Escaping Conflict, Seeking Peace: Picture books that relate refugee stories, and their importance

This article was a presentation given at the 2012 IBBY Congress in London, first posted here and developed from a Personal View, “Caught up in Conflict: Refugee stories about and for young people“.
A bibliography with links to relevant websites is listed by title can be found in the right-hand sidebar. Click on the thumbnail images to enlarge.

In August 2012, The United Nations High Commission for Refugees provided the following information on its website:

Of the 33.9 million people of concern to UNHCR, almost half are children. They include children who are refugees, asylum seekers and stateless as well as returnee and internally displaced children assisted and protected by UNHCR.1

That means nearly 17 million children around the world. How do we get our heads round that kind of figure? 17 million is more than twice the population of London; and many of the more than 17 million adults that make up the rest of that number are the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins of those children.

It is hard for any of us to envisage what these figures actually represent in real terms — and when they represent people caught up in a disaster somewhere far away on the other side of the globe, the sheer size of what we are hearing can be insidiously numbing. How, then, to make sense of them? And how do we help children to take on board their human significance, without inflicting on them their trauma-inducing enormity? One of the answers is books. And how do we help those children who have been through such trauma themselves to find empathy and security in their new, sometimes permanent, sometimes temporary, homes, where they are faced with a bewildering plethora of change: new neighbours, new culture, new language, new food, new climate… Again, books provide an answer, a bridge into the newness, and towards empathy and understanding and welcome.

Fortunately, there is an increasing availability of quality writing for children and young adults, which draws out individual stories of young people caught up in disasters not of their making. These books provide a well-researched background, giving readers insight into events that can either be pinpointed in history or are a realistic representation of what it means to be a refugee. They promote empathy, a thirst to know more and an urge to do something.

We are now going to take a journey of discovery through some stories that explore different aspects of what it means to be a refugee, focusing on picture books, and focusing particularly on stories where the disaster that caused the characters portrayed to become refugees is man-made – in other words, war and conflict, not natural disasters.

Picture books provide visual impact: illustrations often provide a link with the cultures represented, through the style or artistic techniques adopted and in some cases take the place of words. Picture books provide access to difficult stories, not only for young children but also for older children and teenagers: in recent years, there has been a noticeable growth in picture books aimed at teenagers, with high quality artwork that challenges and demands a reaction. I will end this presentation with a look at some of these, but we will begin with a selection of stories for younger readers.

The refugee experience can be divided into three main areas: the flight, living in a refugee camp or in a detention centre, and adapting to a new home. Stories for children can focus on one, two or all three of these issues: but they all have one thing in common – they provide a stepping stone towards empathy and expanding global awareness and vision in their readers.


The vehicle for the first three stories I want to highlight here is a Hmong story cloth, a recent form of folk-art that relates their creators’ flight from Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand and often from there to a new home in America.

In The Whispering Cloth a little girl Mai finds healing and hope in embroidering her dream for a future an airplane flight away in a ‘village where homes were as big as mahogany trees… And at night, Mai snuggled with Grandmother in a yellow bed with a silky roof’.2
The book is illustrated with an effective combination of warm watercolors and genuine embroidery, as you can see here.

Grandfather’s Story Cloth is an inter-generational story, in which a young American boy Chersheng refinds his grandfather who has Alzheimer’s through the story cloth that depicts his grandfather’s flight from Laos.  The focus is on Chersheng’s understanding of his family’s past.  And incidentally, this book is bilingual, English and Hmong.

Dia’s Story Cloth on the other hand, is aimed at slightly older readers: while it is the author Dia Cha’s own story told in the first person, it also fills in much more of the historical context in the course of the narrative.  The story cloth that gave rise to this book was sent to Dia Cha from a camp in Thailand by her aunt and uncle.


Another true story from Laos is presented for very young readers in Mali Under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home:Mali

We learn in back matter that the real Mali, Malichansouk Kouanchao, is now an artist and anti-war advocate living in the US. When she was five years old, her happy life in Laos was interrupted by war and she and her family fled on foot to Thailand. The emphasis of the story is on hope in the face of a frightening, uncertain future, and it is Mali telling everyone her happy memories of home that reminds everyone that ‘their hearts were safe’.3

There is also a short afterword by Laotian-American documentary filmmaker and author Thavisouk Phrasavath, who had himself been a refugee from Laos. One of the things he says is this:

when we share about where we have come from, we all find that our homes are safe in our hearts.4

I would add that when we share about where we have come from, we are all reminded of our common humanity and our shared hopes and aspirations – and human rights. These picture books are important for instilling this awareness in children as a foundation for their humanity as adults.

Frances Lincoln’s outstanding Refugee Diary series exemplifies this. To date there are four titles, each one the story of a child who has arrived in the UK as a refugee. Each of these children experienced living with constant fear before the pivotal decision to flee; and then the terrors of clandestine transport and the uncertainty of their reception when they arrived in the UK. These stories then make it very clear that the journey doesn’t necessarily end at that point, and each child has a different story to tell of getting through the asylum process.

