Kid Lit Book review: What is a refugee? by Elise Gravel

This World Book Day I am championing a book by award-winning Canadian author-illustrator Elise GravelWhat is a refugee? (Puffin)

It feels particularly poignant to be highlighting this book in a week where our news feeds are once again filled with the heart-breaking images of people fleeing war-torn countries, hoping for safe-passage to a different country, only to be caught at the borders of countries unwilling to allow them through.

A refugee is a person, just like you and me.

Elise Gravel

One of the things I love about Elise Gravel’s picture book is the emphasis on the fact that refugees are people, “just like us”. With clear, concise sentences, Gravel takes us through the sort of situations that refugees might be fleeing, one idea to a double spread page. The accompanying illustrations are bright and bold. From here, she goes on to depict people at a closed border, in a refugee camp and she discusses simply what refugees are hoping for – a school, a job, a safe place to live.

At the back of the book, Gravel includes snippets from discussions with refugee children. Again, the emphasis here is on how we are the same – football, hobbies, even playing Fortnite gets a mention. The very last page is all about famous refugees – Einstein, Freddie Mercury and Malala – a celebration of the positive contributions of refugees to our societies.

This week in school, my kids (6 & 9) are talking about the Shared Writing Project 2018, Small City, Big Heart – Stories from Derby’s Inner City. This is a writing project that culminated in the publication of a book including short stories and poems written by school pupils from across the globe who have settled here in Derby. On Monday after school, my six-year-old asked whether she could take in What is a refugee? because they were talking about refugees and she wanted to share with it her classmates. She showed the book to her teacher who thought the book was a great introduction to the topic, “pitched at the perfect level” for primary school-aged children to understand.

While I think the book is fabulous, as a regular volunteer at local charity Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity, I was also interested to see what refugees and asylum seekers themselves thought about it, so I took the book along to one of our sessions. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with Zak saying it is “tremendous” and that for him, the pictures really convey the message, even if your English skills are limited. He says: “it is a really important book for children to understand what refugees are.”

Julie James, volunteer coordinator at DRS, also had this to say: “Everything I’ve learned by listening to, working alongside and reading about refugees and asylum seekers condensed into one simple, moving and beautiful book.”

Elsie Gravel has taken a sensitive topic and created a stunning book that promotes and encourages understanding in children of why people leave their countries to seek safety.

For more book recommendations on the topic of refugees and migration, please take a look at this page.

Take a look at the World Kid Lit blog for more book reviews, articles and interviews all about global literature for children.

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