- Beyond Borders: A Curated Collection of Children's Books about Refugees
- Young Hearts, Bold Journeys: Children's Books on Real Refugee Experiences
- Imagined Journeys, Real Hope: Children's Books on Fictional Refugee Stories
- Unique Perspectives: Unconventional Books About The Displaced for Thoughtful Readers of All Ages
Beyond Borders: A Curated Collection of Children’s Books about Refugees
The refugee experience, exemplifying the spirit of human resilience and courage, weaves stories that span generations. These powerful stories open our hearts to the world beyond our own borders. By sharing refugee-themed children’s books, we can plant seeds of empathy and foster understanding of the challenges faced by millions who were displaced across the globe.
Illustrated children’s books offering a glimpse into the refugee experience can connect young readers with the lived experiences of those who have walked a perilous path. Many award-winning authors and illustrators have crafted diverse children’s books on migration and displacement that educate and captivate. Through the curated collection of such books as shown in this post we pay tribute to these gifted storytellers and to the perseverance and strength of those who have faced incredible challenges.
Our voyage begins with two evocative and heartrending books – “Anisa’s Alphabet” and “Flight”. The first weaves the ABCs of the refugee experience through the plaintive eyes of a young girl Anisa, making it an appropriate introduction for younger kids. The second narrates the harrowing journey of parents fleeing war with their newborn child, shedding light on the global displacement faced by countless families around the world.
Both titles serve as a reality check and demonstrate how illustrated children’s books telling refugee stories can expand the horizons of young readers. By sharing such books with our children we are laying the foundation for a future generation that embraces inclusivity and understanding – a future I hope to see for my child and all children navigating our interconnected world.
If you find the children's books shown in this post thought-provoking, you may also find my previous post The Ultimate Book List for Discussing War with Kids: A Parent's Guide useful, as it offers a comprehensive list of children's books that can help parents initiate and navigate difficult conversations about war and conflict through literature.
“Anisa’s Alphabet” by Mike Dumbleton is a powerful and moving children’s book that tells the story of a young girl, who is forced to flee her homeland as her family escapes war. Through the letters of the alphabet, we follow Anisa’s journey of fear, uncertainty and, ultimately, hope as she and her mother face the perils of leaving their home, navigating a dangerous boat journey, and finally arriving in a new land.
The book’s sombre graphic storytelling and short rhythmic lines of alphabet verse offer a disturbing yet powerful insight into the suffering endured by innocent victims of conflict and violence. Hannah Sommerville’s watercolour illustrations, predominantly in subdued tones of blues and greys, convey a sense of hopelessness and despair, yet occasional sunny-coloured drawings reflect Anisa’s hopes and dreams for a happier future.
This book is an excellent tool for introducing conversations about issues relating to refugees and the role we can all play in helping those less fortunate. Check out my detailed review of “Anisa’s Alphabet” here.
In this powerful collaboration between multi-award-winning author Nadia Wheatley and internationally renowned illustrator Armin Greder, “Flight” tells the story of a family’s desperate journey across the desert in search of refuge from persecution in their homeland.
Set in biblical times yet strikingly relevant to contemporary conflicts, this picture book masterfully blends simple, poetic text with evocative illustrations, painting a heart-wrenching tale of courage, hope and survival.
This story of a family’s dangerous journey of endurance and survival, despite obstacles like heat, thirst, and hiding from tanks, all the while striving to continue and save their baby, makes this book an unforgettable fable that is sure to encourage conversations about the universal plight of refugees.
Winner of CBCA Picture Book of the Year 2016, “Flight” offers an engaging and thought-provoking entry point for discussing the challenging topic of displacement and the search for a safe haven.
Young Hearts, Bold Journeys: Children’s Books on Real Refugee Experiences
The Little Refugee
“The Little Refugee”, an inspiring and captivating picture book, introduces young readers to the extraordinary tale of the childhood of Anh Do, a Vietnamese-born Australian author, actor, comedian, and painter.
Facing the perils of war-torn Vietnam, Anh’s family embarked on a treacherous journey to Australia aboard a rickety, overcrowded boat. Can you imagine the courage it took to confront murderous pirates and terrifying storms?! Yet, despite these daunting obstacles, Anh’s story is one of the triumphs of perseverance and gratitude. In their new home, the family faced many challenges, from linguistic barriers to unfamiliar customs, but their resilience and optimism shone through.
