Books about War and Refugee Children

At the Hawaii’ Children’s Literature Conference which was held in Honolulu this June, with co-presenter, Jessica Powers, we talked about the importance of writing honestly about war, terrorism and being a refugee. My talk included descriptions of teaching activities, for younger students as well as teens, that can be used with a variety of books. I believe that our challenge as writers is to not avert our gaze. Our responsibility is to write with honesty. May we celebrate books that tell the stories children want to hear, stories about their own experiences. Children thrive on truth as we all do.

Refugee Children: The Stranger Who Sits Next to Me: Books about War and Refugee Children

Nancy Bo Flood, Ph.D.
J.L. Powers, M.A., M.F.A.

  1. Consider the pros and cons of stories written for younger and older readers about war, terrorism, being a refugee, illegal, etc.
  2. Description of books that tell these stories well: legends, allegories, parables, biographies, memoirs, diaries, journals, interviews, nonfiction, historical fiction
  3. Description of teaching activities, for younger students as well as teens, that can be used with a variety of books.

Isn’t it ironic? For over ten years we have been sending our young people, trained soldiers, to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight for the protection and freedom of citizens there. Political refugee families from these countries have sought asylum here in the United States. But when they arrive, they are seldom welcomed.

UNICEF’s report stated that from 1985-1995, over 2 million children had been killed in war, 4-5 million had been left disabled, and over 12 million had become homeless. Thousands of these children now live in the United States. As refugees in the US, these children and their families often experience prejudice, discrimination and intolerance. They are strangers. We seldom know their stories.

These families from the Middle East have become our neighbors, part of our communities. Their children sit side by side in our children’s classrooms. What is the experience of these refugee children? Stories provide an essential bridge.

Most often refugee children are shunned. They wear weird clothes, even head shawls. When they speak, they are hard to understand. Often, they don’t speak at all. Like Han Christian Anderson’s little mermaid, children fleeing from war arrive on our shores as strangers having lost everything – homes, family members, pets, schools, friends, favorite books – even their voices.

Where are their stories? Yes, their stories would be about war and terrorism, displacement, death and loss.

Why are their stories so seldom told? Because war is too hard to “know about?” Very few books with their stories are available, especially for young readers. Should children who have not experienced war be protected from its harsh reality? Yet many of our own children know about war – about fathers and brothers, mothers and sisters leaving and coming home not at all, or changed.

*The first part of this workshop asks the essential question, what should we tell children about war, terrorism, displacement and refugee camps. How do we tell these stories well? What is our purpose? Or should children be protected from the truth?

Some adults argue that stories of war, terror, and the experience of being a refugee are stories that are too harsh to tell little ones. Maybe in young-adult (YA) or middle-grade novels, such as Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, Trouble by Gary Schmidt, DustXXX by Trent Reedy. Dog-Tag Summer by Elizabeth Patridge looks at an adopted biracial Vietnam girl’s experience of hardship and capture during the Vietnam Conflict (as flashbacks) and her experience in her adoptive home and community.

But what about picture books for younger readers? Is war or being a refugee too frightening?

First a quote —

“I was already wise by the time I was eleven. There was no way my parents could have protected me from the world as it was. I had already seen too much. What I needed was not an outer guard but an inner strength. I needed to know one could endure the loss of paradise.”

Katherine Paterson: A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children (quote from page 248)

In the next half hour we will first discuss the basic question, “what to tell,” and then look at books which I think are good examples of “telling it well.” For each group of books, I will describe activities to try with younger readers and we’ll try them! (teach, show, do)

#1 What do you think? What do we fear? What if we tell the truth about war, about being a refugee? What are both the pros and cons? What might we gain; what might we lose?

We will come back to this basic question at the end of this session. Meanwhile Jessica and I will each present information, describe books, lead activities appropriate for classrooms – starting with younger students and continuing through YA. Let’s begin!

One concern is protection but is ignorance protection?

