Refugees and asylum seekers in children’s books

Jenin camp kids

Stories which offer the reader a new or different viewpoint are essential books for children to help them understand the world. The often naive and innocent viewpoint of child narrators in stories where people are forced to flee their homeland, allows children to imagine themselves in the same situation and to empathise, not just with the character in the story, but with similar real-life scenarios.

Here are my top 10 children’s books featuring the stories of refugee children:

1. The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman and Karin Littlewood

This picture book for ages 6+ is a very sensitive portrayal of a young Somalian boy, Hassan, who witnessed terrible attrocities in his homeland and fled with his family to the UK. Hassan is very quiet and withdrawn at school and views England as a cold grey place compared to his colourful country. As he paints and talks through his experiences with his teacher, he begins to notice the colours he recognises from his old home and also the different colours from his new home.  The Colour of Home doesn’t shy away from talking about the terrible things that Hassan went through, but it manages to do so in the matter of fact way that works well with children. This is an excellent book and deserves a place in all primary classrooms.

2. In The Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

This book, based on the true story of Enaiatollah Akbari, follows a 10 year old Afghan boy and his treacherous five year journey from Afghanistan to Italy. In order to escape the Taliban, Enaiatollah is taken to the border of Pakistan by his mother and then left to continue the journey alone and navigate the complex world of people smuggling. The challenges faced by the young boy are immense and often heartbreaking. His journey across the sea from Turkey to Greece in an overcrowded dinghy with no lifejackets is particularly harrowing. An excellent book to highlight the struggles of people who risk death and endure great hardship in order to find a better life. Ages 14+

3. My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood

My Two Blankets is a lovely new picture book featuring a young girl, Cartwheel, from an unspecified North African country. War has forced her and her auntie to leave and find a new home in a Western country (possibly Australia). The new place is strange and the language barrier forces Cartwheel to retreat under her blanket of memories and words from home. Things change when she makes a friend at the park who patiently teaches her the words of her new home. An excellent book for looking at the process of language acquisition and communication in migrant children. Ages 2+

4. Once, Now, Then, and After by Morris Gleitzman (series of 4 books)

This highly recommended series is about the Jewish Holocaust viewed through the eyes of Felix, a young Jewish boy in Poland in World War 2 and follows him through to being a grandfather living in Australia. The first book, Once, begins with Felix escaping from the orphanage he has been living in for the past 3 years and setting off through Nazi-occupied Poland in search of the parents he believes to be still alive.  Aimed at young readers ages 9+, the series is suprisingly unflinching in its portrayal of the Holocaust but this is counteracted well by the naivety of the young narrator, Felix. The continuation of Felix’s story though to later life is particularly good in highlighting the continuing effects that the Holocaust has had on people and their families.

5. Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland

Winner of the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award 2013, Azzi in Between is a picture book/graphic novel hybrid for ages 7+. The story follows a family’s terrifying journey from their homeland (unspecified but the illustrations hint at the Middle East) and their subsequent struggles to adapt to a different life and language in their new country. Azzi’s experiences of school in a strange country would be a useful talking point when discussing the difficulties migrant children may have adapting to a new country.

6. After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross

After Tomorrow subverts our usual notion of refugees as people from distant countries. In this story two English children are forced to flee to France following food shortages and violence in the UK. Set in the not so distant future, the story follows two brothers who travel to France with a human-trafficker organised by their mother who stays behind. On arrival the boys are immediately sent to an overcrowded refugee camp where conditions are appalling and where they are despised by the local residents. After Tomorrow won the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award in 2014 and is aimed at ages 11+.

7. Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman

Jamal and his sister Bibi love playing football, but this can be a very dangerous sport in Afghanistan where it is against the law for girls to play and when unexploded landmines litter the pitch.  When their house is blown up as punishment for their mother’s involvement in an illegal school for girls, the family escape and head for Australia. So begins a perilous boat journey during which they face separation, violent storms and pirates. The theme of football is present throughout the story which could be useful in acting as a common bond between the narrator and the young reader. For ages 9+.

8.  The Day My Father Became a Bush by Joke van Leewen

This is a slightly unusual book about a child in who lives happily with her father until war breaks out and she is sent on a journey to her estranged mother’s house across the border. The book is unusual in that it could almost be applied to any country or time as there is never anything specifically mentioned to indicate where or when the story is set or even which war is being alluded to. It focuses instead on the often bewildered experiences of a child who must navigate an illegal border crossing into a foreign country and then overcome the strange customs and language barriers that follow. The story is depicted with humour (the title refers to her father using camouflage) and interspersed with illustrations which support the text. Ages 7+

9. Map of Dreams by Uri Shulevitz

This picture book is based on the experiences of the author, a Jew who fled Poland as a child in 1939. The story describes the family’s arrival in Kazakhstan, Central Asia with nothing to their name. Living in a strange place in cramped conditions and with little food, the father uses the money meant for bread to buy a large colourful map of the world. Initially his son is furious but soon realises that the map allows him to use his imagination to escape their current situation and to dream of a different future. Ages 7+

10. A Refugee Diary series

This is actually a non-fiction series but the layout and illustrated cover gives them a familiar story book feel.  The 4 books in the series are aimed at Key Stage 2 and 3 and tell the true stories of 4 different refugee children in a diary format that follows their journey from their homeland to their new life in the UK. Photographs and information on the country and conflicts involved support the story and the books make an excellent teaching resource. The 4 books in the series are:

Gervelie’s Journey (Republic of Congo to the UK)

Mohammed’s Journey (Iraq to the UK)

Hamzat’s Journey (Chechnya to the UK)

Meltem’s Journey (Turkey to the UK)


Click here for a full list of the resources we hold on the topic of refugees

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Svala Jonsdottir via Compfight

One thought on “Refugees and asylum seekers in children’s books

  1. Very pleased to see that ‘The Colour of Home’ has been chosen in your top 10 books. The book, written by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by me,Karin Littlewood, has justifiably become one of the most important children’s picture books about refugees and asylum seekers, winning awards all over the world.

    As an illustrator and author I visit schools all over the country working with children of all ages. When I do projects based on ‘The Colour of Home”, it never ceases to amaze when I see the impact this powerful and honest book has on children and teachers. It’s especially meaningful when I see the expressive visual work of children who have the same story and don’t yet have the skills to tell it in words and writing. My workshops are visually led and strongly focussed on the power of drawing when telling a story …. just like Hassan does in this story.

    It’s Black History Month in October and this year it seems more important than ever to focus on The ‘Colour of Home’ and I’m busy visiting schools doing just that.

    I’d love to hear from you and find what you think about this very special book.

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