Very recent events in Ukraine have prompted me to cover this topic, although it is an important one in any case. Of course, it is a difficult issue and many of the books below pull no punches in terms of political reality or emotional trauma.
They need careful handling and open discussion from teachers fully attuned to the potential sensitivities of children in their classes. Nevertheless, understanding and compassion for refugees is vital to our world and these books will help considerably. I for one would not wish children to leave primary school without experiencing one or more of the brave and responsible children’s novels on this subject.
Leaf by Sandra Dieckmann (Flying Eye Books, 2018) provides young children with a fairly ‘safe’ way into discussion of this issue with a beautifully illustrated story, not about humans, but animals. Bear arrives in a new environment where others initially fear and avoid it, but later come to understand its feelings better.
My Name is Not Refugee by Kate Milner (Barrington Stoke, 2017) approaches the subject much more directly, but still in a way that brings important awareness within the scope of young children’s understanding. Simple and moving.
Smriti Prasadam-Halls’ Rain Before Rainbows (Walker Books, 2021) is not specifically about refugees, but there could be no more hopeful book about moving from a dark place to a brighter future. It is important to be positive with young children, and this is as supportive as it gets. Feelings are brought to glowing life in illustrations by the wonderful David Lichfield.
Coming to England by Floella Benjamin (Pan Macmillan, 2021) and John Agard’s Windrush Child by poet, John Agard and illustrated by Sophie Bass (Walker Books, 2022) each in quite diverse ways make this important aspect of our recent history accessible to young children. I would read them both, in this order, as they complement each other. The more straightforward recount of the first book will help children appreciate the deceptive simplicity of John Agard’s beautiful, lyrical language.
Picture books can be a valuable way of introducing difficult topics in early KS2. Despite their short text and integral illustrations, many contain complex ideas and express emotions tellingly. These outstanding examples should provoke much thought and discussion.
Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush by Patrice Lawrence and illustrated by Camilla Sucre (Nosy Crow, 2022) is an inspirational tale of the Windrush experience endearingly retold in the context of an inter- generational story. A significant move on from the two versions above, it contextualises these events as an important element of black British heritage as well as part of the history of us all.
Nicola Davies’ The Day War Came and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb) (Walker Books, 2019) is a very strongly emotive poem, protesting inhospitable treatment of refugees. Again, much more than ‘just’ a picture book, it aroused supportive social media responses across all age groups a few years back and is still a must-read today.
Teacup by Rebecca Young and Matt Ottley (Dial Books, 2016) is, in contrast, a far more lyrical, almost poetic response to the situation of a child refugee. It is nonetheless very poignant and thought-provoking, but ultimately hopeful and reassuring.
Stretch Level Fiction
The Abominables(Scholastic, 2021) is the last novel from cherished children’s author Eva Ibbotson and was published posthumously. It is a charming, often funny tale of an endearing family of Yeti forced to leave their Himalayan home and travel to seek a new one. It provides an easy, entertaining route into some of the issues faced by refugees, but nevertheless will stimulate thought and discussion. It could well act as a prelude to some of the more harrowing books below, if you are looking for a gentler introduction.
I almost didn’t include Onjali Q. Raúf’s The Boy at the Back of the Class (Hachette, 2018), not because it isn’t a good book (it is an exceptionally good one) but simply because it is already so popular that it doesn’t really need my recommendation. However, I know of no book for children that deals with refugees in this country anywhere near as successfully as this one. It combines honesty with accessibility and just has to be here.
(Note: Either or both of these titles would also work well as an engaging way into this topic for older classes.)
Stretch Level Fiction
Two highly engaging, but also very demanding books, beyond what many children could read independently, but excellent for reading aloud, if accompanied by sensitive discussion:
Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird (Pan Macmillan, 2017) is wonderfully written and gives a devastating, fictional (but realistic) account of a young boy caught up in war torn Syria and displaced as a consequence.
Another fictionalised story based on real lives and events, Alan Gratz’ Refugee (Scholastic, 2017) recounts the nightmare journeys of children from three different conflicts/persecutions, 1930s Germany, 1994 Cuba and 2015 Syria. In consequence, it draws out close parallels and makes it troublingly clear that some things in our world sadly do not change.
(Note: Boy 87 by Ele Fountain (Pushkin Children’s Books, 2018) or Boy, Everywhere by A.M.Dassu (Old Barn Books, 2020), both also truly excellent books, would be equally strong, if equally demanding, alternatives. But I have chosen the two above as possibly less well known or used.)
Author bio: Now retired, Gordon Askew was for many years a primary school teacher and later headteacher. After that he was a Primary Education Adviser, first for a Local Authority and then at national level. Read more from Gordon on his From the Story Chair blog at this link.