Tag Archives: refugees

I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien

Standard
I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien

Im-New-Here-by-Anne-Sibley-OBrien-on-BookDragon

Three new kids, not just at school, but to America as well. Maria is from Guatemala, Jin from Korea, and Fatimah from Somalia.  All three telling about what they are faced with as they settle in to their new life and routine, and all tell a bit about how things were back home.  FullSizeRender (48)

This book is not entertaining or fun, it is educational.  Written for ages 5-8 this book is very straightforward as the three characters stories are interwoven to show the growth and settling in that they experience.  The simple sentences, allow the reader to learn real, tangible ways that this children are finding the transition hard.  It also alleviates any sense of pity as it shows the full lives they had before coming to America. 

FullSizeRender (49)

I love that the other kids in the class are involved in real life ways to help welcome the new kids to class. Sometimes we are harsh on kids that don’t show empathy or compassion, forgetting that often they don’t know how.  This book works for adults and children in all situations.  We all need to put ourselves in other peoples shoes and see what struggles they are facing, we all need to help one another, and we all need to facilitate environments where these actions can take place.

FullSizeRender (50)

The book in many ways would fit well with One Green Apple, as it gives the perspective from the character who is new and articulates some of the obstacles they are facing, while also showing the interactions that help one to feel welcome and comfortable.

The pictures are crucial to the story as they show the feelings of the children and give context to the simple storyline.  I love that their is so much additional diversity in the illustrations: children of all body shapes, there is a student in a wheel chair, Fatimah wears a hijab, and there are male and female teachers in the book.

FullSizeRender (51)

The Author’s Note at the end of the 32 page story tells of her experience as a white American child living in South Korea, and some of her feelings and thoughts of being in a new country.  There is no mention of Islam, just implies Fatimah is a Muslim based on her dress, her mother’s clothing, and her country of origin.  

Advertisements

The Lines We Cross by Randa Abel-Fattah

Standard

LinesWeCross.jpg

It is kind of remarkable now that I look back on the book, that before reading it, I knew exactly what was going to happen based on the jacket flap synopsis, yet somehow the book held my interest and I finished it easily.  There were no surprises, no plot twists, not even any amazingly poignant passages, yet, I kept reading, so there is some merit, perhaps in ideas, even if the story line wasn’t meticulously crafted.  At 390 pages, this 4.8 level AR book is not for elementary or even middle school readers, it is a high school and up for content understanding and appropriateness.

SYNOPSIS:

The dual storylines are told from the intertwined perspectives of Mina, a Muslim refugee to Australia who fled Afghanistan in a boat, and Michael, an Australian upper middle class high school student whose parents run an anti-immigration group and oppose the arrival of refugees.  The two see each other on opposite sides at a protest, and reunite when Mina earns a scholarship to a prestige posh school, and the family moves so that she can attend.  Naturally the two clash, then fall in love.  Along the way there are slight changes as the characters grow, some side stories about friends and family members, and like the title suggests, crossing of lines, so to speak.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the book in terms of its political plot is actually pretty nuanced.  You could say it is framed as a good vs. bad, but it isn’t that simple, and I think the characters shed light on the gray area in between.  In many ways Michael changes and grows and challenges himself to go out of his comfort zone created by his family.  He forces himself to see where immigrants live, he steps foot in a mosque, he researches the detention centers and what not, to learn that he doesn’t agree with his parents.  I wish, however, that all of these scenarios would have been slightly more memorable, maybe an interaction at the mosque, or follow-up by talking to Mina about it.  The lack of reflection made his journey seem like he was changing his views for a girl, and not because of a deeper understanding.  At the end his mom even asks him about it, and I kind of had to side with her in wondering about his motives.  Mina’s personal growth is more in that she learns to trust new people, and let them in.  Her growth is not as obvious as Michael’s and I think some would put her on the “good” side and see her as a stagnant character.  She is greatly shaped by the death of her father and brother, by the escape and journey to Australia, and then having to move again for school, but in the course of the books timeline, she really doesn’t change much.  Her Islam is really culture, she doesn’t pray, or mention anything about her belief or faith.  Halal is not explained, but is just seen as a political tool to protest and argue about.  Mina never goes to the mosque, and even for religious reasons never questions if she should have a boyfriend, but worries what her mother will say and thus does keep it secret.  For all realistic purposes, she is portrayed as a Muslim as a political identifier that illicits stereotypes and assumptions by others, not as a description of what she believes, behaves, or thinks.  Michael’s parents are where the real meat of the story for me was.  Understanding how they see themselves as “not racists” ordering ethnic foods from all over, but actively working to keep non-assimilating foreigners out.  Their organization claims to promote the idea of upholding Australian values, not of disliking other countries values, and I think this is really what so much of the world is facing right now. The ethnocentric idea of being so great and understanding in words, but not in behavior and policy making.  Michael’s dad goes overseas and feels sad, but doesn’t feel compelled to help, rather than to keep those people from changing, “his” world.  As the book mentions a lot, his parents in other ways are kind, good people.  It really isn’t good against evil in all facets of life.

