February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

9 Refugee Stories for Kids and Teens

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Crossing borders and leaving family, home, and everything else behind is a reality for many children and teens. The following titles—from picture books to YA—explore the many dangers, factors, and effects that refugees and immigrants face every day.

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. The Lines We Cross. 400p. ebook available. Scholastic. May 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781338118667.

YA-SP-AbdelFattah-TheLinesWeCrossGr 9 Up –Mina, her mother, and her stepfather, Afghani refugees in Sydney, Australia, are moving out of multicultural Auburn into a more homogenous, wealthy neighborhood to open a halal restaurant. Michael is the obedient son of the founder of Aussie Values, an anti-immigration group. The two teens meet at Mina’s new school, where she is on scholarship. Michael is immediately smitten with witty, self-possessed, intelligent Mina. He falls hard and has to figure out what he believes, because if he is anti-immigration, he is anti-Mina. Mina struggles with trusting Michael, whose family is clearly no ally to hers and whose best friend is a complete jerk. Told from the protagonists’ alternating perspectives, this work presents a multifaceted look at a Muslim teen. Mina and Michael’s relationship is threatened by direct attacks perpetrated by Aussie Values on Mina’s family’s restaurant. Their love develops amid (mostly) well-meaning but flawed family and friends. Abdel-Fattah explores teen nerdiness, sexuality, cruelty, compassion, family pressure, neglect, and loyalty. She is a master at conveying themes of tolerance, working in humor, and weaving multiple emotionally complex points of view. VERDICT A timely and compassionate portrait of the devastating losses of refugees, political conflicts within a family and a nation, and the astounding capacity of young people to identify hate and yet act with empathy and love. A must-purchase for all collections.–Sara Lissa Paulson, City-As-School High School, New York City

Del Rizzo, Suzanne. My Beautiful Birds. illus. by Suzanne Del Rizzo. 32p. Pajama. Mar. 2017. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781772780109.

YA-SP-DelRizzo-MyBeautifulBirdsGr 1-3 –Sami is a Syrian boy whose family are forced to leave all they hold dear as they flee their home for the safety of a refugee camp. While “days blur together in a gritty haze” at the camp and uncertainty about their future looms, Sami worries about the fate of the pet pigeons he left behind. These concerns overshadow anything good to come from the camp, from the garden his father grows to the flat bread his mother cooks to the painting Sami makes at the new camp school. While walking one day, Sami realizes that the sky he sees from camp is the same sky as in Syria and that if his pigeons were strong enough to fly, they might be strong enough to survive. Will this insight allow Sami to open up and accept the new friends that might come his way? Or will the refugee camp be nothing more than a segue between two pieces of his life? Exquisite dimensional illustrations using Plasticine, polymer clay, and other media bring a unique, lifelike quality to the page, enriching Sami’s story to its fullest potential when paired with the often lyrical prose. VERDICT A stunning offering for libraries wishing to add to their collection of hopeful yet realistic refugee tales.–Brittany Drehobl, Eisenhower Public Library District, IL

redstarDiaz, Alexandra. The Only Road. 320p. ebook available. S. & S./Paula Wiseman Bks. Oct. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481457507.

YA-SP-Diaz-TheOnlyRoadGr 5-8 –After the murder of their cousin/brother Miguel, Jaime and Ángela (ages 12 and 15) are given the “option” to join the powerful gang controlling their Guatemalan village. A refusal means certain death, so their families make the difficult decision to send the pair north, secretly gathering resources, paying smugglers, and identifying safe houses—all the while aware that their children might not survive the journey. The cousins depart hidden in the bed of a truck with small bags of food and cash concealed in their waistbands. After crossing the Mexican border, they take a bus further north, barely escaping border guards, and briefly stay at a safe church from which they are transported in a locked, airless freight train car. Throughout, the young people experience mercy and loss and observe violence and its results as they walk or ride atop a train, finally reaching a border town. After working to acquire additional cash necessary for a reputable coyote, they cross the Río Bravo and border wall and finally arrive at another refuge center. There are references to violence and sexual abuse, but these are handled in an age-appropriate manner while also reflecting the experiences of many immigrants. Jaime’s first person perspective enables readers to begin to comprehend the realities of undocumented youth immigration, its underlying causes, and the sacrifices and hardships made to reach safety in the United States. VERDICT An important, must-have addition to the growing body of literature with immigrant themes.–Ruth Quiroa, National Louis University, Lisle, IL

McCarney, Rosemary. Where Will I Live? photos by Rosemary McCarney. 24p. Second Story. Apr. 2017. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781772600285.

