Jul 16, 2017

Refugees on STORMY SEAS: A Never-Ending Story

The surface of our planet is more than 70% water, so it is no surprise that a major method of transportation, throughout history, has been by boat. Whether water travel is viewed as luxurious, adventurous, necessary, worrisome, or terrifying depends largely on a person's options and reasons for travel. Certainly the vast majority of those onboard the Titanic, even the seasick, employees, and immigrants (unlikely to ever see native lands again) began their journey with the reasonable expectation of arriving safely at a US port in a matter of days. At worst, it was a temporary discomfort undertaken for a valued purpose. At best, it was a glorious adventure and a status symbol, even for those whose status was in no need of bolstering.

Certainly, none of those boarding could have imagined that an iceberg would change their perceptions and their fates in a matter of hours. 

On the other hand, a boat trip as a refugee is only undertaken with the reasonable expectation of death. Empathy alone doesn't allow us to put ourselves in the desperate-but-hopeful mindset of refugees boarding objects that bear less resemblance to boats than do the crayon sketches of toddlers. 
Refugees are people fleeing fates more horrid than we can possibly imagine. Sadly, they are real and very conceivable to the refugees themselves. That's been true throughout the plight of "boat people" spanning millennia, hemispheres, and ethnicities.
Annick Press, April, 2017

STORMY SEAS: STORIES OF YOUNG BOAT PEOPLE addresses that long history of refugees. Written by Mary Beth Leatherdale and illustrated by Eleanor Shakespeare, this picture book aimed at middle grade readers opens with a timeline of "boat people" that precedes the Mayflower. Five true stories from refugee history on the water are humanized through the eyes of actual young people:
Ruth and her family escaping Nazism; Phu fleeing war-torn Vietnam; Jose  escaping Cuba; Najeeba leaving Afghanistan and the Taliban; Mohamed, an orphan, runs from his village on the Ivory Coast. 

I agree entirely with the synopsis from Indiebound.org: 
"...Stormy Seas combines a contemporary collage-based design, sidebars, fact boxes, timeline and further reading to produce a book that is ideal for both reading and research. Readers will gain new insights into a situation that has constantly been making the headlines."
I'll go so far as to call this an extraordinary resource, compelling in content and useful as a resource to launch research. From the introductory timeline of  "boat people" who have attempted escapes through to the more recent examples, these stories all depict refugees pursuing an opportunity to make new homes in an area of North America that eventually becomes the United States. Naturally, our current global refugee crisis is dealt with at the conclusion.
My only caution is to include additional books and information in refugee discussions to balance the "America-centric" approach. There are stories of refugees with other destinations throughout the world, and of other countries who are facing the moral decicion of extending a welcoming hand or slamming shut their ports of entry.

Certainly safety and reasonable screening are necessary considerations for any nation. But our neighbor to the north, Canada, has dealt with those issues of national concern while still finding ways to offer refugees new opportunities and safe places to live. I posted a review about another recent picture book, STEPPING STONES: A REFUGEE FAMILY'S JOURNEY (here), and an extensive interview with its Canadian author, Margriet Ruers, here. If you missed those posts, I urge you to read them.

I endorse and am inspired by Anne Frank's memorable quote:

This positive view of human nature leads me forward, but history insists that human nature and nature itself are capable of unleashing devastating circumstances. These include conditions that force people to set foot aboard frighteningly fragile boats, literally and figuratively. Even the most optimistic among us must be realistic. We know that the specifics may change but  "refugee crisis" will repeat and repeat in the millennia ahead. The question should be asked of readers, while they are young, to consider fully what our response can and should be. Books like these allow them to research, debate, analyze, and empathize.

After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, conditions were so unlivable that thousands of Haitians were evacuated with special longterm visas to live in the USA.Those visas are currently under review, with their termination becoming a real possibility. This return of Haitian natives to a fragile homeland comes at the very time when conditions in Haiti are deteriorating to such a degree that residents are resorting to the high-risk boat route to reach the unwelcoming shores of our country. NPR's Weekend Edition aired a brief but very informative description of this here.


  1. This book looks fascinating. I can't wait to find it.

    1. I encourage you to do so. It is worth the effort. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading!

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I hadn't heard about it before and it seems like a great important timely book.

  3. Thanks for stopping by. Hope you find it as impressive as I did, and will help spread the word. Young people need to become aware of who/what a refugee actually is and why they can grow up to make choices that are smart and humane.


Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.