A true story from the Hmong author’s childhood, this picture book brings readers to the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand in 1985. Their days are filled with hunger and finding fruit that they can pretend are candy. The aunties in the camp talk about the war and their fears of returning to the old country or heading to a new country. Every week the families in the camp are given enough food for three days. It’s a practice meant to deter other Hmong refugees from entering the country. After Kao asks about the world beyond the camp, her father takes her to the tallest tree in camp, climbs with her to the highest branches, and gives her a view of the world beyond the camp.
Yang shows the view of the refugee camp from that of a small child living there. The day is filled with happy moments like riding one of the dogs and racing the chickens for rice balls. Yet there is no escaping that they are in a refugee camp. Yang shares this by having the adults talk about the war, showing the food disbursement, and having Kao explain that they can’t leave but others can enter. The climb into the branches is dramatic and inspiring, a look a freedom that could not be more moving and tangible.
Wada uses a mix of traditional media like graphite and watercolor with digital tools. She shows Yang’s small family, using more saturated colors to pull them out of the crowds and to keep the focus on the young Kao in the camps. The colors are sandy and subtle, becoming deeper as they reach the treetop to see the world around them.
Another gorgeous and skilled picture book from Yang that captures the experience of the Hmong refugee camps and Hmong Americans. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Carolrhoda Books.
The farm was a safe place where life was comfortable and everyone knew their role. There were chickens who had plenty of food and a rather vicious dog who guarded them. Then one day, the capybaras emerged from the swampy part of the pen. There was no room for them there and they were not expected. The hens found them too big, too hairy and too wet. But the capybaras couldn’t go home because the hunting season had started. So the hens set some rules where they would not share food, or their dry pen, or tolerate any noise. Then one day after a chick had a misadventure, everything changed. The capybaras had saved the chick and now they were allowed to sleep in the chicken coop, share food and live together. Then hunting season ended and the capybaras prepared to leave. What were the new friends to do?
This picture book was originally published in Spanish in Latin America. Soderguit has a marvelous gift for wry understatement or in fact just stating the opposite of what is actually happening in the illustrations. This contributes to a sense that horrible things are happening off the page and the characters live in real denial, even before the capybaras arrive. The entire book works beautifully as a statement about refugees, tolerance and building a community.
The illustrations are a marvel of quiet moments with a lot of the power of the book being the things in the illustrations that go unremarked upon in the text. The illustrations are done in pen and ink with pops of orange color and the deep browns of the capybaras. The wide-eyed capybaras contrast impressively with the white chickens and their delicate life balance.
Profound and remarkable. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greystone Kids.
Wishes by Muon Thi Van, illustrated by Victo Ngai (9781338305890)
This picture book achingly captures the refugee experience in simple words. Throughout the book, the entire world wishes that it could do more to support the fleeing people. The night wishes it was quieter. When the family says goodbye to grandparents, the clock wishes it were slower. As they board the small boat, the boat wishes it were bigger. The storm rages over them and wishes it were calmer. The sun beats down, wishing it were cooler. Eventually, their small boat is met by rescuers in a large vessel and they are taken on board. So the little girl doesn’t have to wish any more.
It’s incredible what Van has managed to do in so few words in this book. One can feel, reading each page, the ache of loss even while there is a potential of a better life just beyond all of the dangers. The emotions are raw on the pages, the profound sadness felt deeply and the entire world trying to give these people a new chance. The author is a refugee whose family fled Vietnam and spent a month at sea. That experience resonates in the simple words that are imbued with a deep empathy and understanding.
Ngai’s illustrations are haunting and beautiful. They show the humanness of refugees, the little girl regularly making eye contact with the reader, her face filled in turn with sadness, dread and relief. The illustrations create moving moments, when the sun fills the page with its searing heat or the first glimpse of rescue is in sight.
