NOEL KING, HOST:
Literature often reflects the times in which we live. And there’s a recent trend in literature for young people that deals with one of the world’s biggest crises – the global wave of refugees. Now, books that tell the story of the refugee experience have become something of a genre. NPR’s Deborah Amos has this story.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: In Bellevue, Wash., this seventh-grade class gathers one more time before summer vacation, and I listen in on Skype.
ROBIN RUSSELL: I’m Robin.
AMOS: That’s Robin Russell. She teaches seventh-grade humanities at the Open Window School. All of her students read about refugees this year.
RUSSELL: I would like to introduce you to my students.
AMOS: The new crop of refugee stories explores the trauma of war and violence from a child’s point of view.
RACHAEL HINES: I’m Rachael, and I read “A Long Walk To Water.”
SIMMER: I’m Simmer, and I read “Child Of Dandelions.”
RAYHAN KHANNA: I’m Rayhan, and I read “Refugee.”
TENDO LUMALA: I’m Tendo, and I read “American Embassy.”
AMOS: These novels and picture books portray treacherous sea journeys, encounters with smugglers, dangerous border crossings and overcoming bigotry when starting over in a new country. Russell says the stories are dramatic, and they’re personal.
RUSSELL: And so it’s not just about memorizing facts of where conflict is in the world, but your goal is for students to make personal connections with the material.
AMOS: A popular title published in May is “Marwan’s Journey.” As the reviews describe, Marwan is a young boy on a journey he never intended to take, bound for a place he doesn’t know.
DEBORAH SLOAN: (Reading) I take giant steps even though I am small. I walk, and my footsteps leave a trace of ancient stories, the songs of my homeland and the smell of tea and bread, jasmine and earth.
AMOS: That’s Deborah Sloan – in charge of marketing “Marwan’s Journey.” She says sales have been so strong, there’s already a second printing.
SLOAN: The text is so lyrical and so beautiful without being heavy-handed.
AMOS: This trend in children’s books comes as millions of civilians, many of them children, are fleeing wars and insurgencies in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Another wave of displaced are children coming from Central America.
VICKY SMITH: Both of those events have triggered a rush of books dealing with refugees, and the trend started in about 2015, and it’s just been growing every year.
AMOS: Vicky Smith, children’s editor at Kirkus Reviews, says book authors are responding by humanizing refugees as politicians portray them as threats.
SMITH: So it’s motivated my sense of it anyway – it’s motivated less for profit than it is – they all seem really designed to create empathy.
AMOS: Here’s an excerpt from Alan Gratz’s book “Refugee,” a New York Times best-seller in 2017. It’s about a 12-year-old boy named Mahmoud Bishara, and he’s from Aleppo, Syria.
ALAN GRATZ: (Reading) One of the soldiers stood in front of the car, his rifle aimed loosely at the windshield, while the others walked around the sides, peering in through the windows. The soldiers were silent, and Mahmoud closed his eyes tight, waiting for the shots to come.
AMOS: Gratz says he wanted to put what’s happening in the present day into a historical context.
GRATZ: We keep making these same mistakes, that we keep turning people away at the doorstep who need help.
AMOS: He weaves the stories of three children – from the 1930s, a Jewish boy whose family tried to escape Nazi Germany; in the 1970s, a Cuban girl’s exodus from Havana and 12-year-old Mahmoud fleeing war with his family. The book is popular with teen readers who hear the news about refugees and some who’ve experienced it firsthand.
GRATZ: Many of them go to school with kids who’ve been through this. I go to some schools where they have, like, an 85 percent refugee population.
AMOS: Gratz was once a middle school teacher, and he welcomes the challenge of kids who are skeptical, repeating what they’ve heard from their parents.
GRATZ: And I can get in there, and I can say, wait, wait, wait. Read this book. Let’s talk about what’s really going on. And if they keep those opinions, that’s their prerogative. But I know that people have had their minds changed by books about refugees for kids.
AMOS: He was invited to speak in more than a hundred schools last year. He’ll be in a hundred more in the next school year. Deborah Amos, NPR News.