Presenting the stories of refugees to young children often involves a balancing act of fact, emotion, and restraint, all while finding the common ground to create empathy in the reader. Increasingly on bookshelves are successful picture books that use illustrations to build bridges of understanding and bright colors to convey hope. For older children there are books that can devote time to explain issues or offer first hand accounts along with political back stories and historical events. For elementary age children 2nd and 3rd grade particularly, chapter books on refugees are not very common. Children this age seem to relish in silly outlandish characters with a few font happy sentence and pictures on each page or stick to series that are easily predictable as they present tidbits of history or simple mysteries. All reasons to encourage your child to read Blackout! and break the monotony and gain some empathy. As delicate as the subject matter is, the book manages to resonate with most children how good they have it and how fortunate they are, without getting preachy or pretentious.
Yusuf, a 12-year-old Canadian boy is anxiously waiting the arrival of his cousin Ahmed from Syria. Ahmed recently lost his father when their makeshift boat capsized, and while coming to Canada is a blessing, he is still haunted in his dreams and memories by all that he has seen and endured. This idea that being safe now, doesn’t erase all the pain and fears experienced, is a concept most adults understand, but I was surprised that my children had to talk it out a bit. They understood that he would be sad, but hadn’t really thought how hearing loud noises would immediately remind him of the explosions he heard in Syria and of his home and buildings crumbling down.
The story’s focus is the present however, and follows Yusuf. The backstory of Syria and Ahmed’s escape is juxtaposed with an ice storm turning Toronto powerless and cold. As Yusuf deals with the annoyance of a few days without electricity he learns a bit of compassion for others in the world, who endure a similar situation indefinitely. In a beautiful way, Ahmed’s enduring optimism changes Yusuf as they find reasons to smile at the raccoon rummaging through their food put outside to stay cold, or playing in the snow to pass the time. The characters have a lot of heart, for a short book, and you really feel like you get to know them and feel for them. Yes, Yusuf whines, but he is a kid who’s winter vacation plans have gone awry and is frustrated and bored. Ahmed, while a survivor, still struggles, but maintains a personality much more than just victim. The other family members are background, but they aren’t flat, they have warmth and humor and pain in equal parts, implying if the book was longer, we’d get to know more about them too, and probably like them as well.
Despite the refugee story line, and the blackout, the crux of the story is actually helping one another and being neighborly. Ahmed at one point is telling a story of how he began helping someone in a refugee camp and that it gave him purpose. This reminds Yusuf that they have an elderly neighbor and the radio alerts had encouraged people to check on one another. The boys rush over to find Mr. Caldwell, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by his kerosene heater. Luckily an ambulance is able to get there just in the nick or time. On the third day of the blackout, the Imam speaks about helping one another and making this obstacle into something positive. Ahmed tells Yusuf how the neighbors in Syria would gather in the winter to share what food they had. This brilliant idea gets the support of Yusuf’s dad, the Imam and the whole congregation as they rush home to invite the neighbors to a neighborhood BBQ. The perishable food needs to be consumed, so what better way to enjoy it, than to share it.
When the power comes back on, Yusuf is not the same kid, he has grown in compassion, and patience, and inshaAllah the reader will be similarly affected for the better.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the book addresses a hard topic on a kid level. It does not overwhelm the reader or frighten them. MashaAllah, it balances what they can understand, with something bigger. The illustrations keep it light in their doodle like appearance and the font, spacing, chapter length and presentation are perfect for the target audience.
The women wear hijab, they pray, they go to the mosque, yet they don’t quote hadith or Quran or say a lot of mashaAllah and Alhumdulillah, making the book work easier for non Muslims. The coming together of community is nice. No one asks or worries what religion, race, or ethnicity anyone in the neighborhood is, they just come together to share a meal and welcome Ahmed and his mom to Canada. The Imam is relatable and the dad is involved and generous, the mom is competent and respected, all normal behaviors that reinforce community and normalize diversity and acceptance.
The violence of war may affect young children differently. Nothing is sensationalized or graphic, but Ahmed does get stuck in the rubble when his house is destroyed, and his father’s drowning is discussed. Nothing is talked about in depth, but the ideas are presented.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This book would be perfect for a young book club. I’m looking forward to reading it with my six-year-old son and my eight-year-old niece so that I can see how what they get from the book. There is a brief explanation on refugees at the back of the book, and I think current events would naturally make a book club discussion easy to facilitate. I think gathering items and meeting refugees after, would also be a wonderful way to turn the fictional story into real action. It is also worth noting 100% of profits from this book will be going to the Syrian Canadian Foundation‘s mental health and wellness initiative for Syrian newcomers.