Hope and Hardship: The Picture Book As Exile Narrative

Today I am ceding editing rights to my friend and colleague Betsy Bird, an award winning children’s author and librarian…

Children’s books are written years in advance of their publication dates. A book being written at this very moment may take anywhere between two to five years to reach library and bookstore shelves. As such, these books are prone to, what you could only reasonably call, belated literary trends. Yet when it comes to books about exile, whether it’s political, communal, voluntary, or against characters’ wills, the need is ever present. In the year 2020 a book written for a child may comfort and inform far more than just the elementary aged eyes that read it. Adults will find much to chew on with these myriad titles. 

2020 picture books written about life in diaspora often range from overt to subtle. Sometimes their themes require a certain level of sophistication to comprehend. In Migrants, Peruvian illustrator Issa Watanabe was inspired to create this wordless story of anthropomorphic animals making a dangerous journey together by news reports of migrants to Spain and Syrian children. In her book the sadness of the animals’ forced migration is only slightly tempered by the fact that they are not human. Migrants may not be the bleakest of the 2020 titles, however. In this it is rivaled by the specificity of Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War by Maria Jose Ferrada, illustrated by Ana Penyas. Based on a true story, on May 27, 1937, more than four hundred children sailed for Morelia, Mexico, so that they could flee the violence of the Spanish Civil War. The understanding was that they would return after the war. What they did not anticipate was Franco’s forty-year regime, which would keep the “children of Morelia” displaced for most of their lives.

Not all tales for children are doom and gloom, however. Though The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story by Thao Lam relates wordlessly the escape of Lam’s parents from Vietnam, sad elements are cleverly transferred to a paper boat bearing ants. The reader sees the ants’ struggle, and the horrors of the journey are diluted. Ultimately the book ends with the humans safe and sound in a home at the end. Sugar In Milk by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le, takes a slightly different route. Here, we read the story of a group of immigrants from Persia that was forced to leave home. When they arrive in India, the ruler indicates to them that there is no room by filling a cup of milk to the brim. It is the migrants’ clever leader who deftly adds a spoonful of sugar to the milk, showing that they will add only sweetness to this country, they mix with it perfectly.

Not all immigrant tales need to be about the process of escape, of course. Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan, illustrated by Anna Bron, tackles issues of assimilation while being one of the very few picture books out there to mention LGBTQIA+ refugees and their lives as well. There are also those books where escape can happen within the borders of America itself. Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome, discusses the Great Migration from the point of view of a family, forced to sneak to the railroad in the early morning so as to escape the sharecropping life. Endpapers of the book show four different routes taken away from the South, the image of a cotton plant looming in the foreground. 

America also has a way of displacing people from within its own cities thanks to gentrification.  In Everything Naomi Loved by Katie Yamasaki and Ian Lendler, illustrated by Katie Yamasaki, young Naomi watches as piece by piece her neighborhood disappears. First a friend, then a tree, then, finally, her own building is scheduled for demolition. Even so, Naomi does not lose hope, painting murals in her new home that remind her of her old. 

And if Naomi is about not letting your exile define you, We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade may be best described as resisting displacement before it even happens. When oil pipelines threaten a young Indigenous girl’s land and life, she will not back down. A child reading this book may not have the context of the horrors of the systematic forced displacement of the American Indian population over the years, but as with Naomi, they know injustice when they see it. And while lawmakers may wish you to believe otherwise, it is also not difficult to see how the protection of things and the protection of people are often one and the same fight. 

The balance between acknowledging harm and embracing hope is the very essence of the picture book exile narrative. And with the world in the state that it is today, the necessity of giving our children books that promote empathy, understanding, and a clear-eyed view of the challenges ahead is undeniable. Fortunately, with books as good as these, our kids are in good hands. 

For more about the authors:

An interview with Issa Watanabe

An interview with Maria Jose Ferrada

An interview with Thao Lam

A profile of Thrity Umrigar

A profile of Khoa Le

Danny Ramadan Brings a New Perspective to the Saskatoon Community

Gallery by Anna Bron

Couples who collaborate: James Ransome and Lesa Cline-Ransome

Katie Yamaski’s Murals Probe Complex Issues of Race and Justice

“The Greatest Book in the World”, by Ian Lendler

Native Voices: Author and Illustrator Interview, Carole Lindstorm and Michaela Goade

Betsy Bird is the Collection Development Manager of Evanston Public Library, and the former Youth Materials Specialist of New York Public Library. She blogs frequently at the School Library Journal site A Fuse #8 Production, and reviews for Kirkus and the New York Times on occasion. Betsy is the author of the picture books GIANT DANCE PARTY and THE GREAT SANTA STAKEOUT, she a co-author on the very adult WILD THINGS: ACTS OF MISCHIEF IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, editor of the middle grade anthology of funny female writers FUNNY GIRL, and author of her upcoming debut middle grade novel LONG ROAD TO THE CIRCUS, illustrated by Caldecott Award winning illustrator David Small. Betsy hosts two podcasts, Story Seeds, which pairs kids and authors together to write stories, and the very funny Fuse 8 n’ Kate where she and her sister debate the relative merits of classic picture books.

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