Bruce Whatley’s evocative illustrations beautifully complement Anh’s narrative, striking an emotional chord with readers of all ages. This powerful book not only educates children about the refugee experience but also serves as a reminder of the true meaning of life. It’s a must-read for opening young minds to the world beyond their own experiences.
“The Little Refugee” was a CBCA Honour Book for the Eve Pownall Award (non-fiction category) in 2012. It was also the winner of the Indie Awards in the children’s category in 2012, a commended title in the Kids Own Australian Literature Awards (KOALAs) in 2013 and was short-listed for multiple other Australian literary Awards, including West Australian Premier’s Literary Award, NSW Premier’s History Awards, Australian Educational Publishing Awards and others.
Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued
Peter Sís tells the powerful story of Nicholas Winton (Nicky), a young Englishman who put his ski vacation aside in December 1938 to help hundreds of thousands of children refugees from the Nazis who were crowded into Prague. He saved the lives of almost 700 children, raised money, arranged foster families in England, he bribed officials and forged documents when necessary.
In “Nicky & Vera”, Sís intertwines Nicky’s efforts with the story of Vera Gissing, one of the children Winton saved. As the war passed, Vera grew up and had to find balance in her dual identities.
Sís dramatizes Winton’s story in this deeply personal and distinctive picture book, portraying the hopes and fears of those forced to leave their homes and create new lives and Winton’s courageous efforts to protect Europe’s most vulnerable. It is a masterful tribute to a humble man who saved countless lives and kept quiet about it for decades after the war.
Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System
“Still Alive” by Safdar Ahmed is an extraordinary graphic novel that interweaves journalism, history and autobiography, revealing the harsh realities of Australia’s immigration detention system. Through personal testimonies and drawings, Safdar collaborates with refugees to expose the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees under successive Australian governments.
The graphic novel is well-researched, and the inclusion of artwork by the detainees adds a powerful layer to the storytelling. Metaphors such as monsters, knots, and chess pieces are effectively used to represent the detainees’ stresses and traumas. The book is confronting, raw, and graphic, with mature content such as self-harm, executions, sexual intimacy, and assault.
Safdar’s commitment to justice and brilliance as a visual storyteller are evident in his arrestingly powerful visual narrative. The book has won multiple awards, including the 2022 CBCA Eve Pownall Award, the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Award Book of the Year and the Gold Ledger 2022 Comic Arts Awards of Australia.
This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees and to be reminded about the redemptive power of art.
“The Mediterranean” is a haunting and powerful picture book that will stay with readers long after they turn the final page. Through stunning artwork, Armin Greder tells the tragic story of refugees who risk their lives on illegal boats to escape their war-torn homes. The book depicts the dangers these people face, both at home and on the sea, and the all too common reality of boats capsizing and sinking, leading to hundreds of human lives being lost.
The book’s charcoal illustrations carry the story’s weight, evoking a range of emotions from haunting to harrowing. The dark colour choices and lack of words transfer the weight of the refugees’ experiences onto the readers.
“The Mediterranean” asks readers to feel, understand, and push for change in whatever way they can. This book is a true circle of life representation that shows the value of human life and the need for empathy towards those who are fleeing war and persecution. This is an outstanding and unforgettable book that demands to be read and shared with others.
The Wall: From the Iron Curtain to New Beginnings
“The Wall” by Peter Sís, subtitled “Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain”, is a powerful picture book that offers a glimpse into the Cold War era in Eastern Europe’s Czechoslovakia. Through captivating illustrations, journal entries, historical context, and period photography, Sís takes us on a remarkable journey from his birth on the Communist side of the Iron Curtain to his escape to America.
We see his childhood love for drawing, his pride in wearing the red scarf of a Young Pioneer, and his belief in the propaganda that he was fed. As he grows up, Sís becomes more aware of the cracks in the Iron Curtain and the possibilities that exist beyond it. He secretly reads banned books, listens to rock ‘n’ roll, and dreams of travelling the world.