An incredible feat of storytelling and art. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Yang Warriors by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Billy Thao (9781517907983)
In the Ban Vinai refugee camp, there is a group of young warriors who train together. They run drills, balance rocks on their heads, meditate and wield branches as sacred swords. They are led by Master Me, a ten-year-old who teaches them. One day, Master Me meditated and decided that the warriors must leave camp and forage for greens. But no Hmong person was allowed to leave the camp without permission. People had been beaten for doing it and some had even disappeared. But Master Me was set on carrying out the mission. The narrator of the story is a young girl whose older sister was in the warrior group. She was 7 years old, scared but determined to carry out the mission. That day, the warriors stealthily left camp and returned carrying morning glory greens. Many were injured on the mission, but that day they became more than children playing at being warriors and became true heroes to everyone in the camp.
Yang tells the story of life in a Hmong refugee camp through the eyes of her childhood self. The hardships, violence and rules of being in such a camp are foundational to the overall story, though not the direct focus. The tale really is about the power of children to be heroes for their families, the determination and courage to take action in the face of injustice, and the way that real life heroes are so much more important than those with capes.
The illustrations by Thao are unique and interesting. He makes each of the children recognizable even though they move as a group of warriors. He uses interesting frames throughout the images, showing the children through doorways or from the fire itself as danger increases. The illustrations are stirring and also show just how young these children were.
A tale of child heroes in a Hmong refugee camp that is worth cheering for. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by University of Minnesota Press.
Mexique by María José Ferrada, illustrated by Ana Penyas (9780802855459)
In a true story, over 400 children fled the violence of the Spanish Civil War. They were put on a boat and sent to Morelia, Mexico in 1937. Their families expected only to be separated from them for a few months, like an extended summer vacation, nothing more. Told from the point of view of one of the children, this book shows their time aboard the boat to their arrival in Mexico. The war was a hand that shook their lives apart, separated them and sent them adrift. But there were other hands too, hands of the older children who took care of the little ones. Not all of the older children were kind, sometimes stealing from the little kids. They arrived in Mexico, bringing the impact of the war with them, heading unknowingly into permanent exile.
Ferrada’s text is poetic and haunting. She writes of the hope of when the children embark, the bitter choice that their parents had to make in sending them to safety. She writes of the time aboard ship, of games played and small wars fought. She writes of long lonely nights at sea until the waving crowds welcome them to Mexico. The story stops there, continued in an afterword the explains what happened to the “Children of Morelia” and what history had in store for them.
The illustrations are just as haunting as the text. Done in a limited color palette with often jagged lines of ship railings and waves, they are sharp and unsettling. Showing the somber farewells, the crowds of children, they are sorrowful and foretell the longer refugee story ahead.
Somber, beautiful and timely. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers.
One day, a strange animal arrived with a big suitcase. He was frightened and dusty. The other animals who lived there, came out and started asking him what was in his big suitcase. He answered that there is a teacup inside, along with a table and chair. In fact, he went on to tell them that his entire home is in the suitcase, a wooden cabin with the hillside it sat on. Then the animal curled up and went to sleep. The others knew there was only one way to find out if the animal was telling the truth. They had to open the suitcase! But what was inside surprised them all and gave them a way to say they were sorry for breaking into his belongings.
This picture book shows the importance of a few belongings from home for refugees. Through the eyes of the strange teal animal, young readers will feel outraged that the others broke into his suitcase but also will be amazed at what they go on to do next. One wrong can be undone as long as care and empathy is given in its place. The book does not lecture at all, allowing the lessons learned to be organically presented in the story.
The art is simple and clear, filled with animals of different colors. The animals pop on the clean white page while sepia tones are used to look back at the new animal’s homeland. They are echoed in the photograph that they discover too. The text contains a lot of dialogue done in colors that match each of the animals, so no speech bubbles are needed.
A gentle and empathetic look at welcoming someone to your community and honoring where they have come from. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Inspired by her own family’s refugee story, this wordless picture book shares the story of a family fleeing Vietnam. Ant crawl around the food on the table in Vietnam, lured into a bowl of sugar water. A little girl saves the ants from the trap and prevents them from drowning. Meanwhile outside the window, tanks and soldiers appear and the family flees into the night, separating from one another. The little girl and her mother hide in the tall grass, narrowly avoiding the searching soldiers. The girl notices a line of ants leaving the grass. They follow the ants and discover the shore where they wait for the boat to carry them away. In the meantime, they make a paper boat from a food wrapper that is used by the ants to escape across the water too. In a new country, the family gathers around a table together, the ants arrive as well.
