Award-Winning Books Books by Region DiverseKidLit Early Readers Features Genre International Lifespan of a Reader Memoirs, Biographies, and Constructed Narratives Picture Books Reading Themes

[DiverseKidLit] “Self-Constructed” Narratives and Voices of Refugees in Recent Picturebooks

"The Map Of Good Memories" by Fran Nuño and Illustrated by Zuzanna Celej, and Translated by Jon Brokenbrow | "Why Am I Here?" by Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen and Illustrated by Akin Düzakin | "My Name Is Not Refugee" Written and Illustrated by Kate Milner.

Myra here.

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As we continue to highlight self-constructed narratives, memoirs, biographies – here are three picturebooks that represent voices of young people who are disenfranchised and in dire circumstances. While not technically memoirs or biographies, two of these picturebooks are written in the first person, and all of them feature full-fleshed lives and identities of individuals whose essence and core are strategically being ripped out from them by virtue of their being without a home or country.

The Map Of Good Memories

Written by: Fran Nuño Illustrated by: Zuzanna Celej Translated by: Jon Brokenbrow
Published byCuento De Luz (2017) Original Title: El Mapa De Los Buenos Momentos ISBN: 8416147825 (ISBN13: 9788416147823) 
Borrowed from Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me. 

Zoe has to leave the city that she has known all her life to take refuge in another country. The setting in this picturebook is unclear, but the reader gets a distinct sense of place, especially as Zoe creates a map of the city to mark specific areas where she felt the most happiness throughout her life:

This allows Zoe’s hometown to be anyone else’s. In fact, it could serve as a mentor text for young readers to create their own map of good memories, regardless of whether they are moving for some reason or another or have no plans at all of leaving home.

I especially loved how Zoe marked the bookshop and the library as two of the places she loved in her city, and where perhaps she took refuge in, notwithstanding the turmoil and uncertainty in her hometown.

The image above shows that Zoe’s city is nearly deserted, with hollowed-out buildings destroyed possibly by bombings. Yet, that is not the central aspect of the narrative. Rather, the focus is on Zoe and the memories that she hopes to take along with her, wherever it is that she ends up in.

Why Am I Here?

Written byConstance Ørbeck-Nilssen Illustrated by: Akin Düzakin
Published byEerdmans Books For Young Readers (2016) ISBN: 080285477X (ISBN13: 9780802854773)
Borrowed from Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me. 

This book reminded me a little bit of another philosophical/ existential picturebook from Norway that I have just featured here a few months ago, entitled Questions Asked by Jostein Gaarder, also illustrated by Akin Düzakin (see my review here).

It does appear as if Duzakin is known for creating these haunting artwork that adds multiple layers to a narrative that is gently questioning one’s place in the world. This story begins innocently enough with the first two pages marked by just two lines of text:

I wonder why I am here, in this exact place.

What if I were somewhere else- somewhere completely different from here?

I remember asking something similar to this in my Introduction to Philosophy Class in my first year in the university. What makes us who we are? What marks the essence of our beings? Are we defined by our environment or the places we grew up in?

The narrative then moves forward with the main character wondering what life would be like for him if he was born on the other side of the earth – in a place totally different from that which he knows:

The picturebook is deceptively innocuous in its gentle questioning, prompting the young reader to exercise perspective taking, and imagine what it must be like to be somewhere strange, far from one’s home, far from anything familiar:

What if I had to move from place to place? And the only things I could keep were what I was able to carry with me. What would it be like to live like that?

This is a powerful picturebook that uses very simple text, but with muted and subtle imagery such that this reality comes vividly alive to a young reader. If we are serious in having children develop empathy and compassion, this is one such story that pushes the envelope just a tad further, as international picturebook titles from Norway usually do.

My Name Is Not Refugee

Written and Illustrated by: Kate Milner
Published byThe Bucket List (2017) ISBN13: 9781911370062 Literary Award: Winner V&A Illustration Awards, 2016.
Borrowed from NIE Library. Book photos taken by me. 

Among the three excellent titles here, I have to say that this one is my favourite – and that is saying a lot, given how excellent the first two are. The book begins with a very comforting message, notwithstanding the seeming-gravity of the situation, somehow made light and manageable by the young boy’s mother.

We have to leave this town, my mother told me, it’s not safe for us, she said.

Shall I tell you what it will be like?

Once again, the focus is not so much on the war that has wreaked devastation upon so many lives, such as this young boy’s – but what this singular experience would be like for them as they pack only that which they can carry, and leave home to seek refuge and find safety.

The mother gently prepares the child so that he will know what to expect on their journey – that while it is painful to say goodbye to everything and everyone they know, it is exciting too; that while it can be arduous and difficult, there are plenty of spaces to rest and think of many other things as well.

The images are stark and real, and there are also questions found at the lower right hand of the page, inviting young readers to place themselves in the child’s shoes – encouraging them to practice perspective-taking, while gently holding their hand, and saying that while things are hard, it will be alright, because Mother is there.

I find this to be an immensely moving picturebook, mostly because there are so many things that are understated – but highlighted in the stark imagery that conveys so much more: the apprehension, anxiety, fear, the constant sense of dread and confusion.

Yet, always, always, despite the challenging circumstances, the sense of hope shines through. There is also a clear sense of one’s identity – the one thing that can never be taken from an individual:

You’ll be called Refugee but remember Refugee is not your name.

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#LitWorld2018GB Update: 25 of 40The Map Of Good Memories (Both author and illustrator are from Spain, although Zuzanna Celej, the artist is originally from Poland).

Why Am I Here? (Both author and illustrator are from Norway, although Akin Duzakin, the artist is originally from Turkey), Kate Milner is from the UK.

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3 comments on “[DiverseKidLit] “Self-Constructed” Narratives and Voices of Refugees in Recent Picturebooks

  1. gift2014

    Wow! These are very thought-provoking books. As an adoptive family coach, “The Map of Good Memories” looks like a book that could open important conversations, especially for children adopted internationally.


  2. I like the idea of mapping your memories, in your first share. I am a sucker for refugee books and enjoyed some titles I have not read. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved reading, and reviewing, your first two titles. I have not seen My Name is Not Refugee, but will be looking for it! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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