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Notes From a Children's Librarian: On Books About Displacement

Book Cover Mr Hiroshi's Garden

Our Children's Librarian columnist Julie Booker brings us a new view from the stacks every month.

I read Mr. Hiroshi’s Garden, by Maxine Trottier, aloud to a group of nine-year-olds. As the final image settled, a boy quietly said, “I want to cry.” The full-circle ending obviously did the trick. Set in British Columbia during World War II, this narrative connects a little girl with her Japanese neighbour who’s building a rock garden in his backyard. One day he and his family are taken away to an internment camp. (The Author’s note at the back is useful in setting up the story.)

This is the first of five stellar personal narratives which happen to share a theme of displacement. And, if the reader’s paying attention, these are stories that teach kids how to write.

Migrant, also by Trottier, is the tale of Anna and her family arriving from Mexico to farm. It’s the only book mentioned here not told in the first person, but it’s Trottier’s use of metaphor and simile, capturing Anna’s transitory, sometimes difficult, existence that make it stand out. For example, we see her riding a huge insect over the winged heads of people not talking her native German (the author’s note helps explain this); “To Anna’s ears, it is as though a thousand crickets are all singing a different song.”

The next three, by Rukhsana Khan, aim at different age groups.

Book Cover Big Red Lollipop

The Big Red Lollipop is one of those rare stories able to mesmerize a kindergarten class. Which means it accurately captures an emotional truth; in this case, a a ball-and-chain younger sibling, along with being new to Canada and birthday party invites.

A New Life (originally published as Coming to Canada) is a novella spanning two years in the life of Khadija, a nine-year-old just arrived from Pakistan. Empathy for Khadija builds through well-chosen plot points: the cryptic way she first hears English; the confusion of ESL class; educated parents working long hours, settling for inferior jobs; a brother being bullied; discovering the magic of reading and the public library. This book feels very Canadian, including a cross-country road trip west to “the silence of the Yukon,” and east to Newfoundland’s icebergs. There’s a bonus section with maps, weblinks and information re: helping kids transition into school life, dressing for winter.

Book Cover The Roses in my Carpets

The Roses in My Carpets, heavier in content, is about a boy in a refugee camp suffering from nightmares of jets and bombs. His difficult life is told in a deceptively simple way through short sentences and clear descriptive action that make us feel his physical hunger, the continual filth of his mud floor dwelling, the crazed fast drivers of unsafe streets, the weight and fear of caring for his mother and younger sister. Learning to make carpets is his salvation as well as the metaphor that seals the story and reminds us of Khan’s writing skill.

Julie Booker

On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press in 2011.

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June 2, 2013
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