There are some new characters on the children’s literary scene. They’re not wizards, they’re not the friends of monsters or talking animals- they’re refugees. It’s been almost three years since the migrant crisis reached its media peak, with the now famous image of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy who was photographed washed up on a Turkish beach. Reactions of horror at stories such as his, and support for others facing his plight, show no signs of waning, as more and more children’s writers are choosing to depict these struggles for their young audiences.
There is now a plethora of books for all age ranges that explore the reality of leaving your home and crossing unfamiliar, dangerous land to try and start a new life. One of my personal favourites is the beautiful, deeply moving picture book by Kate Milner: My Name is Not Refugee, in which a young boy discusses with his mother the journey that they are about to face. She tells him they will walk and walk and walk, and will see new and exciting things. Another is In the Sea There are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda, aimed at 9 to 12 year-olds, which tells the true story of Enaiatollah. When his village falls prey to the Taliban, he and his mother must leave Afghanistan. Enaiatollah’s mother is forced to abandon him in a camp in Pakistan, and so he begins his incredible voyage across many countries, all alone, until he reaches Italy. And that’s just a couple! Other titles include Give Me Shelter by Tony Bradman, The Boy At The Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf, and The Journey by Francesca Sanna. Whether it’s a picture based text for toddlers or a longer novel for teens, the choice is pretty broad, and getting broader.
In the climate we’re living in, books like these are invaluable. The headlines are full of stories of intolerance and anger, and literature- childrens’ included- can’t ignore it. Books such as Exit West by Mohsin Hamid are paving the way for a discussion about the migrant crisis and it’s fantastic that children’s fiction is following suit.
Yes, there are arguments to be made that now more than ever than ever is a time for escapism, and that kids should be protected from the complexities of the adult world. I’m not suggesting that someone needs to write Biff and Chip Stop an EDL Rally (are Biff and Chip still alive?), but children’s literature needs more realism.
I’d go as far as to say that these books about refugees are the most important thing to happen to the childrens’ publishing industry since Harry Potter. They are a way in to difficult, sensitive topics that some parents might be struggling to explain, and the introduction to important conversations that children need to be having. Picture books such as Kate Milner’s allow a young reader the chance to imagine a situation completely alien to them, one where a person their own age might be separated from their family or forced to leave all their friends behind to walk hundreds of miles. This encourages empathy at an early age. The novels aimed at slightly older children give them the opportunity to delve slightly deeper into the issue, perhaps introducing ideas such as terrorism or racism.
Of course, children’s books have always born a certain degree of responsibility to educate, emotionally as well as academically. You’d be hard pressed to find a popular story that didn’t impart some kind of moral message about compassion, acceptance, forgiveness etc. But the possibility of framing those messages around a political crisis? That’s fairly new.
This isn’t to say that any children’s fiction writer has an obligation to school their readers in current affairs. Neither is it to detract from the vital role that genres like fantasy can play in children’s development. Ultimately, literature is for enjoyment, and if that enjoyment stems from sci-fi, or dragons, or fairy tales, then great. Any engagement with words at a young age is something to be celebrated. But I think there is space in the market for more books that deal with the troubling aspects of our current culture, in a sensitive and appropriate way. Deportation, racial profiling, every day sexism; they all sound like big scary ideas too dark for youth fiction. And yet, they have all, in one way or another been touched upon in children’s literature. Just look at the rise in stories of successful girls that are promoting gender equality at a young age.
The refugee crisis is just the beginning; where’s the child friendly explanation of Brexit? Just kidding. No one should have to fall asleep dreaming of Theresa May. But really, there is a whole host of topical ideas that could be explored via kids’ books, with great effect.
So, my plea is ‘More, more, more!’. More direct subject matter. More volume. More publicity. These books have the potential to do something really extraordinary in terms of the empathy, tolerance and understanding they can elicit in children.