March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Children of War: Tales of Child Refugees and Safe Havens | Focus On

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In our culture, with warlike activities often glorified on screens, it is interesting to see that books for young readers are expressing a different point of view. Whether reflecting the experience of

young people in war-torn countries, of children fleeing war, or of families and friends of soldiers, titles published in recent years range from the sympathetic and serious to the downright upsetting. Many of the books feature a sense of patriotic duty. Members of the military want to serve their country, especially in books for very young children, but there’s also a clear recognition that even on the home front worries and fears exist. Writers of stories for readers in the middle grades and up don’t hesitate to include searing details–hunger and dread, lost limbs, lost families, and lost lives.

These selections are about child refugee experiences and children who’ve found safe havens, but have haunting memories. Some of the titles are about child soldiers. Others are about military families. Several are designed for parents and caregivers to share with children; most are just solid good reads. But they have classroom connections as well. These are emotionally rich narratives, often with a political subtext. Common Core English Language Arts standards have even first graders identifying feelings in a narrative; by senior high, readers are expected to be able to read between the lines for meaning and tone. Teachers can encourage older students to identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s purpose or compare points of view. For any age, these are stories that encourage reflection, demand discussion, and stay in readers’ minds.

Preschool to Grade 4


BIDEN, Jill. Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops. illus. by Raúl Colón. S & S/Paula Wiseman Bks. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-5735-5; ebook $12.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-5737-9.

K-Gr 3–Natalie and her little brother, Hunter, spend the year of their father’s deployment in Iraq missing him in a variety of ways. Pencil-and-watercolor illustrations support the gentle, wistful mood of this story based on the vice-presidential family’s experience. The back matter offers solid, practical suggestions for supporting military families.

COLLINS, Suzanne. Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front. illus. by James Proimos. Scholastic. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-42516-2.

K-Gr-2–The year her father is deployed in Vietnam, the first-grade narrator’s dreams about the jungle he fights in gradually turn into nightmares while daily life continues. Memorably recalled by the writer and vividly imagined by the illustrator with digitally colored cartoons.

BRISSON, Pat. Sometimes We Were Brave. illus. by France Brassard. Boyds Mills. 2010. RTE $16.95. ISBN 978-1-59078-586-7.

K-Gr 2–Jerome describes what he and his dog, Duffy, learned about bravery while his mother was away on a naval ship and his dad was in charge. Realistic watercolors add to the positive tone of this simple, reassuring story for children whose parents are serving their country.

CASEY, Carol. Dear Baby, I’m Watching Over You. illus. by Mark Braught. Dear Baby Books. 2010. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-9820972-3-6.

PreS-Gr 2–A rhyming text, presented as a letter (“Is Mama reading you my letter?/I hope my words will help you know me better.”) and realistic paintings showing a diverse group of military parents reveal the variety of ways they might be thinking of and connecting to their children over the course of a day.

DE EULATE, Ana A. The Sky of Afghanistan. illus. by Sonja Wimmer. Cuento de Luz. 2012. RTE $15.95. ISBN 978-84-15503-04-0.

K-Gr 2–An Afghan girl imagines flying a kite of peace over her war-torn country. Soft-toned spreads contrast her bleak world with hopeful peace symbols, including a flower growing from the barrel of a tank. The text provides no background but the imagery in this Spanish import makes a powerful plea.

FULLERTON, Alma. A Good Trade. illus. by Karen Patkau. Pajama Press. 2013. RTE $19.95. ISBN 978-0-9869495-9-3.

Gr 1-3–On his daily trek to get water, a Ugandan boy sees a treasure in an aid truck—bright new sneakers—and finds just the right thing to exchange. Colorful illustrations full of details of daily life in a war-torn country will show well when the spare text is read aloud.


ANDREWS, Beth. Why Are You So Scared?: A Child’s Book about Parents with PTSD. illus. by Katherine Kirkland. Magination. 2011. Tr $14.95. ISBN 978-1-4338-1045-9. pap. $9.95. ISBN 978-1-4338-1044-2.

PreS-Gr 3–PTSD results from scary events in the past and can make parents difficult to deal with. It’s not a child’s fault and children can’t fix it, but they can share their feelings. For parents and caregivers, this interactive picture book is designed to use in conjunction with a series of conversations.

ROBINSON, Anthony. Meltem’s Journey: A Refugee Diary. illus. by June Allan. (Refugee Diary Series). Frances Lincoln. 2011. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-84780-031-2.