Lam’s art is exceptional. She has created a detailed world of harrowing dangers in her depiction of Vietnam. Just having the money and papers mixed with bowls of food on the family table indicates a family ready to flee. The loving family provide moments of connection even as they flee, caring for the spirits of the little one among them.
The most powerful piece of the book is when the ants venture onto the sea in their small paper boat. Some ants perish on the journey, hunger is an issue, and they barely survive, in the end swimming to the safety of the shore. That allegory allows the dangers of the journey to be shown in detail but through ants rather than the direct loss of the characters. It’s powerful and also appropriate for children to begin to understand.
This important wordless picture book tells the refugee story with empathy and strength. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
This graphic novel memoir takes readers directly into the heart of a huge Kenyan refugee camp and the life of one boy who lived there. Omar and his brother Hassan lost their parents in Somalia when their village was attacked. Omar still hopes to find his mother, who was separated from them in the chaos. The brothers live together in their own hut in the camp and are watched over by their guardian who lives next door. When Omar has a chance to go to school, he must make the gut-wrenching decision of whether to leave Hassan, who doesn’t speak, behind. Their time in the camp is spent waiting, waiting for a UN interview, waiting to see if they can finally be moved to another country, waiting for water, waiting for food. It is also a time filled with doubts and hope, requiring true resilience for Omar to see a way forward.
It’s always a delight to see a new graphic novel by Jamieson, author of the Newbery Honor book Roller Girl. It’s all the more impressive to see her take on the challenge of a more serious topic and to do it as a biographical piece, telling the true story of Omar Mohamed and his time in the refugee camp. Jameison crafts the story in a way that truly reveals the plight of those in the camp, the horrors of what they experienced in the past, and the dullness of the routine days. She fills the pages with Omar’s deep caring and worry for his brother, his only remaining family member, and the reality of his sole responsibility to not only keep him safe but offer him a future.
As always with Jamieson, the art is wonderful. In particular, she offers glimpses of the beauty of the night sky in the camp and the warmth of the community of people who have been thrown together by tragedy. It is marvelous that Mohamed worked with her to tell a true story of the camps, that truth resonates on the page, lifting this new work to a different level.
Human, tragic and empowering, this book gives a human face to the many refugees in our world. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Salma and her mother moved to Vancouver from Syria together. Salma’s father is still in Syria and planning to join them soon. Mama seems worried and tired all the time now, not smiling the way she did in the refugee camp with her friends. Salma tries many things to get her mother to smile or even laugh, but nothing seems to work. She heads to the Welcome Center and her teacher has her think about the last time she saw her mother happy. Salma realizes that it may be Syrian food that her mother is missing, since the last time she smiled she had been carrying a bowl of foul shami. So Salma decides that she will make her mother foul shami to bring back her happiness. Salma must figure out how to take the recipe in Arabic and get others to understand what she needs. She realizes that she can draw the various vegetables and ingredients and show them to the people at the supermarket. With her ingredients, now she must do the cooking, but not without plenty of help from others at the Welcome Center who are missing delicacies from their own lands too.
So often picture books depict the end of a family’s story as leaving the refugee camp. It is a pleasure to see a picture book grapple with how it feels to have come to a new country as a refugee and having your family still separated. The clear connection of food and culture is beautifully depicted here. Salma’s enthusiasm for her solution to her mother’s sadness and worry is moving, giving her something to focus on and actually do to help. The difficulty of the recipe and its many steps serves as a great challenge for Salma, and one that will bring her community together to help.
The illustrations have borders and geometric shapes that echo the tiles of Syria and Damascus. The color palettes change as the emotions on the page change, with blues showing the worry and concern and merry yellows flooding the pages with community and hope.
A marvelous look at food, family and community. Appropriate for ages 3-6.