YA-SP-McCarney-WhereWillILiveGr 1-4 –A poignant photojournalistic look at the issues confronting refugee children and their families from the author of Every Day Is Malala Day. Photo spreads explore the challenges people, especially children, face when “scary things happen to good people.” The text emphasizes universal fears that are magnified by conflict: Where will I live? Will I make friends? Will I be safe? Many of these refugees will make long and uncertain journeys in search of that sought-after new home, but the work ends on a positive note: “I hope someone smiles and says ‘Welcome home.’ I hope that someone is you.” Photos are helpfully labeled by location. Although the images depict distressing situations, none are so explicit as to overly upset the audience. The true power of the book lies in its ability to spark classroom conversations, highlighting the need for cultural awareness and compassion. VERDICT Consider to prompt elementary school discussions on empathy for refugees.–Jessica Bushore, Xenia, OH

Mihulka, Krystyna with Krystyna Poray Goddu. Krysia: A Polish Girl’s Stolen Childhood During World War II. 192p. ebook available. maps. photos. Chicago Review. Jan. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781613734414.

YA-SP-Mihulka-KrysiaGr 4-7 –In 1940, nine-year-old Mihulka and her mother and younger brother were forced from their home in Poland and taken to a Soviet-run labor camp in Kazakhstan. Through Mihulka’s mother’s resourcefulness and the children’s resilience, they survived the harsh conditions and were able to reconnect with family members before traveling to a refugee camp in Iran in 1942. Writing in a simple, direct style, Mihulka shares her experiences, fears, and reactions in a clear yet age-appropriate way. A guide to selected Polish words, along with their pronunciations, is placed at the beginning of this volume, giving tweens a chance to glance through it before diving into the narrative. Black-and-white photographs are scattered throughout, and a helpful map of the family’s journey is also included. An afterword and epilogue give insight into the fates of many Polish people during World War II, as well as additional information about Mihulka and her family. VERDICT Painting a vivid picture of a child’s experience as a civilian caught among warring powers, Mihulka’s story offers many opportunities for discussion, especially given the current refugee crisis.–Sarah Reid, Four County Library System, NY

Milway, Katie Smith. The Banana-Leaf Ball: How Play Can Change the World. illus. by Shane W. Evans. 32p. (CitizenKid). websites. Kids Can. Apr. 2017. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781771383318.

YA-SP-Milway-TheBananaLeafBallGr 1-4 –This title follows Deo Rukundo and his family as they flee their home in Burundi. Separated from his family, Deo travels alone until he makes his way to Lukole, a refugee camp in Tanzania. Supplies are scarce, and many children Deo’s age join gangs to bully others and steal what they want and need. One of these bullies, Remy, becomes an opponent not only in Deo’s daily life but also on their pickup soccer team. Deo’s favorite toy from home, a soccer ball made from banana leaves, comes in handy in both practicing soccer and in forging relationships with other boys in the camp and driving home the lesson that they’re all ultimately on the same team. Award-worthy mixed-media illustrations breathe life into the perhaps overlong story. With a simplistic plot that holds few stakes, the narrative does more to inform at a base level than to pique interest in the refugee crisis. Back matter with information about the real Lukole refugee camp and those who might live there, Internet resources, and suggestions of what can be done to aid those in crisis might be useful for those doing school projects or children genuinely interested in helping others. VERDICT This title will fill the gaps of any collection looking for more materials on the refugee crisis, and Burundi refugees in particular, and how the power of organized play can positively impact a dark time in any community.–Brittany Drehobl, Eisenhower Public Library District, IL

redstarSedgwick, Marcus. Saint Death. 240p. ebook available. Roaring Brook. Apr. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781626725492.