Gr 2-4–In 1999, after Turkish soldiers beat her father and he fled, Meltem and her mother, Turkish Kurds, also left their pistachio farm and their country, seeking asylum in Germany and later, successfully, in England. Like other entries in the publisher’s moving series, this book is illustrated with watercolors and photographs.

THOMAS, Pat. Come Home Soon: A First Look at When a Parent Goes to War. illus. by Lesley Harker. Barron’s. 2012. pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-1-4380-0189-0.

PreS-Gr 3–Children and their families have worries and questions when a military parent goes away or comes home. This British import, designed for adult/child discussions, includes solid suggestions in the text and back matter and diverse families in the cheerful cartoon-style illustrations.

LANDOWNE, Youme. Mali Under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home. illus. by author. Cinco Puntos. 2010. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-933693-68-2.

K-Gr 2–Using experiences from the childhood of artist Malichansouk Kouanchao, first at her home in Laos and then crossing the Mekong to escape encroaching war, Landowne personalizes the fighting in the 1960s and 1970s with simple text incorporating Laotian words and watercolor paintings in which Laotian script and numbers appear.

Middle Grade


AKBARPOUR, Ahmad. Good Night, Commander. illus. by Morteza Zahedi. Groundwood/House of Anansi. 2010. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-0-88899-989-4.

Gr 3-6–Pencil drawings on a tan background show a boy reexperiencing the war that took his mother and his leg, imagining himself facing a similarly one-legged soldier in his bedroom. Though originally published in Iran, this story could be about any child living where modern wars rage. Best used where adults can continue the discussion.

DE GRAAF, Anne. Son of a Gun. Eerdmans. 2012. pap. $8. ISBN 978-0-8028-5406-3.

Gr 7-9–In alternating narratives full of searing detail, siblings Lucky and Nopi describe being kidnapped at ages 8 and 10 and forced to become warriors (and deafened Nopi a child wife) before the Liberian Civil Wars wind down and they can make their separate ways home. An informational appendix adds context.

ELLIS, Deborah. My Name Is Parvana. Groundwood. 2012. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-1-55498-297-4; ebook $14.95. ISBN 978-1-55498-299-8.

Gr 6-10–Captured and imprisoned by American soldiers in Afghanistan, 15-year-old Parvana keeps silent but recalls the events of the last few years, the school for girls her mother ran, and its eventual destruction. Children don’t need to have read the earlier titles in Ellis’s “Breadwinner” series to get caught up in this story.

MANIVONG, Laura. Escaping the Tiger. HarperCollins. 2010. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-06-166177-8.

Gr 7-10–In 1982, 12-year-old Vonlai and his family cross the Mekong to escape the Pathet Lao, and then wait four long, hungry years in a Thai refugee camp where his older sister eludes a guard’s unwanted attentions until they can come to the United States. This powerful novel reflects the author’s husband’s experiences.

MARSDEN, Carolyn. The White Zone. Carolrhoda. 2012. RTE $17.95. ISBN 978-0-7613-7383-4.

Gr 4-7–The war in Iraq separates preteen cousins Nouri and Talib because of Talib’s half-Sunni, half-Shiite heritage. The escalating violence culminates in a real event, a rare and calming snowfall. Told from alternating points of view, the story points up the boys’ similarities in spite of their sectarian differences.

MCKAY, Sharon E. Thunder Over Kandahar. Annick. 2010. RTE $21.95. ISBN 978-1-55451-267-6; pap. $12.95. ISBN 978-1-55451-266-9.

Gr 7-10–Attempting to escape to Pakistan through Taliban-controlled mountains, English-educated Yasmine and her friend Tamanna survive in spite of the poverty and restrictive customs, land mines, and suicide bombers of war-torn Afghanistan. Alternating viewpoints add richness to their gripping survival story. Audio version available from Listening Library.

MORPURGO, Michael. Shadow. Feiwel & Friends. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-312-60659-6,

Gr 4-7–When Matt’s friend Aman is threatened with deportation, Matt’s grandfather visits Aman in prison, hears how an army sniffer dog helped the boy and his mother escape from Afghanistan, and brings the family’s plight to the attention of people who can assure their asylum. Movingly told from multiple perspectives.

PARK, Linda Sue. A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story. Clarion. 2010. pap. $5.99. ISBN 978-0-547-25127-1.

Gr 5-8–When 11-year-old Salva ran from fighting in southern Sudan in 1985, he couldn’t have imagined that 20 years later he would return to his country and build a well, ending the long walks to water of 11-year-old Nya, a girl from an opposing tribe. Park alternates their stories in each chapter in this much-lauded novel of one “lost boy.” Audio version available from Full Cast Audio.