The Prague Spring of 1968 provides a brief glimpse of hope, but the Soviet-led invasion dashes these dreams. Much later, Peter Sís found way to ‘deflect’ to the West and settled in the US where he has achieved great success as a cartoonist, author and illustrator.
“The Wall” highlights the importance of creativity and the resilience of the human spirit. It is an excellent introduction to the history of the Cold War era in Eastern Europe.
My Strange Shrinking Parents
In “My Strange Shrinking Parents,” award-winning author and illustrator Zeno Sworder, inspired by his own migrant parents’ journey, captures the universal tale of parental love and sacrifice. This enchanting and thought-provoking picture book, suitable for children and adults alike, tells the story of a boy whose migrant parents shrink over time as they sacrifice their own well-being for their child’s future.
Sworder remarked that the two most influential voices in his upbringing were his Chinese grandmother, who was a painter and his English father who was a lecturer in Greek philosophy. Sworder’s own evocative illustrations in this picture book, some reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints, bring the story to life with incredible attention to detail and a sense of timelessness. Drawing on his own experiences as a child of migrant parents, the author’s heartfelt narrative fosters understanding and empathy for those who embark on difficult journeys to provide a better life for their children.
“My Strange Shrinking Parents”, shortlisted for the 2023 CBCA Picture Book of the Year Award, is a beautiful tribute to the selflessness of parents everywhere. Zeno Sworder was also the winner of the 2020 CBCA Award for Best New Illustrator for the book “This Small Blue Dot”.
Imagined Journeys, Real Hope: Children’s Books on Fictional Refugee Stories
Ziba Came on a Boat
In the emotionally stirring tale “Ziba Came on a Boat”, penned by Liz Lofthouse, the courageous journey of a young refugee girl, Ziba, and her family unfolds as they navigate turbulent waters in search of freedom and a brighter future. Aboard a fragile fishing boat on the vast ocean, Ziba reminisces about her homeland torn apart by war, recalling both the cherished moments in her mud-brick home and the devastation that forced them to flee.
Masterfully depicted through the evocative illustrations of the acclaimed artist Robert Ingpen, Ziba’s bittersweet memories of the past weave seamlessly with the present as she navigates the uncertain waters towards hope and freedom. This compelling picture book is an ideal conversation starter for parents to introduce and discuss complex topics such as conflict, displacement and hope with their children. It will resonate and leave a profound impression on readers of all ages.
A Boy and a Ball
“A Boy and a Ball” weaves a moving and powerful tale, inviting young readers into the world of a child caught in a war-torn city. This deeply evocative story follows a boy and his family as they flee their crumbling home, embark on a perilous ocean journey, and arrive at a place fenced and gated.
Rich illustrations from Phil Lesnie and carefully chosen words by Phil Cummings ignite emotions, contrasting the horrors of war with the tender moments of family protection and hope for a better future. The ball symbolizes the boy’s longing for freedom and safety, as well as the simple desire to play.
Unfortunately, the difficult journey does not always end when refugees arrive in a safe place. In Australia, those arriving on boats may be kept in detention for years. This book sheds light on the refugee journey’s end, which often becomes the beginning of a new struggle. The last page of this book is a delightful twist modelling the kindness which is so often denied to those who arrive seeking safety for their children and families. Phil Lesnie drew inspiration for this story from the experience of a real-life migrant child whom his friend met in an Australian child care centre.
“A Boy and a Ball” is a heartrending reminder of the human stories behind the nightly news and the power of books to illuminate and inspire understanding. This thought-provoking book gently introduces children to the complex issues of war and displacement, fostering empathy and sparking meaningful conversations about the refugee experience.
Ships in the Field
“Ships in the Field”, penned by Susanne Gervay and brought to life by Anna Pignataro’s illustrations, weaves a touching and timely narrative of a refugee family’s transition to a new life in Australia. Narrated by a young girl, the story balances heart and humour while revealing the lingering effects of the family’s war-ravaged past.
The title itself serves as a metaphor for the language of misunderstandings that can arise in a new environment, an example of which is when the girl’s father confuses the homophones “sheep” and “ship”. Both the author and illustrator of this book drew inspiration from personal experiences of their migrant families. Pignataro’s captivating watercolour illustrations skillfully complement Gervay’s storytelling, striking the perfect balance between shadows and hope.
