We are excited to join Kidlit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year. From July-August, our reading theme is about “Scarred Souls and Bloodstained Memories: Tales of War & Poetry, Refuge & Peace.” These picture books deal with very important themes as they feature the voices of refugees’ as told in tapestries of hope and the weaving of stories and whispering cloths.
My Name is Sangoel
Written by: Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed Illustrated by: Catherine Stock
Published by: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2009
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
In the first few pages of the book, Sangoel is shown to be among his people in Sudan. Sangoel’s father has just been killed in the war and he and his mother and younger sister will now be taken in as refugees in America. The importance that Sangoel and his family give to his name is established in the first few lines of the story:
“Don’t worry,” the Wise One said as Sangoel prepared to leave the refugee camp. “You carry a Dinka name. It is the name of your father and of your ancestors before him.”
The old man hugged him, and Sangoel could feel the bones in his thin arms. “Remember, you will always be a Dinka. You will be Sangoel. Even in America.”
The art in this book is also unique in the sense that it ingeniously includes actual photographs of people or objects as you can see in the upper left corner of the page (see photo above).
While it is clear that Sangoel and his family are quite fortunate to be leaving the refugee camp, there is also heartbreak as he will be leaving friends and other family members behind. And he knows that it is unlikely they would ever meet again.
Upon arrival in the US, Sangoel was overwhelmed by the many signs and directions he had to navigate, things he has to learn and understand.
There was a whole new language to be learned, kitchen equipment to figure out, eating implements they had to make sense of, in addition to medical check-ups, forms that need to be filled – and amidst all of these, there are the constant nightmares about the “war and running and hiding” that make Sangoel sleep on a rug instead of his new and comfortable American bed. And to top it all off, his teachers and his classmates do not know how to pronounce his name correctly, the only link he has that reminds him of who he is in this strange new world. And so he conceived of a brilliant ploy to get his classmates to know his name. How he managed this, I shall leave for you to discover.
In the Author’s Note, there is a brief description of what refugees are and a description of southern Sudan, the largest country in Africa, as well as what a name signifies in cultures like the Dinka. However, I would have loved a much longer account of whether this is based on a true story and a few photographs of the real Sangoel or even the Dinka tribe. When I read the Author and Illustrator information found at the jacketflap of the book, it says that Khadra Mohammed, one of the authors, “is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Refugee Center and has worked with refugees both in the U.S. and abroad for more than twenty years.” I believe that it is important for any reader to know exactly who the authors are, what inspired them to write their stories, as well as know relevant information about their background that would put their writing into some kind of context. This renders a great deal of authenticity in the narrative and in the reader’s understanding of the author’s positionality as they write the book.
For teachers who wish to make use of this in the classroom, here is a downloadable PDF link created by eerdmans.com that include a few discussion guide questions that may be explored with students. This book shares the same vein as the following picturebooks that we have likewise featured here previously. While the following are fiction books and are not necessarily about war and conflict they show “what’s in a name” and the significance of keeping one’s name to preserve one’s identity. Click on the image to be taken to our reviews of said books.
Meltem’s Journey: A Refugee Diary
Written by: Anthony Robinson Illustrated by: June Allan
Published by: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2010
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
Meltem is originally from a little village in Pazarcik in eastern Turkey. She was born in 1993 and they are Kurdish. She shares that they had a pistachio farm in their small village in Tilkiller which her father looked after. Meltem’s voice is used throughout as she tells her story in the first-person in a diary-like format.
Since the narrative takes on the perspective of Meltem, there are a few gaps that are justifiably present in the story as she basically has no idea why the Turkish soldiers would constantly make trouble in their village, or why her father was beaten very badly by said soldiers requiring him to undergo an operation. All she knows is that she and her mum would now have to travel to Kablenz in Germany where her father is staying with his brother.
It is through this picture book that I learned how it is like to apply for asylum the minute you arrive at a particular country, and the devastation a family feels when their application has been refused or denied, which is what happened to Meltem’s family in Germany. This means that they would have to go back to Turkey. Since this is not a viable or safe option for them, given her father’s apparent political leanings, she shared how she and her family had to hide in the back of a lorry and arrived in Dover the next day. They immediately applied for asylum in the UK. However, they couldn’t say that they came from Germany: “You have to come straight from your own country to get asylum.”
In a few pages, Meltem managed to convey how helpless and dire their situation is, and how they need to rely on conflicting institutional policies depending on the host country, as well as their blind faith that somehow, somewhere, there are officials who will be kind and empathetic enough to listen to their story. There is a network of lies that need to be put in place, not to deceive, but to ensure one’s survival and safety. As she noted: “I just wanted a normal life. Doesn’t everybody?”
In Meltem’s journey, the reader is able to see a photograph of Meltem and her mother, found at the back of the book. There is also a fairly-comprehensive “Did you Know?” fact sheet about the Kurds and Turkey, as well as a primer on the conflict between the Turkish forces and the Kurdish Workers Party, which the reader may now surmise to be Meltem’s father’s political group.
