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Finding the Right Shoes: Reading War Stories with Kids

It was the late 1980s, during a period known for car bombs in the Lebanese civil war. I was a child living in suburban Chicago, but the majority of my extended family was still in Beirut, experiencing a horrific war. I heard stories of the war in newspapers, letters, and over scratchy long-distance phone calls. While our family was on vacation, my parents received news that my grandparents’ apartment in West Beirut had been devastated by a car bomb. My father spent the rest of our vacation camped out at the resort’s pay phone, trying to get a phone connection to Beirut.

From A Game for Swallows by Zeina Abirached.

Little by little, news of the bombing trickled in: the car’s front end came crashing through the front window, sending shards of glass through the front room, which ignited the draperies. Months later, my grandparents, now refugees, arrived in the United States, with only clothes and a white Persian cat. They looked different from what I remembered: my grandfather was frail and forgetful, my grandmother nervous; her hands constantly wrung an invisible handkerchief.

My comfortable, suburban life always felt precarious. Memories of wartime trauma experienced by family members became my memories. This postmemory drove me to read other stories of war and displacement such as Refugee by Alan Gratz, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, How Dare the Sun Rise by Sandra Uwiringiyimana, Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab and illustrated by Jackie Roche, Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai, A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi, and I Remember Beirut and A Game for Swallows by Zeina Abirached.

When my son brought home Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water, we began reading it aloud as a family. My children were unprepared for (and devastated by) Marial’s disappearance. They seemed most affected by how Salva’s life turned upside down in a single day. He was an ordinary kid like them who became a “Lost Boy.” How could life turn upside down like that?

To walk so far, barefoot and without family, was unimaginable to my kids. The shoes and the act of walking took on symbolic importance for my daughter, who immediately made the connection between walking and freedom, and how it cropped up in other books, like John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s March trilogy, Shane Evans’s We March and Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom, Russell Freedman’s Freedom Walkers: The True Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Chris Van Wyk and Paddy Bouma’s Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. I was struck by this insight, and the historic parallels that it allowed us to draw between war, oppression, and change — which is why I was taken aback by what followed the next day.

From March: Book 1 by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell.

My daughter was preparing to take a field trip to a rural historical village that enacted early nineteenth-century Pennsylvania life. It was a rainy day, and the children would be spending the entire day outdoors. The night before the field trip, we picked out her outfit, and selected the most appropriate footwear and jacket. She had no rain boots that fit, so we agreed she would wear her sneakers and raincoat. It was either that or bring out the snow boots, and she couldn’t countenance that. Sneakers would have to do.

The morning of the field trip was a disaster. My daughter disregarded our entire plan, and balked at wearing sneakers. With only seconds on the clock until school started, she sat screaming at home, refusing to leave with the wrong footwear. Didn’t I know that everyone else would be wearing rain boots?

I was reminded of Salva’s barefoot walk from Sudan to Kenya in A Long Walk to Water, and struck by the drastic change in my daughter. Where was the insightful child of yesterday?

I wish I could report that a redemptive ending to my story, where I talk my daughter down from the ledge of footwear doom by giving her a good dose of perspective, in the form of moralizing comments, such as: Remember how Salva walked all that way by himself? With no shoes? And look — you have two pairs of shoes! I understand wanting to fit in, but this problem about shoes is not that bad.

It didn’t occur to me to just tell her about my family experience. About how her family ancestry includes people like Salva who undertook great journeys in order to escape war. They walked, fled on boats, and boarded airplanes for places where they could make a living and their children could have ordinary lives.

There’s a scene at the end of Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War by Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine, and illustrated by Claudia Dávila, where Michel finds himself in Canada, years after his experience as a child soldier recruit in Congo. He’s riding a bus, listening to complaints of his schoolmates, like “Hate my new phone,” “Pizza was ice-cold by the time,” and “Hate school,” knowing that he experienced much worse in Congo, and that these “problems” aren’t really problems.

From Child Soldier by Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine, illustrated by Claudia Davila.

And that’s when it hit me: in a weird way, my ancestors came to this country so that we could have ordinary lives. And in the ordinary life of an eight-year-old girl, the biggest problem was finding the right shoes to wear on a field trip. The fog of my parental exasperation lifted, albeit momentarily, and I appreciated the poetic justice of the moment.

Books mentioned

Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017)

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial, 2015)

How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana (HarperCollins/Tegen, 2015)

Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab; illus. by Jackie Roche (Firefly, 2017)

Escape from Aleppo by N. H. Senzai (Simon/Wiseman, 2018)

A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi (Philomel, 2018)

I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached, trans. by Edward Gauvin (Lerner/Graphic Universe, 2014)

A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return by Zeina Abirached, trans. by Edward Gauvin (Lerner/Graphic Universe, 2012)

A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, 2010)

March trilogy, written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin; illus. by Nate Powell (Top Shelf, 2013, 2015, 2016)

We March by Shane W. Evans (Roaring Brook/Porter, 2012)

Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane W. Evans (Roaring Brook/Porter, 2011)

Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Russell Freedman (Holiday, 2006)

Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom abridged by Chris Van Wyk; illus. by Paddy Bouma (Roaring Brook/Flash Point, 2009)

Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War by Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine; illus. by Claudia Dávila (Kids Can, 2015)

Click on the tags refugees and war for more recommended reading on the experiences of children and their families during war.

Julie Hakim Azzam About Julie Hakim Azzam

Julie Hakim Azzam teaches in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh. While her academic specialization is on literature from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, she has a passion for children’s literature and has been interviewing children’s authors for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for many years.

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