PARTRIDGE, Elizabeth. Dogtag Summer. Bloomsbury. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-59990-183-1.

Gr 6-8–In the summer after sixth grade, Tracy and her friend Stargazer find a dogtag among her father’s things, which opens unpleasant memories for both the adopted Vietnamese American child and her father, whose PTSD has hampered his post-Vietnam war adjustment.

REEDY, Trent. Words in the Dust. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-26125-8.

Gr 5-8–In rural Afghanistan, Zulaikha, a 13-year-old girl with a cleft lip and a love of poetry, meets a teacher and, even more importantly, American soldiers who can get her to a doctor able to mend her face and fulfill her dreams of a normal life. Extensive notes by the author, a former soldier, add background. Audio version available from Scholastic Audiobooks.

SULLIVAN, Mary. Dear Blue Sky. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Bks. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-399-25684-4.

Gr 5-8–Cassie’s world started falling apart even before her brother left for Iraq, her family fragile and a friendship broken, but the seventh grader finds some healing in correspondence with a young female Iraqi blogger whose world has been destroyed in much more devastating ways.


DAU, John Bul & Martha Arual Akech. Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan. National Geographic. 2010. Tr $15,95. ISBN 978-1-4263-0708-9; lib. ed. $23.90. ISBN 978-1-4263-0709-6.

Gr 7-10–Sudanese immigrants, now married and with children, look back on their similar, yet different childhoods from pre-civil war peace through escape to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, expulsion, another long walk to a camp in Kenya, and finally emigration to the United States. Four pages of color photos add a visual context.

ELLIS, Deborah. Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-Ending War. Groundwood. 2012. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-1-55498-181-6; ebook $14.95. ISBN 978-1-55498-203-5.

Gr 7-10–Twenty-seven teens and preteens, interviewed in 2011, describe growing up in Afghanistan’s endless war, explain their current situations, and share their hopes for the future. Parallel titles include Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees (2009) and Off to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children (2008) in which the children of U.S. and Canadian soldiers speak of their experiences.

SKRYPUCH, Marsha Forchuk. One Step at a Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way. Pajama Press. 2013. RTE $17.95. ISBN 978-1-927485-01-9.

Gr 4-6–A seven-year-old Vietnamese refugee, newly arrived in Canada and unable to understand the language, faces a painful operation to straighten an ankle bent by polio. Tuyet’s poignant story was begun in Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War (2012) but readers don’t have to have read that to enjoy this story of healing.

High School


ABIRACHED, Zeina. A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return. illus. by author. Lerner/Graphic Universe. 2012. lib. ed. $29.27. ISBN 978-0-7613-8568-4; pap. $9.95. ISBN 978-1-57505-941-9; ebook $21.95. ISBN 978-1-4677-0047-4.

Gr 6 Up–The author recalls an early childhood experience, sheltering with neighbors in the foyer of her family’s apartment, waiting for her parents while war rages around them in Beirut in 1984. Extensive repetition and minute changes in the bold, stylized illustrations heighten the suspense in this playful and painful memoir told in a graphic-novel format.

BONDOUX, Anne-Laure. A Time of Miracles. Delacorte. 2010. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-385-73922-1. lib. ed. $20.99 ISBN 978-0-385-90777-4; ebook $7.99. ISBN 978-0-375-89726-9.

Gr 8 Up–With Gloria, the only mother he’s ever known, Blaise Fortune travels across the Caucasus through the civil wars of the 1990s, seeking his French birth mother. Braided into this compelling tale are the experiences of other refugees from the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

COATES, Jan L. A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk. Red Deer. 2011. pap. $12.95. ISBN 978-0-88995-451-9.

Gr 8 Up–Seven-year-old Jacob escapes Sudan’s civil war, joining a band of boys who walk for months to refugee camps in Ethiopia and then Kenya before the talented and determined boy is accepted at school in Nairobi, at 14. Dinka folktales are woven into this heartwarming survival tale, based on a true story.

DOLLER, Trish. Something Like Normal. Bloomsbury. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-59990-844-1.

Gr 9 Up–Home for a month after a year and a half on the ground with the Marines in Afghanistan, Travis is still fighting—with his family, with his ex-girlfriend, and with the phantoms in his mind. A moving first-person narrative balances his struggles with PTSD with a sweet love story.

KOKIE, E.M. Personal Effects. Candlewick. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-5527-3; ebook $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-6203-5.

Gr 9 Up–Still angry and hurting from his brother’s death in Iraq, Matt Foster goes through TJ’s personal effects, reads love letters from someone in Madison, WI, and drives there, only to discover that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy extended to his family as well. Compelling and vividly told. Audio version available from Brilliance Audio.

