Today sees the start of Refugee Week, a UK-wide programme of cultural and educational events that celebrates the contribution of refugees to the UK and promotes better understanding of why people seek sanctuary.
My contribution will be a week-long series looking at children’s books about refugees, and exploring children’s authors and illustrators who were themselves refugees. I’m kicking off today with an award winning, profoundly moving, wonderfully optimistic and thought-provoking book: the Amnesty International endorsed Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland.
Continuing warfare forces Azzi and her family to leave their homeland. They gather together a few precious belongings and then make an arduous, frightening journey to seek safety in a new country. Their new life calls for courage, resourcefulness and hope. How will Azzi settle into her new home, her new language? Will the family ever again see Azzi’s Grandma, who they had to leave behind?
Told in graphic novel format, Sarah Garland’s Azzi in Between tells the very timely tale of a young girl who is forced to flee from a country which could so easily be Syria (though it is unnamed in Garland’s book). Although not without plenty of opportunities to reflect on the almost unimaginable fear and terrible hardship many refugees experience, this book is actually full of optimism, not least because of the compassion shown to Azzi and her family. From the immigration officer to Azzi’s school teacher, everyone treats them with fairness and kindness – would that this were a true reflection of all asylum seekers’ experience!
A book which explores dignity, strength and humanity in an accessible and reassuring manner, could this book be any more beautiful and worthy of a wide readership? Garland’s illustrations are at turns poignant, and comforting. From the sorrow in the eyes of Azzi’s Father to the friendly glances from Azzi’s new school friend you cannot but care deeply about the characters in this story.
Language, style, and cartoon strip illustrations are perfectly pitched for young readers, though young listeners can also easily enjoy this book; the horror of the situation is never graphic, and Garland’s use of text below the images rather than a lot of dialogue in speech bubbles means that this graphic novel is unusually easy to read aloud to those not yet reading for themselves.
If I could give you each a copy, I would. Azzi’s tale will stay in your heart a long time after you close the final pages.
If you’re yet to be convinced here are some quotes from other reviews:
“It is unusual to come across a picture book that one feels so strongly about that one wants everyone – whatever their age – to read it.” – The Observer
“[a] tremendous book – her best ever […], a little masterpiece.” – The Guardian
“Visually this picture book is a tour de force.” – Books for Keeps
“...a small miracle of compassionate storytelling…” – The Times.
Azzi in Between is an incredibly special book. It tackles a difficult subject with grace, charm, beauty and tenderness. It makes the world a better place.
Our first response to Azzi in Between was to plant a bean den. Azzi’s father brings some beans from the old country, and his daughter eventually manages to plant some of them in her new school’s garden, a physical sign of new growth, putting down roots and looking to the future.
A bean den seemed doubly appropriate as one also featured in our first introduction to Sarah Garland’s work – the sublime Eddie’s Garden, and so it was with double joy we managed to achieve something we’ve wanted to do for years!
A couple of months ago we planted runner beans.
And then about a month ago we planted them out.
There’s still some way to go as you can see (it would help if the sun shone more than once a month!) but, like Azzi, we live in hope!
We didn’t listen to any music whilst planting our beans, but music which could work well with reading Azzi in Between includes anything by Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, a band which began in West African refugee camps.
Other activities you could enjoy alongside reading Azzi in Between include:
But before you move on to your next blog or book….
If you enjoy any of my posts this week I’d ask you to consider donating to the UNHCR’s Syrian Appeal – earlier this month the United Nations launched a $4.4 billion humanitarian appeal (the largest aid request in the Organization’s history) to assist the growing number of people suffering the effects of the crisis in Syria.
Of the $4.4 billion, $1.4 billion will go to SHARP, assisting Syrians inside Syria, and $3 billion to RRP, which provides life-saving aid and protection to refugees in the immediate surrounding region. The crisis has driven over 1.5 million Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries with thousands more pouring across Syrian borders every single day. Around 50 per cent of these refugees are children.
Here’s the link again if you wish to donate: http://donate.unhcr.org/syria
Disclosure: I receive a free review copy of this book from the publisher. I was under no obligation to review it, and I received no payment for doing so.