Jul 22, 2017

Refugees? Immigrants? Assumptions and Stereotypes

My previous post (here)  focused on a recent picture book about the all-too-familiar condition of being a refugee: STORMY SEAS: Stories of Young Boat Refugees.The details of even a few people and events throughout history are heartbreaking and powerful. In many cases, the refugees depicted were also immigrants.
Words matter, and using them accurately matters even more.
Striving to understand and use words accurately can be an effective way to begin to understand ourselves and others.
So...let's explore these concepts, as you might with young readers.

Are REFUGEES and IMMIGRANTS the same? Are the words interchangeable?
Charlesbridge Publishing, 2015

In one important way they are all alike: 

Both refugees and immigrants are NEW.
That's why an ideal starting point is 
I'M NEW HERE, written and illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien.

There are countless ways in which REFUGEES and IMMIGRANTS are similar, and significant ways in which they are NOT the same. Rather than link to just any source, one  that might be considered biased or even political, let's take a look at the two terms linguistically, on THE GRAMMARIST.COM, here. What do wordsmiths have to say about the two terms.

 "refugee is a person who is forced to leave his home and travel to another country in order to escape a natural disaster, war or persecution. ..."
"An immigrant is a person who leaves his home and travels to another country in order to become a permanent member of the population. ..."

Not all refugees are choosing to "never return", and would, in fact, return to their homelands if it were safe to do so.
On the other hand, some have suffered to such a degree that they abandon any thoughts of returning to their homeland.
Not all immigrants are moving to a new homeland entirely by choice. Conditions may not be such that they must flee for their lives, but may include situations that limit their choices, hopes, and future.
On the other hand, some are eagerly seeking a new homeland despite leaving behind safe and loving people and comfortable settings. They may, in fact, face more struggles in the new land, but welcome the challenge and adventure of the move. 

A Venn Diagram of the two words would reveal many elements in common, but some that are critically different. Both are leaving behind homeland, family, and history. Both include a wide range of ages, health conditions, and educational levels. Both immigrants and refugees may travel illegally, while others travel legally.

Despite all of the commonalities, the distinction is:
REFUGEES = No CHOICE, running AWAY FROM danger, might return if they could
IMMIGRANTS = CHOICE, running TOWARD a new home, no plan to return

In fact, especially in recent times, this essential distinction has been blurred in the public consciousness. This confusion is compounded further by social attitudes toward poverty and dependence. 
Some refugees have multiple resources, but the ones who are destitute are the subject  of our opinions and public discussions.
Some immigrants have adequate financial means and social supports in place, but the ones who are destitute or struggling are more visible and are also the subjects of public discussions.

In debates (and rants) about refugees and immigrants, understanding the nuances of the terms (and the individuals) is worth the effort, especially when it comes to the next generation. In order to explore these confusions and assumptions, offering and discussing a wide selection of books provides many examples over the course of history and involving varied circumstances and ethnicities. Many outstanding picture books that are worth including are featured in the following blog posts, and I recommend them highly:

Jul 16, 2017

Refugees on STORMY SEAS: A Never-Ending Story

The surface of our planet is more than 70% water, so it is no surprise that a major method of transportation, throughout history, has been by boat. Whether water travel is viewed as luxurious, adventurous, necessary, worrisome, or terrifying depends largely on a person's options and reasons for travel. Certainly the vast majority of those onboard the Titanic, even the seasick, employees, and immigrants (unlikely to ever see native lands again) began their journey with the reasonable expectation of arriving safely at a US port in a matter of days. At worst, it was a temporary discomfort undertaken for a valued purpose. At best, it was a glorious adventure and a status symbol, even for those whose status was in no need of bolstering.

Certainly, none of those boarding could have imagined that an iceberg would change their perceptions and their fates in a matter of hours. 

On the other hand, a boat trip as a refugee is only undertaken with the reasonable expectation of death. Empathy alone doesn't allow us to put ourselves in the desperate-but-hopeful mindset of refugees boarding objects that bear less resemblance to boats than do the crayon sketches of toddlers. 
Refugees are people fleeing fates more horrid than we can possibly imagine. Sadly, they are real and very conceivable to the refugees themselves. That's been true throughout the plight of "boat people" spanning millennia, hemispheres, and ethnicities.
Annick Press, April, 2017

STORMY SEAS: STORIES OF YOUNG BOAT PEOPLE addresses that long history of refugees. Written by Mary Beth Leatherdale and illustrated by Eleanor Shakespeare, this picture book aimed at middle grade readers opens with a timeline of "boat people" that precedes the Mayflower. Five true stories from refugee history on the water are humanized through the eyes of actual young people:
Ruth and her family escaping Nazism; Phu fleeing war-torn Vietnam; Jose  escaping Cuba; Najeeba leaving Afghanistan and the Taliban; Mohamed, an orphan, runs from his village on the Ivory Coast. 

I agree entirely with the synopsis from Indiebound.org: 
"...Stormy Seas combines a contemporary collage-based design, sidebars, fact boxes, timeline and further reading to produce a book that is ideal for both reading and research. Readers will gain new insights into a situation that has constantly been making the headlines."
I'll go so far as to call this an extraordinary resource, compelling in content and useful as a resource to launch research. From the introductory timeline of  "boat people" who have attempted escapes through to the more recent examples, these stories all depict refugees pursuing an opportunity to make new homes in an area of North America that eventually becomes the United States. Naturally, our current global refugee crisis is dealt with at the conclusion.
My only caution is to include additional books and information in refugee discussions to balance the "America-centric" approach. There are stories of refugees with other destinations throughout the world, and of other countries who are facing the moral decicion of extending a welcoming hand or slamming shut their ports of entry.