MCKAY, Sharon E. War Brothers: The Graphic Novel. illus. by Daniel Lafrance. Annick. 2013. RTE $27.95. ISBN 978-1-55451-489-2; pap. $18.95. ISBN 978-1-55451-488-5.

Gr 8 Up–A graphic version of the 2008 novel in which Jacob describes how he and Ugandan schoolmates were captured by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, forced to serve as slaves and child soldiers, and finally escaped. The black-bordered illustrations of the boys’ captivity, featuring numerous anguished faces, add to this powerful story’s emotional force.

SCHRECK, Karen. While He Was Away. Sourcebooks/Fire. 2012. pap. $8.99. ISBN 978-1-4022-6402-3; ebook $8.99. ISBN 978-1-4022-6403-0.

Gr 9 Up–In the summer before her senior year, while her boyfriend serves in Iraq, Penna tries to stay supportive as she copes with a new job and gets to know her estranged grandmother, a World War II widow. The first-person present-tense narrative, set in small-town Oklahoma, has a surprising and satisfying conclusion.

WALLACE, Jason. Out of Shadows. Holiday House. 2011. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-2342-2.

Gr 9 Up–Unhappy in a new country and a new boarding school in recently independent Zimbabwe in the late 1980s, Robert Jacklin joins class leaders whose bullying games become increasingly violent and anti-black as they fight to regain their lost country, culminating, in his senior year, in a plan to assassinate Mugabe.

WHITMAN, Sylvia. The Milk of Birds. S & S/Atheneum. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-4682-3; ebook $9.99 ISBN 978-1-4424-4684-7.

Gr 8 Up–Paired as pen pals, two 14-year-old girls gradually discover personal strengths as they learn about each other’s wildly different lives. Nawra’s letters, full of traditional sayings, gradually reveal the female circumcision, rape, and pregnancy that preceded her arrival at the Darfur refugee camp while K.C.’s school troubles in Virginia are finally diagnosed.


MANCINI, Candice, ed. Child Soldiers. (Global Viewpoints Series). Greenhaven. 2010. lib. ed. $42.10. ISBN 978-0-7377-4839-0; pap. $27.95. ISBN 978-0-7377-4840-6.

Gr 8 Up–Essays from a wide variety of sources introduce the global problem of child soldiers, causes and effects of children in combat, efforts to end the practice, and young people’s lives after combat. Questions introduce and follow each article. This broad-spectrum look is dated but still helpful for research.

ST. JOHN, Warren. Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town. Delacorte. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-385-74194-1; lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 978-0-375-99033-5; ebook $10.99. ISBN 978-0-375-98880-6.

Gr 7 Up–In an Atlanta suburb, a young Jordanian woman, Luma Mufleh, began and sustains a youth soccer program where children from war-torn countries all over the world play together. This adaptation of a heartwarming adult title, Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), provides plenty of details about refugee experiences and exciting soccer games.

Digital picks

Child Soldiers International. Child Soldiers International. (Accessed 7/19/13).
Gr 9 Up
–This UK-registered charity works to stop the involvement of children under 18 in armed conflict, by governments or other armed groups, through targeted country work, research, and global monitoring. Their archives are extensive and information current.

Military Kids Connect. National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2), Department of Defense. (Accessed 7/19/13).
K Up
–A wide and appealing variety of age-appropriate resources, including activities, games, message boards, and videos, is offered here. The target audience is military children ages 6-17 as well as parents and educators. Some areas are open to the public; others require registration.

Seeking Refuge. BC. (Accessed 7/19/13).
Gr 4 Up
–Five animated short films are based on the testimonies of young refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Iran, Afghanistan, and an unnamed Eurasian country now living in the UK. Originally produced for the BBC in conjunction with Refugee Week, 2012.

UNHCR Video Galleries.United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (Accessed 7/19/13).
Gr 9 Up
–Over 400 short videos, many telling the story of individual families, document the U.N. Refugee Agency’s work around the world from 2009 to the present. Made by professional crews, these videos offer a sobering reminder of how widespread the issue is.

Child Soldiers. War Child. (Accessed 7/19/13).
Gr 9 Up
–This site offers a short explanation of the issue plus links to stories and videos from the UK branch of a family of humanitarian organizations working on a variety of projects in many different conflict areas.

Kathleen T. Isaacs is a Children’s Literature Specialist and author of Picturing the World: Informational Picture Books for Children (ALA, 2013).

This article was published in School Library Journal's September 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. I came across this link – and as a father and former Marine, am thankful for the literary perspective delivered. Thank you for showcasing this.