Maurice Sendak: “The children know. They have always known. But we choose to think otherwise; it hurts to know the children know. The children see. If we obfuscate, they will not see. Thus we conspire to keep them from knowing and seeing. And if we insist, then the children, to please us will make believe they do not know, they do not see. Children make that sacrifice for our sake – to keep us pacified. They are remarkably patient, loving, and all-forgiving. It is a sad comedy: the children knowing and pretending they don’t know to protect us from knowing they know.”

I argue that awareness is protection. Knowledge is protection. Both are the basis for building compassion. Awareness is the opportunity to look with a different set of eyes.

Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson or his famous Little Mermaid show us poverty and cruelty but give hope, new awareness and allow readers to develop concern and compassion.

#2. Read: PEACE STORY “The Dove” by Franz Hohler, fromPeace Story, NAMBOOK—010, Nami Books, Korea, 2012. page 44,45.

You have one minute – what would you take with you? It is the middle of the night. You are at home. What will you take with you?

What did you leave behind that you now long for, yearn for?

Ways to explore, read, write, discuss about war, refugee, illegals, etc.

Classroom Exercise: What Would You Take With You?

Invasion is happening. Bombs are falling. The sound of artillery is rapidly growing louder. You can smell the acrid stink of explosives. People are crying and screaming. You have one minute to stuff your backpack and dash out of your home. What will you take with you?

  1. Make a list – in one minute Share as a class.
  2. Share your list — ways to share: pictures from magazines: make a class collage, a paper quilt/ collage Cloth quilt/ collage Strips of paper hung on a line
  3. Make a different list – work in pairs or small groups – what do you miss that you left behind?

Through that very brief story (two pages), we began to think, to feel about what it would be like to barely escape. We began to think about what is really important to us.

Another way of sharing stories that is gentler is using traditional methods of story metaphor: allegory, parables, and legends. Stories are told “on the slant.” Readers can take in what they understand and are ready to assimilate. Different thematic levels co-exist, from the concrete to the abstract. When a story is told in metaphor, the layers of meaning and information are there when the child is ready to “see them.” Hans Christian Anderson’s Ugly Duckling or Little Mermaid are classic examples. Shaun Tan’s Lost and Found is a contemporary example.

  1. ALLEGORY A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.
  2. PARABLE a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson
  3. LEGENDS a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical

Micronesian example:“The First Coconut Tree” from From the Mouth of the Monster Eel

#3. The Flight of the Mermaid: an alien or stranger on foreign shores, with no voice, no language, and having brought nothing with her from her original home

Choose to create with words or with drawings/ images/ graphics

Create an alien: art / descriptive paragraph – where is it from? Why did it come? What does it want? How do others treat it?

E.T. movie Lost and Found by Shaun Tan Ugly Duckling

Babushka Baba Yaga by Patricia Polacca

  1. Biography, Nonfiction, Historical fiction, from picture book to YA

Children are eager to learn about other kids – what they eat, how they sleep, what kind of clothes do they wear, the games they play, the pets they have.

A powerful way to offer a window into another child’s world is through biography, even a picture-book size brief look – one day, one event, one friendship.

In biography or memoir/ journal / diary, the reader hears the voice of another child, such as Anne’s voice in the Diary of Anne Frank. Other excellent examples:

Mali Under the Night Sky by Meyou Landowner.

Dia’s Story Cloth by Dia Cha, stitched by Chue and Nhia Thao Cha

Four Feet Two Sandals and My Name is Sangoel Karen Williams & Khadra Mohammed

#4. Create a simple poem that reflects images or information about what has been learned: diamond poem, haiku, or lists. Example: Corn – Sun Diamond Poem


Tortillas grain

Grinding cooking eating

Delicate deliciously golden popping

Burning glowing rising

             Life warm


For the older reader – nonfiction, interviews, historical fiction:

Books to compare:

  • Hiroshima by John Hershey  – WWII
  • Warriors in the Crossfire by Nancy Bo Flood  – WWII Pacific arena, invasion
  • Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy – Afghanistan
  • Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry – Iraq
  • War Horse by Michael Morpurgo – WWI
  • Eyes Like Willy’s Juanita Havill – WWI
  • Eddie’s War by Carol Saller  – WWII
  • My Brother’s Shadow by Monika Schroeder – WWI – post-war Germany
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys – Lithuanian Holocaust-exile to Siberia, 1941

Discussion questions: Compare the similarities between the experiences of the refugee children, such as the habakusha of Japan, WWII ( Hiroshima by Hershey), and refugee children of today.

