Lost Children of Hiroshima and Today’s Refugees – where are their books?

This essay discusses three questions:

  1. Should there be more books for children about war and being a refugee? If so, why? What if these harsh stories are not told, or not told truthfully?
  2. What should be written for children about war? Are some topics or descriptions too terrifying to be put into a children’s book? What formats are available that could present difficult topics in a more gentle yet honest manner?
  3. Are there good books available that tell these stories? Where are they and how do we find them?

Isn’t it ironic? For over ten years we have been sending our young people to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan for the freedom of their citizens. Political refugee families from those countries have sought asylum here in the U. S. But when these refugees arrive, they are seldom welcomed. What are their stories?

Presented at the Ethics and Children’s Literature Symposium, September 2012

Ethics and Children’s Literature 2012

Lost Children of Hiroshima and Today’s Refugees, What Should We Tell Our Children? (The Weird Kid Who Sits Next to Me, What Is Her Story?)

Nancy Bo Flood, Ph.D. www.nancyboflood.com

I want to discuss three questions – questions related to the title of this presentation, The Lost Children of Hiroshima, and today’s refugees.

Question #1: Should there be more books for children about war and refugees? And if so, why?

(Since this is a talk about the importance of books about war and refugees, you can pretty much guess my answer to question number one)

Question #2: WHAT should be written for children about war and refugees? Are some topics too awful or terrifying to be put into a children’s book? What
formats are available that may present difficult topics in a more gentle yet honest manner?

Question #3: Are there books out there about war and being a refugee? Where can we find them?

Isn’t it ironic? For over ten years we have been sending our young people to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan for the protection and freedom of their citizens. Political refugee families from those countries have sought asylum here in the United States. But when these refugees arrive, they are seldom welcomed. When returning soldiers and their families – or a refugee child – looks for a book that tells their story, few exist.

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.

Too often refugee children are shunned. They wear “weird clothes,” like head shawls or outfits that don’t match. Sometimes they are hard to understand. Like Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid, children fleeing from war arrive on our shores as strangers having lost everything – their homes, family members, pets, schools, friends, favorite books – even their voices.

What do our children know about these refugee children? How can we teach out children about these newcomers? Story is one way.

Story…and books.

A few years ago I wrote a book, Warriors in the Crossfire. This book tells the story of the native people living on the island of Saipan when American troops invaded, and the Japanese tried to defend, near the end of World War II. These islanders were truly caught in the crossfire. They suffered. Many died. After the book was published, I was surprised how many islanders thanked me for writing this, for putting their experiences into a “real book.” Seeing their story told, in print, in a “real book” meant a lot to them.

A similar emotion is seen in the powerful essay, “Our America”, included in the anthology, “This Mad Game-Growing up in a War Zone”. The essay’s author, Marcie, was born in the Tule Lake Japanese American Internment Camp. This camp, one of many such camps, was built during WWII to imprison Americans who had any Japanese ancestry. For many years, the very existence of these camps was kept secret.

Marcie writes:

“In the 1970s, I decided I needed to know…I went to the NY Public Library, but even with the help of the librarian, I found only two references – one -a novel…and the other, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps by Michi Weglyn….I began to weep inconsolably. ..it was [from] relief at finding confirmation that the camp where I was born did exist. It was documented in a book.”

Marcie’s story was finally in a book; her story was real.

Following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was forbidden for years to write anything about the human effects from the bombs. Those who survived the bombings had become known as habakusha, a class of Japanese children and adults who were tainted and feared in their own country as if they were lepers. When they contracted the “A-bomb” disease, people stayed away, worried the habakusha were contagious. The habakusha became refugees in their own country – feared, shunned, alone. No one wrote their stories.

One of the first books written about Hiroshima, and still one of the few, was not written until 1977, more than thirty years after the bombing! Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr, told about one girl’s fight to survive the “A-bomb” disease, leukemia. But little was described about the time of the bombing.

Without these stories, our children will not understand the experiences and lives of refugees. The effects of this lack of understanding, are all too clear in our society today. Acts of violence against Muslims in the mosques, or against Mexican immigrants in Arizona, are apart of our daily news, although seldom does this news make headlines. This year, even in recent weeks, teens pelted a mosque in Hayward, California, one man murdered six congregants at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin (as if Sikhs were Muslim). In Rhode Island and in Joplin, Missouri, mosques were vandalized and burned. A homemade bomb exploded at an Islamic school in Lombard, Illinois.

We fear what we do not understand.

Books can help change this.

We need more books.

Question #2: What should be written about war for children?

Katherine Paterson wrote:

“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)

And from the late Maurice Sendak:

The children know. They have always known. But …to please us [they] will make believe they do not know, they do not see. … It is a sad comedy: the children knowing and pretending they don’t know to protect us from knowing they know.”

