Playing by the book

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Fantastic Fiction for Kids – Thinking about life as a refugee

Posted on | June 16, 2010 | 14 Comments

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We’re half way through National Refugee Week here in the UK and as my small contribution to it Fantastic Fiction for Kids is this week all about refugees. It is also, necessarily, about humanity, compassion, despair, empathy and hope.
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi


Unhei has left Korea and is just starting at her new school in the US. Children on the school bus tease her about her strange sounding name and so when she is asked to introduce herself to her classmates she decides she needs to choose an American name. Her new classmates are welcoming and supportive. They enjoy making suggestions of new names for Unhei, but in the end she feels accepted enough to stick with her Korean name.
Whilst this warmly illustrated picture book alludes to the less welcoming experiences of a newcomer, it is ultimately all about kindness, generosity of spirit and left met me (albeit with a tear in my eye) feeling hopeful about humankind’s capacity to be thoughtful and open-hearted.
The Island by Armin Greder


Where The Name Jar left me feeling optimistic, The Island left me in despair. Where Unhei’s arrival brings riches and welcome opportunities for learning to her classmates, the community on the eponymous Island of this book treat the man on the beach “where fate and ocean currents had washed his raft ashore” with a great deal of hostility, fear and suspicion. Although one or two lone voices wish to offer a welcoming hand, ultimately the community not only force the man to leave the island, they turn their home into a fortress, deliberately isolating themselves from the world outside. The bleak, gloomy, but pitch-perfect illustrations are as haunting and unsettling as the text.
The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Karin Littlewood


After the grey desolation of The Island the vibrancy and optimism of The Colour of Home was uplifting. It is Hassan’s first day at a new school, having arrive from Somalia, and he feels very far from home. Everything is different, from the routine to the weather, from the food for lunch to the language. He and his classmates settle down to paint and first Hassan creates a happy and colourful picture of his family and home back in Somalia. But as Hassan continues to paint the reason for his family’s flight from Africa becomes clear. The following day Hassan’s class teacher arranges for an interpreter to help her and listen to Hassan tell his painting’s story using his own words. This act of acknowledgement is the first step towards Hassan feeling able to use the word “home” for where he now lives.
At the same time as depicting the cruelty people are capable of, this book is full of kindness and hope. The rich colours of the beautiful illustrations will capture the attention of any reader.
Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Doug Chayka


This wonderful book full of muted colours as if faded by the sun tells of the friendship that springs up between two Afghani girls living in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Following the distribution of used clothing by relief workers Lina and Feroza each come away with one sandal from a matching pair. Shoes are highly prized – neither girls has had shoes for a long time, old shoes having been worn out on the long trek to the refugee camp – but the girls decide it is better to share. Thus the pair of shoes is worn by one girl on one day and by the other on the next. Yet, when the girls are separated, Lina and her family having got their papers to leave the refugee camp for America, the girls decide to take one shoe each as they would rather remember their friendship than be entirely practical.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan


A breathtaking, wordless book that perfectly captures the experience of having to start a new life in a new country where customs and language all seem strange. The illustrations are astonishing! Click here for my full review

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As always, some music to go with today’s picture books:

  • Haven sung by Coope, Boyes and Simpson
  • An album which came out last week – Yes We Can – Songs About Leaving Africa with songs by a variety of artists
  • No Matter Where You Go, There You Are by Luka Bloom, found via Mummy do that!


  • As to activities to accompany these essential books, you could

  • visit the Refugee Week website
  • watch a film as part of the Refugee Week On-line Film Festival
  • Cook a dish from another country – click here for some recipes recommended by refugees
  • Read a story from another country to your kids – click here for a fantastic list of stories from many countries round the world, including Iraq, Kosovo and Burma
  • Give a book about refugees as a present to someone. Below there’s a selection of links to some books you might enjoy reading or giving away.
  • Find out about the work of the Medical Foundation for the care of victims of torture

  • Books about refugees

  • An extensive list of books for adults written by refugees or related to refugees and/or exile, produced by the Refugee Week coalition
  • Another detailed list of fiction books from Refugee Week, but for children
  • Children’s Books about Refugees and Forced Displacement – An Amazon listmania list, compiled by Eliza Mason who write at Forced Migration Current Awareness Blog
  • Refugees, Migrations, Escaping Persecution – a list from a UK based specialist supplier to schools, nurseries, libraries and professional development agencies, “with a particular commitment to quality books that also reflect positive images of our multi-ethnic society.”
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    Comments

    14 Responses to “Fantastic Fiction for Kids – Thinking about life as a refugee”

    1. sunnyvale422
      June 16th, 2010 @ 5:27 am

      I have to bookmark this post for future reference. I came to US as an adult refugee at the age of 24, and one day I want to tell my daughter more about it. From your list I am thinking Four Feet would probably work best for her at this point.

    2. Zoe
      June 16th, 2010 @ 7:00 am

      Hi Sunnyvale 422, yes Four Feet might be the one to go for at the moment, but there are lots of other wonderful book out there – I definitely recommend you look through some of the book lists at the end of the post.

    3. Zoe
      June 16th, 2010 @ 7:02 am

      And here’s another book list I found this morning from the University of Strathclyde, all about children’s books on the theme of refugees:

      http://www.strath.ac.uk/jhlibrary/sr/childlit/childrensbookliststhemes/refugees/

    4. Choxbox
      June 16th, 2010 @ 10:41 am

      Wow. Lovely post.

      Would love to check out The Name Jar and Four Feet Two Sandals. Have read The Colour of Home and The Arrival – they are awesome.

      Here’s one more: When Jessie Came Across The Sea by Amy Hest. Beautiful story and exquisite illustrations.

    5. Tweets that mention Thinking about life as a refugee - picture books for kids | Playing by the book -- Topsy.com
      June 16th, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

      [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Simple Acts, Zoe Toft. Zoe Toft said: Celebrate National Refugee Week (http://bit.ly/5EGbM) – read about exile with your kids just as we did http://bit.ly/9LdahW @SimpleActs [...]

    6. Zoe
      June 16th, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion Choxbox – have reserved the Amy Hest book through the library now :-)

    7. Choxbox
      June 16th, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

      Had been meaning to review it for over a year!

      http://www.saffrontree.org/2010/06/when-jessie-came-across-sea.html

    8. Pragmatic Mom
      June 19th, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

      Thank you for this post! May I also suggest Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord.

      and Sumi’s First Day of School Ever by Juong Un Kim.

      ps adding you to my blog roll!

      Pragmatic Mom
      Type A Parenting for the Modern World

      http://PragmaticMom.com
      I blog on children’s lit, education and parenting

    9. Zoe
      June 19th, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

      Thanks Pragmatic Mom for your suggestions – I’ve added them to my library reserve list! Your blog looks great :-) I can’t wait to explore it some more.

    10. Corinne Robson
      June 20th, 2010 @ 3:33 am

      Zoe –
      So pleased to have come across your blog! What a wealth of information and resources. Well done! Be sure to check out internationally acclaimed author, humanitarian and peace activist Deborah Ellis’ books as well.

    11. Zoe
      June 20th, 2010 @ 7:04 am

      Hi Corinne,
      Thanks for the tip about Deborah Ellis – the interview with her on your site is great. Definitely want to track down some books by her now!

    12. Corinne Robson
      June 21st, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

      Mitali Perkins has compiled a list of children’s and young adult books that focus on refugees and resettlement camps.

    13. Myra from GatheringBooks
      April 23rd, 2012 @ 3:40 am

      Hi Zoe! So great to chance upon this old post of yours thru goodreads. I am looking for a list of immigrant-themed books and this came up. While we’re technically not looking at refugee realities but the actual immigrant experience – these links are still mighty helpful! Super thanks for this.
      Myra from GatheringBooks recently posted..March AWB Reviews

    14. Zoe
      April 23rd, 2012 @ 7:16 am

      Thanks Myra, glad this is useful for you.
      Zoe recently posted..Kidlit radio #13

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