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Refugee children

The following recently published picture books focus on very young children’s experiences as refugees — fleeing war, unspeakable violence, destruction of all they’ve known — and hoping against hope they’ll be welcomed into a new country where their families can find better lives.

sanna_the journeyIn a piercing first-person account, one of the two children in the family pictured in The Journey tells the story of losing their father to war and undertaking a harrowing journey with their mother as they hide in cargo trucks, evade guards, scale walls, and endure a sea passage on an overcrowded ferry. Author/illustrator Francesca Sanna’s stylized illustrations, with gargantuan villains and swirling inky black, are both captivating and unsettling. Specifics of the setting are never established (details in the illustrations, such as headscarves and minarets, suggest an Islamic-world origin, while mountains and forest fauna imply a Nordic destination), and that intentional lack of specificity adds disquiet to the journey. Still, the story is not without hope. The family’s arrival is accompanied by an uplifting ascendance of birds and the promise of a new beginning. (Flying Eye/Nobrow, 6–9 years)

ruurs_stepping stonesOrdinary beach stones were used to make the three-dimensional collages in the arresting picture book Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey. Arranged into human figures (and trees, flowers, and animals) by Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr, these commonplace objects compose art depicting the harrowing journeys that many present-day Syrians undertake to escape violence. Margriet Ruurs’s free-verse text, in English and Arabic, chronicles one specific journey through the eyes of a fictional girl, Rama, whose family must flee its war-torn village. Ruurs’s foreword provides information about this book’s unusual origins. Stone by stone, step by step, it all adds up to a memorable look at what it means to leave one’s home in search of “a bright new future.” (Orca, 6–9 years)

del rizzo_my beautiful birdsAt the start of the emotional tale My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo, Sami and his family climb a hill while their Syrian village burns in the background below. They continue walking for a day and two nights until they reach a refugee camp: “Helpful hands welcome us in. We made it. We are safe.” But Sami is still scared, and he is heartbroken over the loss of his beloved pet pigeons, even though his father reassures him that “they escaped, too.” Healing finally comes after a quartet of birds arrive — not his birds, “but it doesn’t matter.” Del Rizzo uses polymer clay and acrylic paint to create vibrant pictures of Sami, his family, the refugee camp, and the swirling pink-and-purple sky. Most of all, she creates birds for which every feather and color looks real. Beauty and sorrow sit side by side in this compassionate and age-appropriate depiction of contemporary refugee life. (Pajama Press, 6–9 years)

argueta_somos-como-las-nubesSomos como las nubes / We Are like the Clouds by Jorge Argueta, translated from the Spanish by Elisa Amado, is a bilingual collection of poems that gives voice to the many refugee children who emigrate from Central American countries to the United States in search of safety or better lives. The children in these poems speak of the places left behind, their families, their fears, their hopes, and their dreams. Argueta’s poems include whimsical imagery but also scary threats (los pintados — “the painted men” — with their hard eyes and snake-tattooed bodies) and the fear of never seeing loved ones again. The poems, written in the first person, present the candid perspective of the children’s experiences: holding tightly to a mother’s hand; singing to scare away tiredness and fear. Delicate illustrations by Alfonso Ruano include both realistic portrayals and surreal depictions that complement the textual imagery. (Groundwood, 6–9 years)

From the February 2017 issue of Notes from the Horn Book. Click here for “Refugees welcome here” booklist and other resources.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.



  1. Thanks Elissa! Just persuaded the buyer at Annie Blooms to order these books so that I can make a window display around refugee stories and immigrant authors.

    I notice that all of these books are from smaller presses. I hope as a part of your ongoing commitment to diverse books you will continue to look to small and regional presses for leadership and quality.

  2. Shannon Truss says:

    Thank you for these timely suggestions. I look forward to reading them with my daughter!

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