Nowadays, Halloween is a time for kids to play at being scared or scary. Wearing fierce masks or dressing up as superheroes, children reassure themselves that monsters do not exist and that they themselves can be powerful. There is really nothing to fear lurking under that comfortable bed! This is the tradition carried on in The Little Shop of Monsters (2015), a brand new picture book published just in time for Halloween. The sound-rich rhymes composed by veteran author R.L. Stine and the brightly-colored, loveable monsters drawn by award-winning Marc Brown reassure young readers and listeners. In that shop, they face nothing worse than stinky smells, yucky sneezes, slimy hugs, or sneaky tickles. Yet as we all can see on the nightly news, there are very real horrors facing children in many parts of the world. Haunting images of young refugees—fleeing war, famine, and poverty—remind us that many, many children are now experiencing monstrous conditions. And perhaps some of the people they fled or those now blocking their way do indeed appear to be real-life “monsters” to these children.
Today, I spotlight graphic works that focus on child refugees, elementary school age and younger. Their perceptions and half-understandings of the chaotic world around them are the lens through which we poignantly see both past and contemporary events. The empathy these works encourage will provoke readers to thought, discussion, and possibly even action. I also look briefly at how the graphic format nowadays is being used as a tool to help refugees with displacement and resettlement. Sadly, while such tools typically welcome refugees to new lives, some works seem designed to say “Stay put” or “Stay away.”
Young girls are the main narrators in two acclaimed graphic novels about World War II refugees. Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust (2012; 2014), originally written in French by Loic Dauvillier and illustrated by Marc Lizano, depicts how a Jewish seven year-old has to flee and hide from the Nazis who have conquered France. She is so young that she believes her parents’ early attempt to shield her from harsh truths: they say that the yellow star being sewn onto her coat is a “sheriff’s star” rather than the conspicuous star of David all Jews have been ordered to wear! Young Dounia’s innocence is soon shattered when some French classmates and teachers begin to ostracize Jews. Later, forcibly separated from her parents but then sheltered by kind Christian farmers, she spends years “hidden” in plain sight, pretending to be their daughter. Eventually, Dounia survives to become the elderly woman we see at the beginning of this book, confiding her war time experiences to her own young granddaughter.
Colorist Greg Salsado does a great job separating time periods and moods by color palette. Grandmother Dounia comforts her granddaughter in the warm orange tones of a nearby, nighttime fireplace, while olive green and drab greys and tans background the daytime horrors of World War II. Marc Lizano’s cartoon-like figures, with heads overlarge compared to their bodies and features merely suggested, effectively contrast the innocence of such childlike drawing with war’s adult horrors. Panel size and perspective shift to emphasize overwhelming emotions, with close-ups of elderly Dounia and a final full-page panel dramatically conveying the results of her finally telling this story to her entire family. This book is so intimately vivid that readers may be surprised to learn that Dounia is a fictional character. In an interview, author Loic Dauvillier explained that Hidden “is a fiction I built from testimonies and writings I accumulated. Everything is false and unfortunately it’s all true.” Hidden’s truths—translated into English by Alexis Siegel—won it the 2015 Sydney Taylor Book Award for older readers and recognition as an Honor book in the 2015 Mildred Batchelder Award competition.
Unlike Hidden, We Are On Our Own (2006) is autobiographical. Its author/illustrator Miriam Katin was 63 when this powerful memoir of her girlhood in WW II Hungary, her first published book, appeared. Ironically, while Katin’s stand-in protagonist (called Lisa) is younger than Hidden’s Dounia, what “Lisa” sees, experiences, and later grapples with as an adult makes We Are On Our Own better suited for readers teen on up than the all-ages Hidden. Toddler Lisa, accompanying her mother as they flee Nazi round-up, only half-apprehends events: she believes the Nazi officer who repeatedly forces her mother to have sex is a “nice man” because he brings chocolates. She later thinks her hospitalized mother is “sick” rather than undergoing abortion after another rape. Lisa is also literal in the way of very young children, believing that God inhabits any object adults associate with the deity, whether that be the Torah (Hebrew bible), a St. Anthony pendant, or a cask of rare wine. All three figure in this memoir as she and her mother move from one temporary refuge to another.
As the Torah burns, the pendant is lost, and the wine plundered, Lisa continues to search for the God meant to protect her. She even describes herself as “the God of my doggie” since she provides this stray with food. Yet she cannot protect her dog from a soldier’s bayonet thrust. By the end of the book, after she and her mother survive the ravaging Soviet soldiers who defeat the Nazis, 6 year-old Lisa has come to accept her atheist father’s viewpoint: that “we are on our own . . . that’s all there is.” Heartrendingly, Lisa enacts this realization through play and her still-childish, literal comprehension: She inflicts each stage of her refugee’s flight on a doll, attacking it first with a ball and then a fork, all the while recalling the soldier who had gutted her dog. Emotionally spent, Lisa in the last page’s central panel ponders God’s seeming absence in terms of the Hebrew prayer book her mother was forced to destroy: “And what if Mommy burned that God after all?”