Poetry: Short poetry forms are not as threatening. In Warriors in the Crossfire, look again at the poems by Basho: p. 80

An ancient pond.

A frog jumps in.

The splash of water.

What does it mean? Look up Basho on the internet (Wikipedia). Find a poem of his that speaks to you. Now write your own.

Vietnam and Asian conflicts/ refugees/ families waiting at home:
  • Dog-tag Summer by Elizabeth Patridge
  • I’m Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt
  • Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry
  • Trouble by Gary Schmidt
  • Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
  • Thanhha Lai’s family story is celebrated as a 2012 Newbery honor book. The reader becomes aware of what Ha has lost, yearns for but cannot have, and hopes to be.
Additional suggestions for older readers:
  1. Explore authors’ websites. Search for background, historical information.
  2. Create booktrailers – a terrific small-group research activity. Animoto is a free program. One example: Warriors in the Crossfire booktrailer.
  3. Or create a video – documentary, news cast, recorded interview, book review
  4. Interviews – read them, do them, write them. Ann Parr’s project teamed students with WWII veterans – watch his utube newscast.

Stories of World War II, Smoky Valley Writers of McPherson County Kansas, 2011

Interviews combine information with story. Deborah Ellis in Children of War gives voice to children who are refugees. Ellis presents a clear summary of events which allows readers to understand the unfolding of conflict in Iraq. It didn’t matter which “side” families were on, assisting US soldiers or fighting them, no one remained safe.

In one interview we hear Michael explain, “…we came to Jordan [from Iraq] two years ago. My father is dead…my father used to work as a reservations manager in the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad…We are Christian.” Michael’s father lost his job because he wouldn’t get rid of the picture of the Virgin Mary on his desk. He lost his life because he couldn’t get any medical care when he became seriously ill. Michael and his family had to leave their home overnight or be killed. They were accepted as refugees by Australia, “but Australia changed its mind and doesn’t want us.” Michael is concerned about being accepted wherever they might find a new home:

“I have nothing in common with American children, except if there is maybe an American child whose father has died, who house is destroyed, and who is forced to live in a foreign country that doesn’t want them. Then he and I would have something to talk about.” (Ellis, p.37)

Class project: interview returning soldiers from Iraq or Afghanistan, or interview family members who waited for a soldier’s return. Create a set of questions, practice in pairs, try an interview, share with the class. Create a class book. Illustrate drawings or historical photos and maps.

Books created by students:

We Drank Our Tears: Memories of the Battles for Saipan and Tinian as Told by Our Elders –Pacific STAR Center for Young Writers, Saipan, CNMI


The books listed on the bibliography show through story what it means to experience war, to lose nearly everything.

First and most important, a good book effectively tells a story that engages the reader. Characters become real. Problems are relevant to the reader. Solutions offer hope. A story may be told directly (Karen William’s Four Feet, One Sandal), through interviews, in first person biography (Mali under the Night Sky) or presented through metaphor (Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing).

A well-told picture book connects the reader emotionally with the story’s characters. Emotional connection plus understanding is the basis for creating compassion. Our challenge is to not avert our gaze, to not look away from reality, but to look directly and to celebrate books that speak honestly of war, that tell the story through the eyes of children.

This is our challenge. To not avert our gaze.

Our responsibility is to write with honesty. May we celebrate books that tell the stories children want to hear, stories about their own experiences.

Children thrive on truth as we all do.

The power of books reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s blunt words in Slaughter House Five. In the first chapter, Vonnegut states, “The nicest veterans in Schenectady, I thought, the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who’d really fought.”

Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was fire-bombed by US planes, wrote in Slaughter House Five:

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say…?”

“I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”

War… is as easy to stop as glaciers.

One book is one window of awareness, one glacial step toward tolerance, empathy, and peace.

Bibliography: Books about War and Refugee Children.