I think my favorite part in the book are the female relationships.  I love Mina’s friend Paula, who quotes Oscar Wilde and while on the outside has it all together, lets Mina see the real her.  She is smart and feisty and seems to stay genuine throughout.  I like that Mina’s friends from the “old neighborhood” are still in her life and I even like how close she and her mom are.  It’s nice to see females helping each other, there is power in that, that fiction helps remind readers about.

FLAGS:

There is mention of sex, nothing explicit, but side characters hook up, are accused of being sluts, and it is definitely there.  The main characters kiss regularly.  There is some swearing and lots and lots of lying.  Mina can’t go out after library hours because that is where she says she is, when she is elsewhere.  There is fighting, alcohol, clubbing, and smoking mentioned throughout.  None of the aforementioned flags are glorified or even praised, but all are there.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a student book club, but I think it could be done as an adult book club.  The politics need some background and understanding, that I think some discussion would be enlightening in a community or larger society setting.  Sometimes even in the real world, meeting people different than ourselves does wonders for changing preconceived notions and stereotypes.

The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman illustrated by Karin Littlewood

Standard
The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman illustrated by Karin Littlewood

color of home

This powerful book about Hassan’s first day at school is a bit graphic, and incredibly important.  While it is a picture book, it is definitely not meant for small children.  The rich water color illustrations and the impactful text match the AR level 3.6 and would really appeal to thoughtful 2nd through 4th grade students.

A refugee from Somalia, Hassan finds it “tiring remembering even a few English words.”  He misses the color of Somalia, his cat, the warmth of the sun, and the freedom of learning out doors.  He doesn’t miss the violence though.

colour3(1)

When it is time to paint, Hassan paints his home and his family, all 9 of them, and his pets, in bright happy hews, much to the delight of his teacher.  But then, Hassan, engulfs his house with the red paint of flames, smudges out his Uncle Ahmed when the black bullets that take him down, and Hassan communicates his sadness to his teacher.

Hassan doesn’t take his picture home, he knows it will upset his mom and little sister, Naima.  The next day, a translator comes to help Hassan.  Fela is Somali and wears a black hijab, like Hassan’s mom, but western clothes, a new concept to the young boy.

color

Through Fela, Hassan opens up to his teacher and explains what it was like when the soldiers came and he had to hide under the bed.  How they had to leave without any of their stuff, including his beloved pet cat Musa.  All they could take was his father’s prayer rug and the Quran, as they set off on foot in the night.  He tells about leaving his grandparents and cousins behind and being scared on the plane.

Being able to share his fears, seems to help as he paints a new picture to share with his mom.  This one filled with his animals, and not with fire and bullets.  There is hope for Hassan as he looks forward to adding color to his new life and reminds himself to learn the english word for “home.”

colour2(1)

The book  is great for seeing the experience through Hassan’s eyes, and taking the reader through some of his adult like fears, and childish stresses.  Older kids should appreciate that what he has lived through is horrific, but his understanding as a child is slightly limited.  It should increase empathy, compassion, and kindness.

While the illustrations are rich and detailed they are very realistic.  This adds to the somberness of the book, and keeps this work of fiction a very real reminder of the world and what trials so many go through.

The characters are visibly Muslim, but there is no mention of religious doctrine, and readers may not know what a prayer rug is or a Quran.  They will be able to use context clues to figure out hijab, but there is not a glossary in the back.

Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

Standard
Blackout! by Sumayyah Hussein illustrated by Majd Massijeh

blackout.png

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.

SYNOPSIS:

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.

blackout inside

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.

blacout2

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.

FLAGS:

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.

blackout1

Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes illustrated by Sue Cornelison

Standard
Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes illustrated by Sue Cornelison

kunkush

Often children’s stories of refugees fleeing war are hopeful in a forced way that seems to want to protect them from the reality of what is going on in the world.  As adults we often cling to the ones with happy endings for our children and for ourselves, because the tragic ones are too numerous and overwhelming to comprehend.  This book marvelously does a great job for those older children in the middle that are beginning to understand the world around them, while not bombarding them with the severity of how cruel we can be to one another.  This true story instead focuses on a beloved cat and all the humans of different backgrounds, all over the world that help reunite her with her family.  Giving hope, but also showing the difficulty in the world, and the effects even one person can have in making a difference.

cat

Kunkush’s family goes to great pains to get themselves (all 6 of them) out of Mosul, and away from the war.  That the fact they sneak their beloved cat with them, shows just how much a member of the family he is. They drive through the night, and walk for days over a mountain, they reach a Kurdish village where they sneak the cat on a bus to Turkey, they then have to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece, only to land in Lesbos and have Kunkush disappear.  The family searches as long as they can, but alas have to move on to their new home.  From here the story switches from following the family to following the cat and all the people determined to reunite him with his family.  Unfortunately, they don’t know where the family is.  Amy, a volunteer, takes the cat to the vet to get cleaned up, and then creates an internet campaign to try and find his family.  People from all over the world donate to his care, and his travel expenses.  Eventually, Amy takes the cat to Germany, where many refugees have resettled and continues her search.  Finally, word gets to the family in Norway, and Doug, a photographer, arranges to fly the cat to her new home. Alhumdulillah.

img_3838.jpgOne could argue that countless people are misplaced each day due to war, and we overlook it because it is easier than dealing with it, so why care about a cat.  And to that I challenge the skeptic, animal lover or not, to read this book and not have your heart-strings tugged.

IMG_3839The book is done beautifully.  The pictures are warm and endearing and are the only proof that the family is Muslim, by their hijabs.  The love the family has for their pet is expressed in the illustrations, and even more so by the real photographs at the end of the book following the Note from Doug and Amy.  At 48 pages the book works really well for 3rd grade and up (it isn’t AR) who can marvel at the cat’s journey.  I particularly think this book is a great way to show children another aspect of refugees.  There are a fair amount of books that talk about the refugee experience or show refugees getting adjusted to a new home.  But, this is a great way to show that refugees are not just defined by a word.  They are vibrant individual people just like everyone else.  By focusing on the cat and his journey, the reader sees what a refugee goes through, particularly this family, and hopefully will stop and think about it.   But it doesn’t just show the family in that capacity, it shows them as a vibrant family who loves and desperately misses their cat- something more children may be able to relate to.

kunkush (1)

The Roses in My Carpet by Rukhsana Khan illustrated by Ronald Himler

Standard

roses-cover

The concept of “refugees” is not a new one, but with the pervasiveness of the term in the news right now, children are starting to need some understanding of what it means to be a refugee, and how to empathize with what their classmates and friends may have endured.  Books like One Green Apple, The Red Pencil, and Four Feet Two Sandals are great, and I excitedly hoped this one would be a great addition to the theme.

roses-2

The book is leveled as an AR 3.2, but I don’t know that many eight and nine year olds would be able to grasp some of the content unassisted.  This is a good example of the limitations of Accelerated Reader.  Yes, diction and sentence length are third grade level, but content is a bit heavy in this 32 page water-color illustrated book.

roses-1

A young boy is telling the story of his life in a refugee camp in Pakistan.  The nightmares of jets dropping bombs opens the story and sets the tone of a very frightening reality that this boy, his mom, and his sister Maha face.  His father, a farmer, had been killed, and I think the author does a good job of showing readers that although the characters are now in a refugee camp, food and safety are still not a given.  I think we as westerners tend to think, ok they had to leave their home, and that is sad, but now they are taken care of, and this book clearly shows that, that is not the case. The boy mentions that someone has sponsored him and helps them with money, something his father wouldn’t have accepted, and I’m not sure why this is included.  Perhaps to show that people still can help and need to, or to show that affluent people donate as a way to ease their conscious without working to fix what caused the problem in the first place? I don’t know. It would lead to some good discussions with older children, perhaps fifth grade and up, as the author doesn’t make it a good or a bad thing, but does introduce it none the less.

The environment is drab, “Here, the walls are mud, the floor is mud, the courtyard is mud, too” and the day-to-day chores monotonous, lining up for water, for food, going to the mosque to pray, and going to school.  For some reason, not sufficiently explained in my mind, the little boy hates school.  A sharp contrast to stories that show how appreciative many children in other parts of the world are at the opportunity to study and learn. The boy rather, loves weaving.  He looks forward to escaping his reality and getting lost daydreaming in the weaving of beautiful colorful images where the bombs can not get him.

The characters are clearly Muslim, as they pray and wear hijab and go to the mosque.  They trust Allah when they are faced with challenges, but no details of belief are conveyed and it simply describes the characters. The book does not come across as whiney to me, and while there is some hope that radiates through when the boy is weaving, it really is a sad book.  It is made more depressing when Maha is hit by a truck, she thankfully survives with broken legs, and by the thought that although the boy wants to use his weaving to provide for his family, the future doesn’t seem bright.  In the end perhaps running free on a rose filled carpet where the bombs cannot get them only exists in his dreams, a sobbering thought for the characters and readers alike.

roses_in_my_carpet_p30-31

Four Feet Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams & Khadra Mohammed Illustrated by Doug Chayka

Standard

four feet

A beautiful hardback picture book I picked up at the Scholastic Warehouse sale, at 32 pages long and an AR level 3.2, Four Feet, Two Sandals, works well as both a story time selection to younger students and as independent reading for up to 5th grade.  The story is about two refugee girls that come to know each other when relief workers throw donated clothes for the people and Lina and Feroza each end up with one sandal each of a beautiful pair.  Rather than fighting or being ungrateful, the girls work out a plan so that they can both enjoy the sandals and in the process, become friends.  The girls share their stories with one another, and thus the reader, about how their families have been affected by war and how they came to be at this refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan.  The girls dream of school and their futures and show the readers a bit of their daily struggles getting water and doing chores.  When Lina’s name shows up on a list to go to America, and Feroza’s does not, the friends must part and decide who gets the sandals.

While it probably bothers some that America is seen as the saving grace to sweep Lina to a better life and pander to an American audience. I think it makes sense seeing as the book was co-authored by the executive director of the Pittsburgh Refugee Center and was inspired by a refugee girl who asked “why there were no books about children like her.”  Clearly refugees do get a chance at a new life when other countries open their borders and stories like this that give our children insight into the world they have left behind, with the hopes of fostering compassion, is something that I definitely want to share with my own children and students.

The author’s website and reading guide: http://www.karenlynnwilliams.com/files/sandals_guide.pdf