Katin’s color choices reinforce the quiet intensity and dramatic impact of her memoir. Most of young Lisa’s account is told in black-and-white, with impressionistic, penciled drawings conveying both the haste required by refugee flight and the imperfectly understood world of young childhood. In this bleak, colorless world, rare instances of red signal danger: a Nazi flag flutters or falls, only to be replaced by the Soviet banner. Color also reinforces the book’s few, dramatic time shifts: full-color pastel pages illustrate events set between 1968 and 1972, when the adult Lisa herself has become a mother. We see how her childhood experiences and loss of faith shape Lisa as a parent. Katin’s placement of some solitary panels, centering them on a black page, and her judicious breaking of panel frames, enhance the tempo of her storytelling. Our eyes slow down or speed up at moments appropriate to the memoir’s moods and events. We Are on Our Own has won several international awards, including the 2007 Inkpot Award, and has been translated into a half-dozen languages. In my view, though, this memoir deserves even more prominence. Its subtle, complex presentation of a child refugee’s world-view is stunningly insightful and memorable.
Author/illustrator Zeina Abirached offers insights into a later war, the Lebanese Civil War that raged from 1975 to 1990. Her award-winning graphic memoir A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Live, To Return (2007; 2012) and its companion volume I Remember Beirut (2008; 2014) were originally written in French. Both books draw upon her family’s experiences in a country (and its capital city, Beirut) divided by religious as well as political strife. Born in 1981, talented Abirached presents a doubled vision of these events, depicting them mainly through her childhood perceptions but also including some information that is beyond a young girl’s knowledge or interest. Visually, both black-and-white books share the same bold style: heavy use of black backgrounds; stylized, geometric shapes and decorations (in accord with traditional Middle Eastern motifs); and repetition of many small panels to indicate the slow, often tense passage of time.
A Game of Swallows depicts the constant danger, sudden death, and lack of necessities such as clean water that impel people to seek refuge elsewhere. The memoir begins with some tenants already having left young Zeina’s apartment building to go abroad and others having moved there as one step on their journeys elsewhere. Old and new neighbors band together to support one another, with the foyer of Zeina’s apartment, structurally the safest place in the building, becoming their “community shelter.” Aptly, an heirloom wall hanging depicting the flight of Moses and the Jews out of Egypt decorates this sheltering hallway. Despite the dangers confronting them, Zeina experiences only kindness and generosity from her sometimes quirky neighbors. She and her family themselves move after a bomb destroys part of the barricaded apartment building. Their becoming refugees ends the book.
In the episodic I Remember Beirut, an older Zeina tellingly uses a two-page spread drawn as a board game to depict the constant upheavals begun with this first move. She and her family are merely playing pieces, shifted along the path’s squares by wartime chance, represented by the game’s dice. Ironically, when this civil war finally ends, Zeina and her family are able to return to their “home neighborhood,” now safe in a way she has never known. The feared “enemy territory,” once hosting deadly snipers and bombers, had begun just across the street! Yet the grown-up Zeina still cannot take safety for granted—in some senses she remains a refugee. The final pages include one set in Paris in 2008, as Zeina fearfully “remembers the bombing” when a thunderstorm awakens her. Refugee wounds are not merely physical.
Graphic works about current child refugees acknowledge psychological as well as physical wounds. A series of picture books, each subtitled A Refugee Diary, uses real children’s words and some photos to tell their stories. Author Anthony Robinson, editor Annemarie Young, and illustrator June Allan supplement and craft this information into narratives that spotlight the pain, uncertainty, and struggles of child refugees who have found shelter in Great Britain. Gevelie’s Journey (2008) follows a young girl from the embattled Congo, while Mohammed’s Journey (2009) describes a boy’s dangerous escape from war-torn Iraq. In Hamzat’s Journey (2009), we see how a young boy from Chechnya copes with losing a leg to a land mine as well as resettling in a new country. Meltem’s Journey (2011) follows a Kurdish boy fleeing from Eastern Turkey. Some child refugees probably never will be able to return to their homelands; some wish they could, while others are uncertain of how they feel about a possible return.
Another kind of graphic work, a half hour animated film titled Seeking Refuge (2012), also spotlights young refugees to Great Britain. Youngsters from five different world regions provide the voice-over narration in each 6 minute segment. They include a girl named Rachel whose family was several times denied refugee status by the British. Through her eyes, we see the uniformed police who came to deport her family as looming giants, even as we hear her describe them as “monsters.” Now at last safely resettled in Great Britain, Rachel never wants to leave! I do not know if or how she and her family take part in Britain’s Halloween traditions, with their own emphasis on fantasy monsters.
Some USA communities have also begun to create and use graphic works to help refugees adapt to new lives in this country. These pamphlets explain unfamiliar activities and events in ways the newcomers can understand. In Australia, some graphic pamphlets seem designed to discourage displaced refugees from seeking asylum in that country. These works emphasize the monstrous difficulties refugees will experience in their journeys and upon arrival. In “The Unwanted,” a graphic article reprinted in his book collection titled Journalism (2012), award-winning reporter/illustrator Joe Sacco shows several views of the complex refugee situation in the island nation of Malta. African refugees arrive there hoping to move on to Europe.
How will you and your community respond to the probable arrival of immigrants and refugees in your area? Perhaps the works described in today’s post will help you and your neighbors understand a bit more about the past as you look towards the future.