This engaging and thought-provoking book opens the door for meaningful conversations around the refugee experience, fostering understanding, empathy, and acceptance.
Running With The Horses
Whilst “Running with the Horses” is a work of fiction, it was inspired by a true story of the rescue of the Lipizaner stallions from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna during WWII.
In a time of war, young Nina and her father embark on a daring journey. Set in Vienna’s prestigious riding school, this captivating story revolves around Nina’s love for the rare performing horses and her determination to save her beloved old cab horse, Zelda.
As the conflict closes in, Nina and her father face the challenge of fleeing to safety with the precious stallions and Zelda. Will they overcome enemy soldiers, destroyed bridges, and the treacherous cold of the Alps? Lester’s vivid illustrations and rich storytelling immerse readers into this race to safety, highlighting the value of courage and friendship.
This elegant and heartwarming tale reminds us of the bonds that endure even in the darkest times, capturing the imagination and hearts of young readers.
My Two Blankets
In “My Two Blankets,” author Irena Kobald tells the tender and universal story of Cartwheel, a young girl who flees war-torn Sudan to find a new life in an unfamiliar land. Masterfully woven with metaphors, the narrative explores the challenges of cultural displacement, loneliness, and the formation of new friendships.
Freya Blackwood’s enchanting illustrations bring Cartwheel’s emotions to life, depicting her old world through warm oranges, reds, and golds, and her new life in blues, greens, and pastels. This book is a powerful tool to help children understand the refugee experience, as they watch Cartwheel find solace in her metaphorical blankets of language and memories.
As the girl learns new words and builds connections, her blanket expands, reflecting her growing understanding of her new home. Perfect for initiating discussions on identity and change, “My Two Blankets” is a compelling and insightful read for children of all ages.
The Treasure Box
“The Treasure Box” by Margaret Wild is an emotionally stirring story that delves into the resilience of the human spirit amidst the devastation of war. Beautifully illustrated by Freya Blackwood, the book follows Peter and his father as they flee their war-torn city, carrying with them a single surviving book from their bombed library.
This treasured possession represents the power of stories and the unyielding strength of the human spirit that sustains people through the darkest times. Wild’s evocative prose, paired with Blackwood’s haunting artwork, creates a thought-provoking narrative that captivates readers of all ages.
Exploring themes of war, loss, and the importance of preserving one’s history, “The Treasure Box” offers a unique and heartfelt perspective on the challenges faced by those caught in the turmoil of conflict and torn from their native land.
The Angel with the Mouth-Organ
“The Angel with the Mouth-Organ” by Christobel Mattingley is a poignant tale of a family’s struggle during World War II, as seen through the eyes of a young girl. This deeply moving story, based on real events, recounts the hardships and resilience of the family as they navigate life as refugees. As they endure the horrors of war, they find hope in the power of music which father plays on his mouth-organ and in the enduring symbol of a glass angel on a fragment of broken glass. During the most difficult journey, the mother and two daughters get separated from their father but they must keep going. Will the family reunite?
The narrative transitions from a heartwarming family scene to the harsh realities of war-torn Europe. It captures the bittersweet blend of sorrow and joy, with the glass angel becoming a symbol of new beginnings and the resilience of the human spirit.
This beautifully written and illustrated book is a testament to the power of hope in even the darkest of times, making it a timeless and essential read that will touch the hearts of readers of all ages.
آواره بی خورشید / A Wanderer Without A Sun
“A Wanderer Without a Sun” tells the harrowing tale of an eleven-year-old Afghan boy, Booman, who loses his family in a Taliban bombing. Forced to leave home, Booman’s mother and grandmother send him to Iran for safety. As the story unfolds, the boy transition from a carefree childhood to a life of hardship and survival while journeying through foreign lands.
From witnessing the Taliban’s destruction of cultural heritage in Bamyan and military conflict in Kabul, to experiencing the struggles of Afghan migrants working in agricultural jobs near Tehran, Shahriyar, and Varamin, Booman’s journey ultimately leads him to an Afghan refugee camp near the Khorasan-Herat border.
At the camp, Booman encounters a former teacher, a man whose life has, likewise, been shattered by the loss of his wife and daughter and the teacher himself has suffered torture at the hands of the Taliban. Through shared experiences, the boy and the teacher find strength to keep going. The teacher rediscovers his passion for writing and decides to pen Booman’s incredible story.