Grandfather’s Story Cloth
Written by: Linda Gerdner and Sarah Langford Illustrated by: Stuart Loughridge
Published by: Shen’s Books, 2008
Borrowed from the Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
Chersheng’s grandfather is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. There are times when he is unable to recognize the faces of his daughter and grandchildren. He forgets little things such as leaving the back door open or turning off the faucet. Sometimes, he even forgets that he now lives in America, and not in war-torn Laos.
As Cherseng gets increasingly anxious about his grandfather’s worsening state, his mother gave him a large blue story cloth created by his grandfather as a symbol of his grandfather’s love for the family and the sacrifices he had to make in order to give them a better life in the US.
Through the story cloth, Grandfather started sharing little things with Chershen such as the rice pounder, the roosters, and the many rituals that make up a simple farmer’s life back in Laos.
And then, there were the soldiers who burned their houses and destroyed their crops:
“It was not safe to live in Laos, so we crossed the river to Thailand. For five years we lived in a refugee camp with many families sharing a barrack house and a small garden. We made story cloths.”
Written in two languages (English and Hmong), this picturebook is quite text-heavy. However, the layout and design have been done in such a way that there are full-page art spreads matched with a nicely-framed long-ish text in the opposite page. While I did not find the art to be spectacular in this picturebook, the story in itself captures how generations can be bridged through a story cloth where hopes and dreams, as well as memories of the past are woven. The back matter provides extensive information about Alzheimer’s disease as well as what the Hmong story cloths signify. If you wish to know more picturebook titles that deal with grandparents and dementia, here is a downloadable PDF resource list created by Alzheimer’s Society.
Stitching Stories: The Art of Embroidery in Gujarat
Written and Illustrated by: Nina Sabnani and the artists of Kala Raksha
Published by: Tulika, 2011
Bought my own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.
I have featured this title here for our Feast of Asian Literature theme last year. Let me just share my review once again, as it fits this sub-theme quite nicely.
This is a gorgeous book that tells the story of two women: Raniben and Meghiben and the journeys that they have taken to find home and how their stories are immortalized through their embroidery.
I think of our village, Adigaam, now in Pakistan. This is a map of our village. I made it to show my friends where I came from.
Meghiben says all she knows about my past is through my work.
Suddenly one day, we had to leave Adigaam. It was when India and Pakistan fought. Why they fought, I don’t know.
Click here to be taken to the rest of my review.
The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee’s Story
Written by: Pegi Deitz Shea Illustrated by: Anita Riggio Stitched by: You Yang
Published by: Boyds Mills Press, 1995
Borrowed from the NIE library. Book photos taken by me.
The setting of this picture book is in Ban Vinai, a refugee camp near Chiang Khan in Thailand. In the Foreword written by the authors, it is said that the refugee camp has housed the Hmong, who were driven from their homes in Laos by the Lao Communist government, since 1976. Ban Vinai closed in 1995 as tens of thousands of refugees were moved to different camps and were eventually “repatriated” to Laos against their will.
This story is about a young girl named Mai. While her cousins have already moved to America, she is still in this refugee camp with her grandmother “where everyone seemed to come and go but her.” Apart from reading her cousins’ letters, and listening to the widows talk and stictch about their lives back in Laos, Mai spends most of her time being taught how to weave by her Grandmother. I loved how she was given instructions by her Grandmother:
Grandma threaded a needle and wrapped her hand around Mai’s. “Push the needle up through the cloth,” Grandma instructed. “And poke it back in when it has gone the length of a grain of rice.”
Grandma tells Mai that it is through these pa’ndau that they will be able to gain their freedom as traders would agree giving them a fair amount when they see the fine embroidered details in the cloths. As Mai learns more about the craftsmanship of stitching the cloths, she asked her mother if she can do an entire pa’ndau herself. However, her grandmother told her:
“If you do not have a story of your own, you are not ready to do a pa’ndau.”
Mai tried for days to think of a story she could stitch. But all the good ones were already whispering around her.
That evening, as Mai’s fingers ached, and as she cried in longing for her parents who were killed because of the war, she listened closely to the stories in her heart. Whether her fingers would be able to craft those whispered stories, I shall leave for you to discover.
This book contains a glossary of terms as well as a detailed foreword that provides an overview of the Hmong refugees and their lived experiences. The Acknowledgments page also shows the amount of research that the creators of the book have done to make this story of Mai come alive. For teachers who wish to make use of this in the classroom, here is a 4-paged downloadable PDF file created by sed.ycdsb.ca that consists of a detailed lesson plan that teachers can use, as well as a variety of resources and links that can also be explored in class.
Reading Challenge Update: 187, 188, 189, 190 (25)
I have, and have used, those first books about names, Myra. They are all wonderful. And thank you for telling about the others. There are many stories of refugees and their longing for their former homes, and now their new ones. I am always sad when I read or hear about them, like those in Syria now. But our children need to know too that there are children in the world who are in need.
Some titles are familiar but I haven’t read any. I volunteered with some refugee kids for an art project and they were energetic.
The Sangoel story really stood out to me, especially because of the illustrations! I may need to check that one out! I wonder if some of these books would pair with Shirtliff’s Change Your Name Store book??
Wow. I know and love My Name is Yoon but now looking for My Name is Sangoel. This is such a fantastic post.
Thank you for this beautiful post Myra with exemplary titles.
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