A Picture Book Refugee Story: The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman and Karin Littlewood

The Colour of Home, a refugee story written by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Karin Littlewood (Frances Lincoln, 2002/pb 2012)Whilst putting together my new interview with Mary Hoffman, I revisited my first encounter with her beautiful book The Colour of Home, which I discovered a few years ago when my children were small.  It is a story worth highlighting now: with the refugee crisis we are facing today, it is especially important for children to have access to both fiction and non-fiction stories that engender empathy and compassion and get behind the mind-numbing statistics.  Stories about individual refugee children joining a school in the UK, such as The Colour of Home, offer a familiar context that young children will be able to relate to easily, providing a stepping stone to comprehension of an individual refugee’s story.

Here’s what I wrote about the book back in 2009:

We came home from the library recently with a very special story: The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Karin Littlewood (Frances Lincoln, 2002). Our attention was first caught by the radiant smiles on the front cover but as soon as we leafed through the book, we realised that there was a darker side to the story. In fact, I was very glad that I then actually read it on my own first, as it proved to be a very moving story and I had to get my own tears out of the way before reading it aloud.

A new boy, Hassan, joins a class in an English school. He is struggling with everything being so different from his home in Somalia. The afternoon class is painting, which he has never done before. He sets about painting his house and family back home – ‘a lovely picture’ – but then he paints in what happened to his house and family – the fire and bloodshed, and his uncle ‘smudged out’.

The next day, Hassan explains the painting and his family’s flight to England:

Hassan talked for an hour and then he ran out of words, even in Somali. When he finished Miss Kelly [his teacher] had tears in her eyes.

So did I… However, this story ends on an upbeat note: Hassan plays football with his classmates, who are welcoming and friendly; and he paints another picture of his old house for his mother. Its bright colors help him to see the other colours around him and we know that he is starting to feel confident about his future.

So beautifully written and illustrated, this sensitive picture-book offers a focal point for children, who, increasingly, can empathise with its story through personal experience. I shared it with my own children; if you already know this book and have shared it at home or in class, do tell us.

Quoted extract first published here on the PaperTigers.org blog in October 2009.


Watch an animation of The Colour of Home created by a Year 3 class (ages 7-8) at Jessop Primary School in Lambeth, London, UK:

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