Of course the children know. In our country thousands of our children know about war – about fathers and brothers, mothers and sisters leaving, being deployed for many long months, and then returning home changed, depressed, suicidal, or not returning home at all. Where are the books that tell their stories?

Some books may be too “real” even for most adults. In White Flash, Black Rain, written following the atomic bombing, the young author writes:

“looking for her mother
The girl still has the strength
To turn over corpses”

Shibata Moriyo, child survivor of Hiroshima, from White Flash, Black Rain

In another memoir, the graphic novel series, Barefoot Gen, a graphic novel, the author describes vividly, honestly, almost brutally, the destruction, death, and loss brought by the atomic bomb.

Is that too much for a child to read and see? Probably. Sometimes it is too much for adults. But if we don’t tell children the truth about the horrors of war, how can they grow up informed and able to make better decisions than we have made?

Books have to tell the truth. The secrecy following the bombing of Hiroshima left survivors without their stories. The secrecy about the internment camps in the United States left children without their stories.

In that same essay, “Our America,” in the anthology, That Mad Game, Marcie writes:

“From as far back as I can remember, I have kept secrets and told lies about myself and my family… By the time I reached high school, I had created an all-American persona, the darker tale camouflaged by bleached blond hair and bobby socks. I was like a frightened, paranoid refugee who had expunged her past…a displaced person in my own land….When I first tired to tell my story, …my teachers would contradict my version, saying such camps had never existed…As a result, just as my nation maintained a silence about this shameful historic episode…so did I.”

But Marcie’s story was real. She wasn’t making it up. Someone needed to write her story.

There are many ways to tell these stories. Barefoot Gen is a realistic graphic novel and tells about war with brutal honesty. My historical novel, Warriors in the Crossfire, tells about surviving war with fictional characters but real events – a selection of real events.

Hans Christian Anderson wrote about refugees using metaphor. His story, The Ugly Duckling is about a refugee swan in a pond of ducks. Like refugees everywhere the swan was different. He was ridiculed, shunned, excluded, and bullied. When he became a swan, even the ducks could see his beauty. Telling the truth using metaphor can be both honest and powerful.

A gentler way of sharing stories is using the story-telling device, the metaphor: allegories, parables, and legends. Stories are told “on the slant.” Readers can take in what they understand and are ready to assimilate. Different thematic levels can 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.”

Two examples, Han Christian Anderson wrote about a mermaid. She gave up her sea world, her family, even her voice, to move to a new country. Recently Shaun Tan gave us images connecting us to the emotional loneliness of being “the lost thing,” in which the reader in The Red Tree reads that “nobody understands…the world is a deaf machine.” And in The Lost Thing, “I must have stared at it for a while. I mean, it had a really weird look about it – a sad, lost sort of look. Nobody else seemed to notice it was there. Too busy doing beach stuff, I guess.”

The most basic requirement of a book is that it tells a good story, an honest story. The reader identifies with the characters and gets pulled in. This connection leads to understanding and then to compassion. The walls between them and us become blurred. As readers we participate in another’s experience.

Can you even imagine what it must be like to be a refugee? To flee from your home – pack up and leave? One brief glimpse is here in “The Dove,” by Franz Hohler:

A dove flew over the battlefield and was torn to shred by the blades of a helicopter.
One of its lovely feathers fluttered into the garden of a house, and was picked up by a child.
Shortly afterwards, the child, her mother and grandparents had to flee.
“We’ll take only what is necessary,” said the mother, stuffing clothes, her papers, and some money and jewelry into a suitcase.
The grandfather filled two bottles with water.
The grandmother packed the last of the bread, a few apples and a bar of chocolate.
The child took the feather.

-“The Dove” by Franz Hohler, from Peace Story, Nami Book, page 44,45.

What would you take?

Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was fire-bombed by the U.S. military. In his famous novel, Slaughter House Five, Vonnegut writes:

“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.”

Those veterans knew the truth. The best picture books are the ones that tell the truth.

Later he writes:

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”

War… is as easy to stop as a glacier.

When the truth about war becomes real in a book, peace becomes possible to imagine.

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

Question #3 – Are there good books about war or refugees out there for young readers? Where can we find them?

There aren’t many. There need to be more. Here I am talking to myself and to other authors – and to editors and publishers – I believe we have an ethical responsibility to tell the truth to our children about war and refugees. These books may not sell as well as less controversial topics, they have to be written, published and available.

