Refugee Stories Are Just the Beginning: How Fiction Opens Children’s Minds

Marsh, author of the newly released Nowhere Boy, describes her experiences as an immigrant abroad and how children's literature can break down the proverbial walls

"Mommy, why are people so friendly here?"

"Because it's considered polite to say hi, even to people you don't know."

"Mommy, there are loud birds out my window. I can't sleep."

"Those are cicadas, not birds. They're big insects."

"Mommy, why do people ride bikes less here?"

"Because everything is further away and there are fewer bicycle lanes."

I've spent the past few weeks explaining America to my children. It's their own country—they were both born in Washington, DC—but we just returned from three years in Brussels, Belgium. The younger one was only four when we left; the older one just seven; after three years in a Belgian French school, their home is a foreign and mysterious place.

When we moved to Brussels in the summer of 2015, I hoped to give my children an uncommon gift. According to the State Department, only 36 percent of Americans hold a valid passport. An increasing number of Americans don't even know where the rest of the world is. This summer, Jimmy Kimmel stopped people on the street and asked them to name one country on a map. "Africa" was the most common response. I wanted my children to know the difference between continents and countries and to be able to find them on a map. But even more important, I wanted them to have the perspective that America is one part of the larger world rather than the only reality that matters.

This is not the first time that our country has retreated into isolationism—my grandmother Natalia, who helped raise me, immigrated to the United States through Mexico in 1928 in order to bypass the Immigration Act of 1924, which put a quota on less desirable immigration seekers like her from Eastern Europe. Pearl Harbor ended that period of isolation; my grandmother became one of the millions of women who built American weapons and planes that helped win the war.

The three years we spent abroad coincided with a period of incredible upheaval—not just at home but internationally. In 2015, nearly one million refugees arrived in Europe, the greatest displacement of people since the Second World War. That fall, Brussels was on a citywide lockdown—my children's schools were closed for a manhunt following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. In March 2016, Brussels suffered a day of terrorist attacks that claimed 32 lives and injured hundreds. Brexit capped off our first full year in Europe, and this was all before the game-changing U.S. election in November 2016.

As I watched nativism and populism engulf the world, I became even more obsessed with the question of how to give American children, including my own, a global perspective. Obviously, for most people, moving abroad is not a realistic option. (If my husband's job hadn't involved an overseas move, I would have had neither the resources nor the courage to move an entire household.) But as a children's author, I know that books can be magic carpets that allow kids to fly over borders and see themselves and their communities in more complex and challenging ways. The question is: Are we doing a good enough job of giving American children stories that expose them to the larger world?

By one measure, the answer is yes. We have a healthy canon right now of children's literature about the refugee and immigrant experience, from Linda Sue Park's A Long Walk to Water to Alan Gratz's Refugee to Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again to Dia Cha's Dia's Story Cloth to Julia Alvarez's Return to Sender. My latest book, Nowhere Boy, tells the story of Ahmed, a Syrian boy stranded in Belgium. I wrote it in the hope of adding another perspective, one garnered from three years of witnessing the refugee crisis in Europe and also from my own family history. Three out of my four grandparents were born abroad and came to the United States to escape poverty, war, or persecution. But not everyone's immigrant roots are so immediate, and in the course of reinventing ourselves as Americans, we tend to forget our own history as refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants. Refugee stories are one way to help American children feel a shared history and humanity with children on the other side of the proverbial wall.

I was struck in Europe by how much people knew about my culture, history, and literature compared to how little I knew about theirs. Granted, U.S. popular culture is a worldwide export (I will never forget the parents' night trivia event at our children's school, when the Belgian parents identified the theme song of Miami Vice before we did). But European history—especially 20th-century history—offers important lessons for American children today. In Nowhere Boy, Ahmed's story finds a historical parallel in Belgium's wartime history: during the Second World War, a Belgian lawyer and his family hid another young refugee, a German Jewish teenager, just a few doors down from our own. The fate of this boy, Ralph Mayer, and the man who hid him, Albert Jonnart, haunted me because the setting of this tale of quiet heroism was part of my everyday life—the lawyer had lived just a few doors down from our own house in Belgium. But it's a challenge to give children thousands of miles away a sense of others' lived-in history. That's why we need to place an even greater value right now on stories with non-American characters and settings, books like Ruta Sepetys's Between Shades of Gray, Eugene Yelchin's Breaking Stalin's Nose, and Aisha Saeed's Amal Unbound, that make non-American history and experience feel emotionally immediate.