YA-SP-Sedgwick-SaintDeathGr 9 Up –Arturo is scraping by, living in Anapra, on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico. He can see El Norte from his small shack, but America feels distant compared with his reality spent hauling things at the auto shop and trying to avoid the notice of gang members and the cartel, who have carved up Juarez into their own sections of territory. Arturo’s childhood friend Faustino reenters his life, preparing to use stolen money to send his girlfriend Eva and their son illegally across the border. With his gang boss on the verge of discovering the theft, Faustino is desperate for help to replace the $1,000 he has taken. Arturo reluctantly agrees to try to win the money playing Calavera. Looming over his story, and Juarez itself, is Santa Muerte—Saint Death. The folk saint watches impassively as people in the border town struggle in the face of a vicious drug trade, dangerous trafficking, corruption, and income inequality. It’s possible that Santa Muerte might help Arturo if he prays hard enough and proves himself. But it’s also possible she’ll watch as Arturo heads toward his tragic ending. Arturo’s narrative alternates with commentary from nameless third parties on conditions affecting Mexico, and Juarez specifically, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, climate change, the city’s founding, and even the worship of Saint Death herself. The formatting and language underscore that this is a book about Mexican characters who live their lives in Spanish—non-English words are not italicized, and dialogue is formatted according to Spanish-language conventions. This well-researched novel is an absorbing, heart-rending read and a scathing indictment of the conditions that have allowed the drug trade and human trafficking to flourish in Mexico. VERDICT Eerily timely and prescient, this ambitious story is a necessary purchase for all collections.–Emma Carbone, Brooklyn Public Library

Watts, Irene N. Seeking Refuge. illus. by Kathryn E. Shoemaker. 128p. Tradewind. Mar. 2017. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9781926890029.

YA-SP-Watts-SeekingRefugeGr 5-8 –This follow-up to Watts’s Good-bye Marianne is a fictionalized account inspired by the author’s real-life experience with the Kindertransport, a heroic rescue operation that brought Jewish children to Great Britain prior to World War II. Eleven-year-old Marianne flees Austria, arriving in London in December 1938. Though she trusts her family’s decision to send her away to safety, it doesn’t make the process any less painful as she struggles to adjust to a new country and sponsors who never seem pleased with her. Cold Aunt Vera treats Marianne more like hired help than a guest, while Auntie Vi is overprotective and views her as a replacement for the daughter she recently lost. Her days pass in confusion, hurt, and sadness. Black-and-white pencil sketches reflect a mood of loneliness and the bleakness of the time period. With about six panels per page, it can be difficult to discern the action, given that the sketches are shadowy and individual features are very small and similar. The glossary, which defines terms associated with the Nazi Party and Welsh phrases that appear in text when Marianne must flee London late in the book, does a great job of explaining terms at an age-appropriate level without shying away from harsh truths. Though the conclusion may feel abrupt, middle grade readers will appreciate the happy ending. VERDICT A first purchase for collections that own Good-Bye Marianne and for libraries looking to expand their offerings on the experiences of refugees.–Samantha Lumetta, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, OH

Wild, Margaret. The Treasure Box. illus. by Freya Blackwood. 40p. Candlewick. Apr. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763690847.

YA-SP-Wild-TheTreasureBoxGr 2-4 –“When the enemy bombed the library, everything burned.” This is how Wild begins her rather dark tale of salvaging one important thing when everything else is broken or destroyed. A young boy’s father had borrowed a book from that soon-to-be-burned library, and when the “enemy” (never identified or hinted at) forces the people to leave their homes, the father chooses to take the book, sequestering it in an iron box. He tells the boy that the book is “about our people, about us. It is rarer than rubies, more splendid than silver, greater than gold.” The father does not survive the arduous journey, and the boy buries the box with the book at the foot of a linden tree. Years later, he returns and retrieves the book and brings it back to the new library so that others can enjoy the “treasure” his father tried so hard to save. The concept of what constitutes treasure is explored (“no rubies, no silver, no gold”); instead, it is that most marvelous of things—a book. The pencil, ink, and collage illustrations are masterly. As the pages from the burned books flutter in the wind, “people caught the words and cupped them in their hands.” The scraps of paper are carefully selected, in many different languages, and most evocative—“of hope,” “never forget,” “sang,” “great empty.” VERDICT This beautifully written and illustrated picture book is an excellent read-aloud and discussion starter for elementary school classes talking about war and the resilience of displaced peoples.–Grace Oliff, Ann Blanche Smith School, Hillsdale, NJ

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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