Come away, o human child
To the waters and the wild
With a faery hand in hand
For the world’s more full of weeping
Than you can understand
from: ‘The Stolen Child’ by WB Yeats
Well, the world is certainly full of weeping. We are hearing that weeping more clearly than ever these days, with refugees desperately journeying across territories, seas and borders in search of safety – most of them not finding it – and immigrants in many countries living in constant fear of deportation or detention.
The temptation to follow Yeats’s invitation to a fairyland in ‘the waters and the wild’ is strong. But the idyllic world offered to the ‘human child’ in Yeats’s poem – ‘a leafy island/ Where flapping herons wake/ The drowsy water rats’ – is of course only superficially attractive, and we know that there is a sinister subtext: the child is being stolen and lured away from safety and domesticity, for the world truly is ‘full of weeping’ and the delights of fairyland come at a price. Adults are often desperate to protect their children’s innocence for as long as possible. It is this understandable desire on the part of adults that drives much of our society’s cultural offerings – books, films, toys and games – to children. Nobody would deny that our children need to escape to fantasy worlds, and creating these worlds for children is at the heart of a good deal of writing and publishing for children. Unfortunately, however, most of the world’s children do not have the luxury of such a childhood, and our own children and young people, if they are to develop empathy with the world’s weeping and grow into compassionate and responsible adults, also need books that tell the truth.
That is why Little Island commissioned Jane Mitchell to write a book about Muslim children and their families fleeing war in Syria and journeying across borders in search of refuge. The story of A Dangerous Crossing is a fictionalised account of the experiences of a Muslim Kurdish Syrian family of refugees – but it is a fiction that is soundly based in real experience. It is a gut-wrenching story of prejudice, danger, fear, loyalty and bravery; and it is written in the most exciting and precise prose that makes the reader taste and smell the dusty, rubble-filled, bleeding world of war – bombs, bullets, injury, disease. It is a must-read for children of 10+ who want to get a visceral understanding of what it is to be a refugee today.
A Lonely Note, by the American Irish writer Kevin Stevens, for older readers (teenagers and adults) is another Little Island contribution to the literature of immigration and prejudice, which seems even more apposite today than when it was published last year. It is set among an immigrant Muslim family in today’s America. The apparently peaceable world of this middle-class, integrated Iraqi family is revealed to be far from stable, when Tariq is violently set upon by racist, Islamophobic classmates. This is a sophisticated American coming-of-age novel viewed through a Muslim immigrant lens.
If you are looking for books for young people that can open their minds and hearts to the plight of immigrants and refugees – a subject that is all too topical right now, as borders close and walls are planned – these two titles from Little Island make a very good starting point.