Certainly safety and reasonable screening are necessary considerations for any nation. But our neighbor to the north, Canada, has dealt with those issues of national concern while still finding ways to offer refugees new opportunities and safe places to live. I posted a review about another recent picture book, STEPPING STONES: A REFUGEE FAMILY'S JOURNEY (here), and an extensive interview with its Canadian author, Margriet Ruers, here. If you missed those posts, I urge you to read them.

I endorse and am inspired by Anne Frank's memorable quote:

This positive view of human nature leads me forward, but history insists that human nature and nature itself are capable of unleashing devastating circumstances. These include conditions that force people to set foot aboard frighteningly fragile boats, literally and figuratively. Even the most optimistic among us must be realistic. We know that the specifics may change but  "refugee crisis" will repeat and repeat in the millennia ahead. The question should be asked of readers, while they are young, to consider fully what our response can and should be. Books like these allow them to research, debate, analyze, and empathize.

After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, conditions were so unlivable that thousands of Haitians were evacuated with special longterm visas to live in the USA.Those visas are currently under review, with their termination becoming a real possibility. This return of Haitian natives to a fragile homeland comes at the very time when conditions in Haiti are deteriorating to such a degree that residents are resorting to the high-risk boat route to reach the unwelcoming shores of our country. NPR's Weekend Edition aired a brief but very informative description of this here.

Jul 9, 2017

She Persisted: Past, Present, and Future

Some books launch with so much attention that I choose to pass on reviewing or commenting, regardless of how I feel about them. 
Philomel Books, 2017

I do read them. Often I rate and post a short review on Goodreads. 
There are just SO MANY amazing releases that don't garner widespread attention. I reserve this blog for books that are, in my opinion, deserving of an extra splash of spotlight. My influence-wattage may be small, but I keep plowing ahead to share such books, and also highlight backlist books that remain significant and valuable. As always, those choices reflect my personal opinions. 

In the case of this book, the attention has been extensive, and well-deserved on many counts. Even so, I couldn't resist adding some reflections of my own here about  SHE PERSISTED: 13 American Women Who Changed the World written by Chelsea Clinton and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. 

There are several other current books about amazing women, from individual biographic profiles to collections, from iconic figures to relatively unknown heroines  A great place to find outstanding recommendations is at A MIGHTY GIRL website, which offers well-curated, up-to-date lists of titles for various ages and interests. (HERE). Resources like this provide yet another reason for me to pass on some reviews. Why try to outdo the best of the best?

But then my library hold notification "dinged" and SHE PERSISTED made its way into my hands. It appealed to me on many levels, and yet some elements seemed to "break the rules" of picture books. I read it several times and evaluated carefully, finally deciding to share my thoughts here. 
On the plus side, I adore the art and book design. It has dramatic, red end papers, presents figures that are diverse and expressive, and displays full spreads that feature women with notable accomplishments, including short quotations from their bodies of work.Those quotations, the well-suited and distinctive illustration style for each, and the range from familiar to unknown women are all powerful plusses.I particularly enjoyed the decision to feature a baker's dozen of women as having quirky appeal, although I am aware that is likely as much due to book length as to a conscious choice. I'm always curious about dedications, and both Clinton's and Boiger's do not disappoint.
As much as I enjoy and admire this book in those ways, I feel compelled to add a few "yes, but" comments. The instructive/narrative text is a compressed introduction, an little more than an invitation to investigate further. It feels a bit old for the youngest readers and a bit young for established readers. It does invite research, reading, and investigation, though. That's the point at which I wondered if one of the more familiar women (Helen Keller, perhaps?) might have been omitted in favor of a spread of accessible recommended resources on the back pages. I also longed for citations for the quotations on the back pages. 
The power of this appealing book is to incite curiosity about these (and other) American women, and yet there is no readily available option or comparable books suggested to readers. Some reviewers have commented, too, that the profiles, taken as a whole, demonstrates an oppressive system holding a thumb down on the women's success. Yes, that fits well with the conceptual "persistence" or "grit" theme, but it came off as a bit discouraging.

A curious reader can go to Amazon and find comparable books, or Wikipedia to search for more content, but neither is considered a valid research tool. At least not one as reliable as a curated list in the back of a book that could easily have been included by such a reputable publisher. 
In addition, Senator Elizabeth Warren has made "She persisted" such a catch-phrase that a Google search takes one to memes, merchandise, and to Senator Warren herself, but not immediately to the book. My search for a Chelsea Clinton website in support of this book took me to the Clinton Foundation or to her Facebook page, neither of which references the book or provides further links. The publisher's page, here,  offered little to no additional content or optional links. 
In that sense, I found this to be a book I'd buy, give, and use, but with reservations. I generally feel that celebrity books, especially picture books, rely on the name-value of the author with less-than-industry-standard attention to details like these. Sometimes, as in this case, it feels a bit rushed-to-market. The target age noted is 4-8, and yet I believe sales will trend toward adult fans of Clinton, Warren, and the concept itself. Yes, adults are the buyers of picture books, and they will then share with young readers. In this case, though, I feel it is the illustrator's  work rather than the text that will manage to draw young reader/listeners into the book. I'm not anticipating a rash of "read it again" requests.

Even with those cautions, it is a worthy choice and one that merits a place on your shelves. Read Publishers' Weekly starred review here, and the Kirkus review here, one that noted some of my concerns. With the potential for reaching such a wide audience, I wish that a few more months had been devoted to allow it to reach its full potential.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.