  • Denver Museum of Natural History and Lee and Low Books, 1996.
  • Coerr, Eleanor. SADAKO, 1993.
  • Ellis, Deborah. Children of War.
  • Hersey, John. HIROSHIMA. AA Knopf, NY 1946, reprinted, 1985.
  • Lai, Thanhha. INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, 2011.
  • Landowner, Meyou. MALI AND THE NIGHT SKY, Cinto Punto Press, 2012. XXXX
  • Morimotol, Junko. MY HIROSHIMA. Hiroshima Jogakuin, first published by William Collins Pty. Ltd. Sydney, Australia, 1987.
  • Nakazawa, Keiji. BAREFOOT GEN, THE DAY AFTER, Vol.2, translated by Project Gen, Last Gasp of San Francisco, original series 1972, new translation, 2004.
  • Parry, Rosanne. Heart of a Shepherd.
  • PEACE STORY. “The Dove” by Franz Hohler, NAMBOOK—010, Nami Books, Korea, 2012.
  • Sendak, Maurice. preface; James P. Grant, introduction. I DREAM OF PEACE; IMAGES OF WAR BY CHILDREN OF FORMER YUGOSLAVIA. NY, NY: UNICEF: HarperCollins, 1994.
  • Reedy, Trent. WORDS IN THE DUST. Scholastic, 2011.
  • Saller, Carol. Eddie’s War. Namelos, 2011.
  • Schmitz, Gary. TROUBLE.
  • Sepetys, Ruta. BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. FSG, 2011
  • Schroeder, Monika. MY BROTHER’S SHADOW. Philomel, 2011.
  • Tan, Shaun. THE LOST THING.
  • Toshi, Maruki. HIROSHIMA NO PIKA
  • Vance-Watikins, Lequita & Aratani Mariko, edited and translated, WHITE FLASH, FLACK
  • RAIN, WOMEN OF JAPAN RELIVE THE BOMB. Milkweed, Mpls, Minnesota, 1995.
  • Vonnegut, Kurt. SLAUGHTER HOUSE FIVE. Dell Publishing, NY, 1969.
  • Williams, Karen Lynn and Khadra Mohammed. MY NAME IS SANGOEL
  • Williams, Karen Lynn and Khadra Mohammed. FOUR FEET, TWO SANDALS.
  • Wolf, Gita and Sirish Rao. THE FLIGHT OF THE MERMAID with art by Bhajju Shyam, created by Tara Books, a worker-owned independent publisher, Chennai, India., 2009
Articles and internet sources:
  • UNICEF, “The State of the World’s Children 1996,”
  • The establishment of the United Nations after World War II raised hopes of a new era of peace. This was over-optimistic. Between 1945 and 1992, there were 149 major wars, killing more than 23 million.
Sources for social justice books and links:
Additional related books:
  • Eddie’s War by Carol Saller
  • Journey of Dreams, by Marge Pellegrino
  • The Confessional by Jessica L. Powers
  • Gringolandia by Lyn Miller-Lachman
  • The Orphans of Normandy by Nancy Amis
  • War Boy by Michael Foreman
  • No Hero for the Kaiser by Rudolph Frank
  • Gathering the Dew by Minfong Ho
  • Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti
  • Abe in Arms by Pegi Dietz Shea
  • Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins
  • A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah (crossover YA)
  • Our Broken Dreams: Child Migration in Southern Africa published by Save the Children UK and Save the Children
  • Norway in Mozambique with Weaver Press in Zimbabwe
  • Playing War by Kathy Beckwith
  • The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
  • Faithful Elephants

Diamond Poem

  1. 1.     Brainstorm then decide on two concepts or themes, such as:
  2. 2.     War/ peace friend / enemy refugee/ citizen stranger/ friend island / continent

Illegal/ citizen ocean / desert soldier / pacifist

  1. 3.     Brainstorm words associated with each concept – make lists, no wrong suggestions
  2. 4.     Nouns, verbs/actions words, adverbs/adjectives descriptors, participles verbs+ing
  3. 5.     Review the book, add words and begin

One example: