include this book in the everyday classroom. I like the connection between Christmas and the struggles of refugees, considering that some conservative Christians believe that refugees should not be accepted into our country. As a Christian, I believe that God would want us to accept refugees into our country to offer them safety and help them back on their feet. If you believe in the Bible and understand and accept Jesus Christ’s birth, then accepting refugees into this country should warrant unwavering support. Unfortunately, that is not the case for some Christians today.

Janelle: Flight by Nadia Wheatley and Armin Greder reflects the talents of these two creators of children’s books to represent in an atypical way the topic at hand. In this case, they create a story through simple stark texts and dark hues that initially parallels the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph fleeing with the baby Jesus.

Mary promises the baby they will soon reach their new home and Joseph adds, “God be willing,” and the family walks with a single donkey across the desert. “The air is bitterly cold, and the wind shrieks across the sands, as if to warn of the long, hard journey ahead,” (Wheatley, np). A reader’s heart goes out to this small family. As they look to the stars to guide them, they see flares of bombardment. Readers realize that this is not part of the nativity story but a more contemporary scenario as the family, now without their donkey, travels across the desert.

As a reader, I see through the illustrations their fear of noises, lack of water and concern for the child. On a page without words, I could breathe a brief sigh of relief when they spot the camp where they become “one among many,” waiting “until their cry is heard.” A final page shows the mother and boy, several years older, staring outward as now the boy promises the mother that one day “we will reach our new home.” The issue here, for me as a reader, becomes apparent. After they face a dangerous journey to escape conflict, they have no promise of a new home–only hope and confidence that they will find a place to give refuge.

Though refugees leave everything with no hope of return and nowhere to go, they still remain strong, hopeful and determined. We can give shelter to people, but “home” is what they need. “Home” is not a structure. It’s the people who treat others kindly and with respect. They listen with care to the voices that tell stories that remind us of our responsibilities as global citizens. The intertextuality of text and images here is powerful for those who know the Christian story that Flight resembles. Yet the story stands alone as a refugee story that speaks of the conflict and challenges faced by many. Children can ask why they are fleeing alone in the desert and adults can respond in ways that children can understand.

This is the first installment of November 2017’s My Take/Your Take. To follow these continuing conversations, check back every Wednesday.

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