Authored by the immensely talented Iranian author Mohammad Hadi Mohammadi, this book is a survival story celebrating the human spirit’s resilience in the face of adversity and the power of storytelling to connect people across generations, cultures and backgrounds.
Unique Perspectives: Unconventional Books About The Displaced for Thoughtful Readers of All Ages
In Shaun Tan’s wordless masterpiece, “The Arrival,” readers are immersed in the universal immigrant experience through mesmerizing sepia-toned illustrations that convey both the wonder and isolation of a man journeying to a foreign land. With breathtaking cityscapes, bizarre modes of transportation, and peculiar creatures, the protagonist navigates unfamiliar almost alien terrain, confronting the challenges of disorientation and language barriers. He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own story of struggle and survival.
Can a picture truly speak a thousand words? In this case, it certainly can. Tan’s evocative artistry encapsulates the immigrant’s courage, determination, and heartache as they seek a better life.
This striking graphic novel transcends language, as it relies on imagery alone to communicate the powerful narrative. As the man eventually finds friendship and connections in his adopted home, “The Arrival” becomes a testament to the resilience and spirit of immigrants and the courage it takes to embark on such a life-changing journey.
In “Cicada,” the brilliant Shaun Tan captures the pain and dreams of anyone who has ever struggled to fit in and felt overlooked.
Through stunning visuals and minimalist language, Tan tells the story of Cicada, a green data entry clerk in a grey, mundane office. For 17 years, he experiences relentless bullying and exclusion from his co-workers, yet remains diligent and hardworking.
In Shaun Tan’s own words, “Cicada” is a “book about the unspoken horrors of corporate white-collar enslavement… or is it? You never can tell what a bug is thinking.”
Whilst corporate bullying and exclusion appear to be the main themes at first glance, to me “Cicada” also highlights the plight of any outsider trying to fit in a foreign world, much like the experience of any refugee, migrant or a displaced person finding their feet in a new place. Amongst various sources of inspiration for this book, Shaun refers to his Chinese father who came to Australia from Malaysia in 1960 to study architecture and the challenges he experienced in his professional life upon settling here.
This beautifully crafted tale is a powerful reminder for children and adults alike to be aware of those around them and to appreciate the unique qualities of every individual. It encourages discussions about valuing each other’s differences and inspires through the magic of transformation that the main character goes through.
Shaun Tan’s mastery of social commentary through visually captivating and thought-provoking artwork makes “Cicada” a must-read for all ages.
“Grandfather’s Journey” by Allen Say is a beautifully illustrated account of three generations of Say’s family’s moves between Japan and the US. Say’s grandfather came to America as a young man, married, and lived in San Francisco until his daughter was almost grown, before returning to Japan. Say’s American-born mother married in Japan, while he was born in Yokohama and came to America at 16.
Say chronicles these passages in lucid, graceful language, reflecting his love of both countries in both simple text and exquisitely composed watercolours. The story highlights the impact of war and the sadness of loss, with the grandfather raising many songbirds before the war as a symbol of peace and harmony and never keeping another songbird after the war.
The book’s themes of immigration and cultural identity explored through breathtaking artwork will captivate both young and old. “Grandfather’s Journey” is a touching and masterful tribute to the power of love and the search for home.
I Get Loud
David Ouimet’s “I Get Loud” is a captivating and touching book that explores the themes of displacement, hope, and friendship. Ouimet’s unique storytelling style and exquisite illustrations, once again shine in this sequel to his previous work “I Go Quiet.”
The book tells the story of a young girl who finds herself on a perilous journey with a new friend, after being displaced from her home. The story highlights the power of connection sustaining people in times of hardship.
Ouimet’s love for music is evident in his storytelling, and his poetic language and dreamlike imagery make this book a delight to read. The use of black-and-white panels adds a graphic-novel feel to the book, making it an engaging and unique read.
“I Get Loud” is a wonderful addition to the collection of children’s books about the displacement experience as it explores difficult themes in a gentle and approachable manner. Ouimet’s story and illustrations inspire empathy, hope and shed light on the power of friendship to strengthen human spirit in the face of adversity.