Whether they are nostalgic reveries of those who came long ago to this nation of immigrants, or the brutal nightmares of worldwide millions fleeing war, violence and persecution today, memories of migration matter. Telling these stories seems more important than ever — even, and some might say especially, to children. A wave of picture books has arrived to help with this difficult task.
THE DAY WAR CAME (Candlewick Press, 32 pp., $16.99; ages 5 to 8), Nicola Davies’s poetic response to the impact of governmental refugee policies — first published in 2016 on The Guardian’s website — has now been turned into a picture book, with colored pencil and watercolor illustrations by Rebecca Cobb. After a serene opening featuring a happy little girl at home and school, war arrives with shocking suddenness; gray smoke and ash fill the pristine white pages. “War took everything. War took everyone,” Davies writes. Fleeing with others to physical safety, the child, tainted by her refugee status, is rejected repeatedly. Finally, while she is curled into the corner of a dark page in a vivid vision of despair, other children come to nudge her out of hopelessness, “pushing back the war with every step.” Davies’s powerful words are sensitively represented by Cobb in simple child-centered illustrations, making this an accessible book for those young readers ready to engage with this difficult topic.
Memory is what maintains hope in MARWAN’S JOURNEY (Minedition, 36 pp., $17.99; ages 5 to 7), which was written by Patricia de Arias, illustrated by Laura Borràs and first published in Chile in 2016. Young readers are dropped directly into a young boy’s trek away from his unnamed war-torn homeland: “I take giant steps even though I’m small. One, two, three … crossing the desert.” A photograph of his mother generates happy remembrances for Marwan, helping him to keep going through the barren landscape to safety. The evocative and lyrical text is brought to life through Borràs’s ink-and-watercolor illustrations, the brown desert of the boy’s present contrasting with the colorful images of his past. By the end, having reached safety, the optimistic Marwan dreams of returning home to a place where “the night never never never goes so dark again,” one filled with splendid treelike rays of sunlight.
In Camille Andros and Julie Morstad’s THE DRESS AND THE GIRL (Abrams, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8) an item of clothing becomes a connection between old and new. Lovingly made by a Greek mother, the dress is worn by her daughter on a voluntary migration, one filled with hope “for something singular, stunning or sensational. For something extraordinary.” Welcomed by the Statue of Liberty, the family disembarks in early-20th-century New York, and the dress is misplaced. After years traveling the world, the garment reunites with its original owner, now perfect for her daughter. Andros’s words are well matched with Morstad’s evocative artwork, conjuring a gentle, lyrical version of what used to be the dominant American immigration story.
For Alfredo Alva, the recollection of his arduous childhood journey from his central Mexican home village to Texas is something he wants others to know about, too. In LA FRONTERA: EL VIAJE CON PAPA: MY JOURNEY WITH PAPA (Barefoot Books, 48 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8), written with Deborah Mills, he tells of a difficult and frightening trip with his father, one that includes hunger, thirst, exhaustion and fear of discovery. Told in side-by-side Spanish and English text, Alva’s story is brought to life by Claudia Navarro’s vivid acrylic, graphite and digital collages and given broader context with several pages of information on borders and immigration after the main story. When President Reagan offers amnesty to undocumented migrants of the time, the boy and his father gain citizenship and the rest of the family is able to come to America. Sadly, children and their parents making the same journey today do not have this opportunity.
Some migration experiences are better forgotten. In SPECTACULARLY BEAUTIFUL (POW! Kids, 32 pp.; ages 3 to 7), written by Lisa Lucas, a Canadian schoolteacher, and illustrated by Laurie Stein, schoolchildren are asked to remember their birthplaces. Some draw favorite foods, happy activities with friends, and special family gifts while Shahad grimly centers hers on “the bricks that made my eyes look like this … and my leg … like this.” Daily compliments from the teacher, starting with the little girl’s yellow hair ribbons, bring tiny smiles that become beams of happiness when the adult says with enormous conviction: “I think you are spectacularly beautiful!” Stein’s illustrations — black-and-white photographs of the classroom, school and nearby areas, populated with cartoon images done with the simplest of lines and filled in with flat colors (two tiny crosshatched scars on face and leg are all that differentiate Shahad) — effectively bring out Lucas’s poignant parable.
Recovery from difficult memories is also at the heart of Francesca Sanna’s ME AND MY FEAR (Flying Eye, 40 pp.; ages 3 to 7). “I’ve always had a secret,” begins the child protagonist, “a tiny friend called Fear.” At first, Fear — represented as a small white cuddly creature along the lines of a stuffed animal — helps her tackle such familiar childhood situations as monsters under the bed, but then the tone shifts as we learn that “since we came to this new country, Fear isn’t so little anymore.” Indeed, the creature gets bigger and bigger as the child copes with the trials of a new place, language and people. But then, a peer reaches out, wanting to play, and is able to show his own Fear. With its warm palette and gentle scenes of the worried child being comforted, this book could function as a sequel to Sanna’s astounding debut picture book, “The Journey,” which recounted a family’s dangerous flight from their home in a war zone. Sanna provides an empathetic exploration of the adjustment to a new land that all migrants experience.
Some books exist to answer questions. These, with their heart-wrenching moments and striking imagery, are certain to provoke questions, especially for young readers unfamiliar with the harsh realities of today’s refugees and migrants. What happened to the little girl’s family? Why did it take so long for Alfredo to see the rest of his family again? Where is Marwan’s mother? Why does Shahad have scars? Who is doing this to them? And — most frightening of all — could this happen to me? Because of this, these are not books for children to read on their own. They should experience them with caring adults who are ready to answer their questions and support them as they learn more about some of the world’s darker truths.
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