We could do even better by expanding the number of books we publish by non-U.S. authors. When I asked the English-speaking international moms group I belong to in Brussels for great children's books in their native languages, I was ashamed by the number of contemporary authors I'd never heard of, from Marcin Szczygielski (whose Behind the Blue Door was a Polish best seller and is taught in schools) to Finn Ole-Heinrich (whose Frerk, You Dwarf! was awarded the German Youth Literature Prize). But my ignorance wasn't entirely my own fault: I could not find English translations of either of these books. In fact, just three percent of books in the United States and the United Kingdom are translations from other languages, and the number of children's books represents an even smaller fraction. Anglo-American children's literature dominates the market. This has been true for a long time. But it's time to ask whether this monolingual supply chain is serving our children, especially when the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States are pulling away from the rest of the world. Even among books originally written in English, it's rare and refreshing to see America portrayed not as an exceptional country at the center of the world but as just another place on the map, as Naomi Shihab Nye does in The Turtle of Oman.

I spent much of our first year in Belgium watching my son adjust to using a fountain pen, playing outside in the cold rain (recess is always outdoors no matter the weather), and learning another language. His difficult adjustment made me interested in the less tackled topic of an American child abroad, which is why Nowhere Boy tells the parallel, and ultimately intersecting, tale of Max, whose parents drag him to Brussels from Washington, DC, and enroll him in the local French school. The experience of being out of context, of being lost, of not understanding, is a staple of refugee and immigrant literature. But how often do most Americans experience cultural incomprehension and linguistic impotence? In my opinion, not nearly enough. My grandmother always struggled with English but, as a third-generation American, I didn't truly appreciate how hard it must have been for her until I lived in Belgium. I once accidentally kidnapped a child from my kids' school; I had attempted to arrange a playdate using my high school French but failed to understand the pickup procedure until I received a frantic call from the school secretary wondering if I had absconded with my son's classmate. I had it easy compared to my children, who spent eight hours a day in an environment where they initially couldn't say more than a few words. And we all had it easy compared to the refugee families arriving that year in Belgium without legal status or resources.

Comparing experiences and finding parallels are controversial exercises right now. But imagination—the ability to walk, as Sharon Creech so evocatively describes it in Walk Two Moons, in another's shoes—is one of the first casualties of isolation. This is why it's vital right now that we encourage narrative connections without leaping to the kind of judgment of others that short-circuits empathy. I wrote the character of Max to give American kids who might not be able to see themselves in others a way to see themselves as others.

Increasingly in America, we seek out places where we can be successful and our views are reinforced by similarly minded "good" people. But the most valuable lesson of living abroad is not that other countries do it better (just try registering for an identity card in Belgium and you'll realize the national dysfunction). It's realizing that it's OK to be outside of your comfort zone. The nativism and tribalism we're seeing around the world are not just a fear of others; they represent the fear that we lack the ability to cope with change. Change is frightening to children and adults alike, but it is especially so when the world outside our door is a dim and distant place.

All children's books teach a single tale: it's only by leaving the safety of home and facing the unknown that we grow up. In this sense, children's stories are anti-isolationist. But as our country turns inward, we need to find and promote stories that encourage our children outward, that show that it's OK for the world to be big and incomprehensible and for us to feel small. Living outside of the United States for three years reminded me what I love most about my country. I always felt a stab of homesickness when I heard Otis Redding or Beyoncé on the radio, when I listened to the musical Hamilton, when I thought of East 10th Street New York City, where my grandparents opened a bar that allowed them to transform themselves from penniless immigrants into homeowners and their grandchildren into university graduates. Our power as Americans does not come from our size or our swagger but from our heart and imagination. In Nowhere Boy, it's only when Ahmed's imagination triumphs over his fears that one night on a train that the world opens up: "Borders and boundaries were invisible now, and across them Ahmed imagined the flow of millions of feelings: of hope and longing and love."

Katherine Marsh is an author of books for children and young adults including Nowhere Boy, which is published in over a dozen languages; The Night Tourist, winner of the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery; Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, a New York Times Notable; and The Door By The Staircasea Junior Library Guild selection. 

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