For older readers and young adults there are a number of award-winning books. These are included in the bibliography for this talk which is available on my website. One of my new favorites is The Good Braider by Terry Farish, a story written with the power of an elephant – yes, an elephant, and open the heart to grace and beauty. This novel is set in South Sudan, Cairo, and then the Sudanese American Community in Portland, Maine. This story, told in spare words, gives the reader a deep sense of what it means to leave behind home and family, memories and the familiar, and then to recreate one’s self and one’s life, as a refugee.

For middle grade readers, the selection is slim but there are some good choices. One book that has received little attention is Dog-Tag Summer by Elizabeth Patridge which shows flashbacks of a girl’s brutal capture in Vietnam as she searches for the truth about her adoption. Other outstanding books are Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai and two books by Gary Schmidt: Trouble and Okay for Now.

For the youngest readers the choices are very few. Here are a few titles that I think stand out: Mali Under the Night Sky, a Lao Story of Home; Four Feet, Two Sandals; and Dia’s Story Cloth, the Hmong Peoples Journey of Freedom. These and others are listed in the bibliography. Picture books about the Holocaust have been written. I have not included them in this discussion but certainly as picture books they show with great honesty the brutality of war.

One more book I want to mention – a book that was created from a letter written by Wilhelm Grimm (1816) and illustrated 150 years later by Maurice Sendak, Dear Mili:

“…the brooks and the flowers and the birds come together, but people do not…But one human heart goes out to another; undeterred by what lies between…Thus does my heart go out to you…And you say: ‘Tell me a story.’ And it [my heart] replies: ‘Yes, dear Mili, just listen.'”

Thus, I believe our challenge is to tell these stories. The children will listen. 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.

Herman Woulk:

“the only way to make peace is to remember what war is truly like.”

Nelson Mandela urges the world:

“use every single brick…use every single book….” Work toward compassion, forgiveness, peace.

Have I addressed the three questions I originally asked?

Question #1: Should there be books for children about war and refugees?

Yes, the stories in “real books” validate children’s experiences – surviving war, fleeing from war, being a refugee, or wait for family to return home from war.

Question #2: WHAT should be written for children about war and refugees? The truth. Sometimes a format using metaphor can be more gentle but equally honest and effective. Stories validate and affirm our own experiences. Stories promote understanding about the experiences of “that stranger who sits near me.” Stories can diminish fear, increase compassion and hopefully nuture a desire for tolerance and peace.

Question #3: Are there books out there about war and being a refugee? Yes, excellent award-winning honest books have been written for the young-adult and middle-grade readers. So far only a few are available for younger readers as picture books. My bibliography lists these books and also other resources, such as book lists by IBBY, World of Words, and IRA’s Notable Books for a Global Society.

In summary, our responsibility is to create and celebrate books that tell the stories children want to hear, stories about their own experiences, as well as stories about the child who sits next to them.

Children thrive on stories and on truth, as we all do.

No matter how old we are, we look for books that tell our stories.


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.
  • Mochizuki, Ken, illustrated by Dom Lee. BASEBALL SAVED US, 1993.
  • 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.
  • Powers, J.L., editor. THAT MAD GAME, GROWING UP IN A WAR ZONE, Cinco Puntos Press, 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.
  • Sendak, Maurice, illustrator for Wilhelm Grimm’s DEAR MILI, 1988.
  • Reedy, Trent. WORDS IN THE DUST. Scholastic, 2011.
  • Saller, Carol. EDDIE’S WAR. Namelos, 2011.
  • Schmitz, Gary. TROUBLE.
  • Schmitz, Gary. OKAY FOR NOW.
  • Sepetys, Ruta. BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. FSG, 2011
  • Schroeder, Monika. MY BROTHER’S SHADOW. Philomel, 2011.
  • Tan, Shaun. THE LOST THING. 2011.
  • 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:

  • Books for Dafur refugee children (over 250,000)
  • IRA: Notable Books for a Global Society
  • IBBY book lists
  • thepiratetree.com – blog site for books about social justice issues
  • Additional related books, young adult and middle grade:
  • 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
  • REQUIEM Paul Janeczko poems of Terezin
  • T4 Ann Clarehezotte
  • YELLOWSTAR Jennifer Ray
  • I NEVER SAW ANOTHER BUTTERFLY Hana Volavkova (Terezin)

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 www.nancyboflood.com resource guide
  • 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
  • War and Family: Vietnam and Asian conflicts/ refugees/ families waiting at home:
  • Dog-tag Summer by Elizabeth Patridge
  • 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
  • The Good Braider by Terry Farish (South Sudan escape and becoming a US refugee)


  • Ann Parr’s project teamed students with WWII veterans – watch his youtube newscast.
  • Stories of World War II, Smoky Valley Writers of McPherson County Kansas, 2011
  • 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.
  • 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 point is – we all look for our stories in books. We need our experiences validated. We learn about others through stories. Truth allows understanding, the foundation for compassion.