Refugee Diary series (Frances Lincoln)

The launch of Gervelie’s Journey in 2008 was reported online and one of Gervelie’s school-friends called Indra left a comment afterwards:


“I go 2 school with Gervelie, she is very nice and I never knew about her past until now.”5

Indra’s words exemplify the importance of these stories as printed books. Gervelie’s Journey gives Gervelie a voice and it validates her story.

It is understandable that Gervelie never sat down with her friends and told them her life story; but once her friends knew about her past, thanks to the book, perhaps they will have been prompted to think more deeply about the events that brought Gervelie among them, and about others who have gone through similar experiences. Certainly these stories challenge children to look out across the world beyond the sphere of their own experience.

Books can also challenge children to think more carefully about their own actions. Kate Beckwith wrote Playing War in response to seeing children in her neighbourhood dressing up as soldiers and playing war games. Her story is about kids who are friendly and invite a new boy to join in their soldier games. They don’t understand why Sameer doesn’t want to join in until he explains: ‘I wasn’t a soldier. Nobody in my family was. But we got in the war anyway, when they blew up our house.’6

In writing the book, Beckwith didn’t want to preach; she wanted children to think through the issues for themselves. As she said in an article for, she wanted the book to:

spark curiosity about Sameer, his family, and his situation. I wanted children who read it to wonder if it matters how they play. I wanted adults who share Playing War with children to encourage questions and consider the curiosity and empathy modeled by the book’s characters.7

The book provides much food for thought – and allows children to read, consider and formulate their own ideas, rather than having a didactic message rammed down their throats. Good, well-written books respect the reader as well as the integrity of any message at the heart of a story, so there is no need to preach.

An online discussion in 2011 among a class of school-children in Australia in response to Liz Lofthouse and Robert Ingpen’s picture book Ziba Came on a Boat shows how effective reading a picture book together can be for raising social awareness. The children were invited by their teacher to:

Chat about the refugee debate: How might they feel? How might we help them? Should we help them? Connect your thinking to Ziba’s story and also to the The Age newspaper article October 16 2009.8

Two months later, when an issue arose about asylum seekers in Australia, these children were then able to engage more deeply in debate. They grappled with the ideas, and their teacher provided comments that kept their thinking rooted in both the ethics and the concrete of government action. They were compassionate and sought to empathise with the plight of refugees arriving in their country, as you can see from the slightly rambling but deeply sincere example shown in the image here. Would these children have been able to engage in these wider issues if they hadn’t assimilated the story? I doubt it.

However, in the same way that all these refugee stories facilitate discussion, they in turn often benefit from being shared: young children will turn to the adults in their lives – teachers, parents – to help them grapple with answers to the almost overwhelming, unanswerable “Why?”

Another question may well be, “What can I do?” and there are also some fine picture books available that, like Playing War, remind children about the importance of being welcoming towards newcomers, who may be feeling very isolated because, apart from any trauma in their past, the rug of all that is familiar has been pulled from beneath their feet; they may be grieving lost family and they are having to learn a new way of life, a new language…

…Stories such as My Name is Sangoel; The Colour of Home; One Green Apple; and The Silence Seeker are all good books that engender empathy and highlight what a difference a compassionalte welcome makes.

I’d just like to focus for a moment on The Silence Seeker written by Ben Morley and illustrated by Carl Pearce.  It is an unusual, gentle story that gets right to the heart of how young children can make a difference through kindness, even without understanding the broader social context. So here, when young Joe assimilates his mother’s identity of the boy who has moved in next door as a ‘silence seeker’ instead of ‘asylum seeker’, he takes him to some unusual places in the neighborhood in a search for peace and quiet: all the time being a friend to him, despite the amusing fruitlessness of his quest.

All these stories are special for bringing refugees into the familiar day-to-day sphere of young readers, who, unless they have been refugees themselves, have no direct experience of war.  The intermediary figure of picture books such as these to promote empathy and global awareness is key.  Azzi In Between by Sarah Garland is a recent and very welcome addition to the canon of refugee stories.  Its graphic format and length mean that it is able to encompass a broad narrative, with appealing as well as heart-rending aspects: and readers are required to engage with all the issues it raises through the images as much as the text — note, for example, the smoke of the war encroaching on this image of a happy Azzi at the beginning of the story; and later on, the shadows under Azzi’s mother’s eyes that point to the stress she is under.

Picture books can transport young readers around the world way beyond their own experience, while at the same time offering a safe forum for young people to question and empathise. Books like The Roses in my Carpets and Four Feet, Two Sandals are set in refugee camps, while Brothers in Hope, My Freedom Trip and A Song for Cambodia are all examples of true stories narrated for children; and in the case of My Freedom Trip, the story is also authored by the protagonist’s granddaughters.

To focus on one of these, A Song for Cambodia by Michelle Lord and illustrated by Shino Arihara is the story of Arn Chorn-Pond, who was rescued from a Thai refugee camp by an American aid worker and later founded the Cambodian Living Arts organisation. The sophistication of the illustrations and the level of writing, as well as the impact of the story itself, make this a book that is suited to older readers.

It is important that refugees be given the opportunity and space to tell their stories – and as Arn Chorn Pond intimated in an interview in 2012, it is equally important for those who are safe and live in freedom and free from fear listen to these stories:

American kids – when I open my mouth and share my story – they really care about it. I would like to encourage other survivors to share if they want to. If I don’t share, they’re not going to share their stories either. Someone has to take the first step.9


So now let’s take a look at three more picture books for older readers that each narrate the refugee experience from very different perspectives…

In his presentation at the opening session of the 2012 IBBY Congress, Michael Morpurgo quite rightly decried the discouragement of older children to read picture books. Indeed, there are some superb picture books that demand a response from a more mature audience. Three prominent examples are The Arrival by Shaun Tan; The Island by Armin Greder; and Home and Awayby John Marsden and Matt Ottley: each representing a very different relationship between written text and the visual.

In The Arrival there is, in fact, no recognisable text. The book is a masterpiece in its depiction of the migration process –and as well as the protagonist’s story, the book encompasses the back-stories of people he meets, each revealing some form of violence in their homelands that caused them to leave. The wordless ‘text’ invites the reader to empathise with the protagonist in his bewilderment at the immigration process,

…and in his attempts to communicate.

In The Island (incidentally the only work I refer to here that was not originally written in English10) the story, a fable for our times, is told sparingly. It is an unusual picture book, ending on an uncompromising note of hopelessness. The hope that springs from all these picture books is here only possible by transferring it to the young readers themselves in their revolted rejection of the islanders’ final course of action. Older readers will certainly take away much to ponder.

One of the most chilling indications of a lack of hope for the future after the wall has been built is found in an early vignette. The islanders have escorted the refugee to a conveniently out of the way spot to try and wash their hands of him, then ostensibly carry on with their lives (and he’s never called a refugee in the story, by the way; and he never has a name or a voice). But something has changed: the children have absorbed the behaviour of the adults and are emulating their actions in their play and/or treatment of each other.

The third book, Home and Away, is told in the voice of a fifteen-year-old Australian boy. It is a tour de force in its capacity to confront those people who belong to countries that are usually considered a haven for asylum seekers to really get under the skin of what it actually means to flee your country as a refugee – enduring the perils of a journey, physical hardship, the loss of loved ones and scant welcome, but also the breakdown of mental well-being and the destruction of previous assumptions and aspirations.

Voice from Afar: Poems of Peace by Tony Johnston, with stunning illustrations by Susan Guevara (Holiday house, 2008); and Let There Be Peace: Prayers from Around the World, collected by Jeremy Brooks and again with gorgeous illustrations, by Jude Daly (Frances Lincoln, 2009)
The concepts of conflict and a desire for peace are never far apart and so I would like to conclude by drawing attention to Voice from Afar: Poems of Peace by Tony Johnston, with stunning illustrations by Susan Guevara; and Let There Be Peace: Prayers from Around the World, collected by Jeremy Brooks and again with gorgeous illustrations, by Jude Daly: two beautiful books that contain allusions to conflict, yes, but whose overriding message is a striving for peace.

Refugee stories are not told in isolation. They are the opposite of Greder’s wall in The Island, shutting out the world and creating barriers. As well as seeking to promote healing and empathy through their depictions of conflict and its consequences, all these stories encourage readers young and old to take a concerted step towards peace.

Stories help people step outside their own spheres and see the world through others’ eyes, even the world on their doorstep. A book can sow the seed for social justice even in very young children, on whom the future of our world depends. All the books I have highlighted here evoke sympathy and empathy in the reader; and they have the potential to heal and to foster a striving for unity and peace.

And so I leave the last word with the teenage narrator of the seemingly hopeless Home and Away, who surprises himself, despite all the horrors that he has lived through, by feeling hope:

Oh, hope, to know there is still hope. Hope is the most wonderful thing on earth. I never knew that before.11

Spread and quotation from 'Home and Away' written by John Marsden, illustrated by Matt Ottley (Lothian Books, 2008) - 'Oh, hope...'

1 (accessed August 2012; cited text updated and no longer available). [return to article]

2 Pegi Deitz Shea, The Whispering Cloth. [return to article]

3 Youme, Mali Under the Night Sky. [return to article]

4 Thavisouk Phrasavath in the Afterword to Mali Under the Night Sky by Youme. [return to article]

5 (accessed August 2010; post no longer available). [return to article]

6 Kate Beckwith, Playing War. [return to article]

7 Kate Beckwith, ‘Helping Kids See that War is Not a Game’ (accessed November 2015) [return to article]

-lofthouse/ (accessed August 2012; archived blog, no longer available). [return to article]

9 Arn Chorn Pond in ‘Never Fall Down’: Surviving The Killing Fields’ a joint interview with Patricia McCormick for NPR Books, May 2012 – (accessed November 2015) [return to article]

10 Originally published as Die Insel (Sauerländer, Germany, 2002). [return to article]

11 John Marsden, Home and Away. [return to article]


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