With the recent invasion of the free democracy of Ukraine by the Russian government, you may find yourself in a position of speaking with young children about the atrocities of war and what it means to leave your homeland in search of safety. These can be difficult topics to navigate and you may think that it’s too much for children to handle.
But the fact is that if the children caught in the crossfire are living through it, our children should be able to learn about it under the guidance of a caring adult. Learning about the refugee experience will help your child develop empathy for others. They’ll consider what they might do or feel like in the same situation. So, don’t be afraid! These great books will help you start the conversation.
Thao by Thao Lam – The author recounts her experience as an immigrant from Vietnam, who moves to Canada when she’s a young girl. For as long as she can remember, her name has been mispronounced, and she begins to respond to the obviously wrong names other’s call her by, such as towel, thaw and Thai. Worse still are the Asian slurs she endures, yellow and China Girl. This is an opportunity to teach kids that such terms are cruel and that it’s important to learn people’s names and use them correctly.
Lam shares that she went through a phase of wishing she were named Jennifer. She goes to school one morning as Jennifer and has a great time. But when she gets to lunch and finds that her mom has made her favorite Vietnamese food, she acknowledges that she is Thao.
The Paper Boat by Thao Lam – Also written by Lam, The Paper Boat strikes a more serious tone, recounting completely in illustrations, the story of her family’s escape from Vietnam when she was only two years old. Alongside her family’s flee from danger is a parallel story involving a group of ants on their own journey.
Lam’s mother told her that when she was a child, the only invasion was that of ants looking for food. Lam’s grandmother would try to trap them with sugar water but her mother would often try to rescue them. On the night of their escape, Lam’s mother became disoriented and lost in the tall grass. She noticed a trail of ants, which she followed to a river bed where their escape boated waited. The family then reunited at a refugee camp in Malaysia among thousands of others seeking asylum.
They eventually resettled in Canada, where Lam grew up and still lives. In recounting her family’s history, she was struck by tenacity and resilience shared between the ant and the refugee. Ants are often on the move, after being attacked or having their homes destroyed. But when they reach a new safe place, they rebuild again. The story of Lam’s family’s retreat and that of the ants on a parallel journey create an opportunity to discuss with your child the strength, hope and sheer will to survive that defines the refugee and immigrant experience.
Together We Grow by Susan Vaught – Together We Grow is set on a farm in the middle of a storm. Many animals have gathered in a barn, seeking shelter and safety. But there are many hungry mouths and when a mother fox comes to the window seeking a place for her family, she’s told that there’s no room. The other animals are likely also scared to allow the foxes in, for fear that they will be devoured.
The mother fox slinks back to her kits, unsure of how to keep them safe. But suddenly, a tiny yellow gosling appears and shows the family kindness. As the other animals watch the gosling from the window, they are inspired by its fearless display of love. They come out of the barn to welcome the family in from the wet and cold.
The book concludes with a message that there is room for all of us, as more animals appear at the door of the barn. Though it’s natural to feel concerns about whether we will have enough resources to care for all who require them, this beautifully illustrated book puts you in the position of both the mother fox, the gosling and the animals watching in the wings. It’s a reminder that any one of us could unexpectedly need shelter and protection, but most of the time, we are the ones able to help.
The Journey by Francesca Sanna – Sanna wrote this book after speaking with two girls she met at a refugee center in Italy. It begins with a child’s recollection that they once lived in a city close to the sea. Her family would often spend weekends at the beach but they no longer can, due to the war that came to them. Now there is nothing but chaos and bad things happen every day.
Eventually, the war takes the child’s father away and things become much darker. The mother’s friend tells her that others are leaving, trying to make their way to a safer place. The country is very far away and it will require a dangerous journey to get there… if they get there at all.
Though the children are very scared, their mother tells them it will be a great adventure. They pack everything they own and head out, avoiding detection at night and staying on the move for many days. Every time they change their mode of transportation, they leave more and more behind until eventually, they have nothing left.
They finally make it to the border, where an angry guard sends them away. The family spends the night in the forest and is awakened by the sounds of more guards, who they hide from. They eventually meet a man who their mother pays to transport them over the border. After that, they board a ferry with many other people.
After many days on the ocean, they finally reach the shore. But they have still not reached their safe place. They travel for many more days and nights by train. The child spots a flock of migrating birds in the sky. The book ends with the hope that like the birds, the family will find a new home where they can start their story again.
As an adult, this book was difficult to read because you can instantly sympathize with the mother, so desperate to keep her children safe. Through the child’s eyes, we see how dangerous this journey is and how everything can come apart at any moment but how a loving parent helps them to keep going.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs – Ruurs was inspired to tell this story after learning of Nizar Ali Badr’s stone artwork. Nizar was born in Latakia, Syria, and has never left his country. He has always been driven to create but was particularly moved by walks along the seashore to incorporate stones in his art. Ruurs saw Stepping Stones as an opportunity to raise funds to help Syrian refugees while also bringing attention to Nizar’s work.
Stepping Stones tells the story of a family who once enjoyed the freedom all people deserve. Children were free to play and go to school. Adults spent time with neighbors and practiced their livelihoods to support their families. Nobody knew that life would soon change forever.
War came to their country and village life would never be the same. Food was scarce; adults went hungry. People began to leave, at first like a stream but then like a raging river. They leave everything they’ve ever known in the hopes of a better life.
When the family leaves, they walk for days. When the children would get so tired they cried, their father would tell them that they were walking towards a new future. Eventually, the family reaches the sea and must cross it with many others in a small boat. Unfortunately, not everyone survives the dangerous journey.
Eventually, the family reaches safety. They don’t understand the words of those greeting them but they know from their smiles that they are among friends. They have a new home now. They’re called the lucky ones by others. And they’re building new lives, full of hope and peace for the future.
Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Richard Simon and Tanya Simon – This is the story of a young survivor of Kristallnacht, the November 9, 1938 Nazi-authorized attack on Jews living in Germany and Austria. Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed and more than 30,000 people were sent to concentration camps.
Oskar is a young boy who has been sent to America on his own with nothing but an address and a photo of a woman he doesn’t know. It’s his Aunt Esther and she lives in New York City. He arrives on the seventh day of Hanukkah.
His father reminds him to look for the blessings, even when he has seen so much destruction and sadness. When he arrives alone in a huge new city, Oskar is helped along by the kind people he meets. A woman feeding birds gives him bread. A newspaper stand owner lets him keep a comic he can’t pay for. Another young boy gives him a pair of gloves when he sees his cold hands.
After receiving blessings from 8 kind strangers, Oskar finds his Aunt Esther, who embraces him. This is where the story ends but we can assume he’s able to live a safe life in America. This book introduces elements of Hanukkah and some Yiddish words. Because the Holocaust is such a deep topic, this book might be best reserved for older children at a time when it can be read together.
I hope you’ll find at least one book on this list that helps you talk about the refugee experience with the children in your life. Despite the heaviness of the situation, these children deserve to be seen and for their stories to be told. Thank you for doing your part to spread hope and love in the world.