Oct 24, 2016

STEPPING STONES: A Picture Book Like No Other

As the clock ticks off the final minutes for authors and publishers to nominate book titles in all categories for the 2016 Cybils nominations, I find myself sitting amid piles and piles of nonfiction books for elementary and juvenile readers. In most cases I've completed a first read, although the most impressive among them aren't even recorded as "Read it" on my database. Any titles even vaguely in the running for my short list will be read and examined more than once. That close scrutiny will begin by the end of this week after nominations have closed. 

Once that process begins I'll post some reviews here and many on Goodreads, but I'll temper my comments so as not to reveal too much about the tone of our panel discussions or my personal preferences. 

As a result this will be the last full-throated review I'll post for a while. I'm free to do that because it's in praise of a book that isn't eligible for consideration this year. It was released just about a week ago, missing the deadline for 2016 consideration. Published by ORCA BOOKS, in Canada, it will be eligible for nomination next year. I've already marked my calendar for October 2017 to try to be the first to nominate the title for Cybils awards.

ORCA BOOKS, Canada, October, 2016

I seldom showcase a cover on a blog post page at this size, but the image requires your careful attention to fully appreciate. Margriet Ruurs is an author devoted to directly engaging with people around the world, listening to the stories of their lives and often incorporating those experiences into books. Among those are My Librarian Is A Camel and School Days Around the World. 

Her most recent book has an origin story all it's own, which she describes well in the author's note at the front of the book, STEPPING STONES: A Refugee Family's Journey.  Its artwork is created by Nizar Ali Badr, a stonework artist/sculptor whose creations can be seen on his Facebook page, here. He's a resident of Latakia, Syria, and his visions find expression through the stones he collects along the seashore and shallow waters. The story of Ruurs' discovery of Badr, their connection, and their joint mission is best read in the author's own words.

Within a few weeks I'll post an interview with Margriet and explore their process more fully. For now, I simply want to spotlight a book that should be read by everyone. When I say "everyone", I'm not speaking figuratively. It's published in English and Arabic, but the text and art are so well-integrated in the book design that it could be understood as a wordless book, and that's no offense to the author. Ruurs has constructed a narrative path for a universally recognizable family from their simple but safe home in Syria, through life-threatening crisis, on a journey with devastating risks and horrors, to eventual resettlement in a safe and welcoming new home. 
Interior spread from STEPPING STONES, 2016. Used with permission, ORCA Books

In one scene tiny pebbles might constitute a path; in another, harvested food, rooster feathers, birds' wings, or flower petals. Shifts in angles and joinings change the stone scenes from secure workday routines to desperate escapes and mournful memorials. Throughout it all, the continuity of family, flowers, sun and moon, despair, hope, and love call out to the reader of words and scenes. This is book that does not allow us to turn away, as we so often do when faced with the humans represented here through stone art and story. 

Composed of the stones and scraps found around the artist's feet, characters rise to life from horizontal background surfaces where they are photographed before disappearing. It's a frighteningly painful parallel to the real lives being disrupted and lost as a result of never-ending, undeclared war.
Interior spread from STEPPING STONES. Used with permission, ORCA Books.

Scene after scene expresses emotions, invites questions, and tells stories. Ruurs' text, mirrored in Arabic, unfolds the tragedy before our eyes through potent poetic phrasing and figurative fluency. Pebbles become people, people we are willing to see, and hear, and care about with more genuine empathy than society musters for the actual millions of people living (and dying) in the journeys represented here. 

I plan to gift this copy to my library and another copy to my school, with more going to family and friends during the holidays. Proceeds from the book will support Badr's art and messages from Latakia, Syria, where he continues to live and create. The author and publisher are also contributing portions of the profits from sales to refugee organizations. 

I hope everyone who becomes aware of this book will make it a personal mission to distribute it as globally as possible. Literally. The "refugee problem" is too easily viewed as a matter of millions of lives, as "too big" to fix. Until we can allow ourselves, force ourselves, to focus on the PEOPLE, on their LIVES, instead of on numbers, nothing will improve-- for us and our sense of security, or for theirs. 
This book could help us shift that focus.

A further note: Recently The MORNING EDITION on NPR presented a 4-minute report on participating in a simulated refugee experience. With the sincere hope that no one reading this will ever experience being a refugee in real life, please listen to this report.

A recent post from READING POWER GEAR suggests other titles (including this one) about refugees: HERE.


  1. This book sounds so, so, so beautiful on so many levels. (And on top of everything else: probably really inspiring to pebble collectors, young and old...)
    Thanks so much for sharing it.

  2. Happy to have you stop by and even happier to have you discover and share this book. Yes, gathering stones and pebbles seems to be a universally human endeavor, which may be a part of why these figures and scenes speak so deeply to me and others, including Mem Fox and Jane Yolen, both of whom raved about it and its creators.

  3. Today READING POWER GEAR has a wonderful post featuring books about refugees, including this one: https://readingpowergear.wordpress.com/2016/11/15/top-ten-tuesday-top-10-books-to-explore-themes-of-immigration-and-refugees/


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