The Blue Cat, by Ursula Dubosarsky

A few streets away, a car putting down the twisted hill. It halted outside a block of mulberry-brick flats. A small boy emerged from the back seat, out onto the pavement. He was carrying a suitcase. He stood there, looking upwards. His skin gleamed like snow.
in the middle of the road a sleek cat lay stretched out, absorbing the sunshine.

It is 1942, and Columba (who was named after a nun) is growing up in war time Sydney. A new boy – a refugee from ‘You-rope’ – appears in the neighborhood, at about the same time as a strange blue cat. Columba is intrigued by the new boy, Ellery, though he doesn’t speak English and Columba struggles to understand where he has come from and why he is here. This isn’t the only thing she struggles to understand. Why are the cloaks being put forward for an hour? Why do the adults talk about ‘taking people’s minds off things? And, with Singapore falling, and regular air raid practices, will they be safe here in Sydney?

The Blue Cat is an enchanting piece of writing. Historical fiction with just a tiny twist of magical realism, it is a gentle story of the confusion of a child faced with frightening, not-quite-understood events. With an insight into how the childhood experiences of Australians during the war years, and to harbourside Sydney life, this is an entrancing read.

The Blue Cat, by Ursula Dubosarsky
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760292294

Out, by Angela May George & Owen Swan

I’m called an asylum seeker,
but that’s not my name.

A young girl and her mother flee their war torn home, and travel by boat to a new country, where they are safe and can start again. Life is better, but there are still struggles to overcome, including learning English and overcoming memories. But the biggest struggle is waiting to hear what has happened to her father.

Out is a gentle yet powerful story of the asylum seeker experience. Told from the point of view of a child, it reveals their reasons for leaving, what they had to go through to get to the new country, and the struggles once there, as well as the simple joys of feeling free, and being able to explore a new place in safety.

The simple text is accompanied by gentle watercolour and pencil illustrations in muted colours which get lighter and more colourful as the story progresses. A yellow ribbon worn by the girl as she flees a burning school, recurs throughout the story as a link between past and present, and her hopes of being reunited with her father, which occur sin the final spread.

Suitable for very young readers, Out offers a way of understanding and exploring issues which are increasingly prevalent.

Out, by Angela May George & Owen Swan
Scholastic, 2016
ISBN 9781743629000

When Michael Met Mina, by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Then I see her.
Her eyes. I’ve never seen eyes like hers before. What colour are they? Hazel and green and flecks of autumn and bits of emerald and I’m standing holding my sign and there she is, standing steps away, near the cop, holding hers (It’s Not Illegal to Seek Asylum), and all I can think about is how the hell I’m going to take my eyes off her.

Michael’s parents are the founders of Aussie Values, an organisation dedicated to stopping the boats and preserving the Australian way of life. They worry about Muslims and terrorists taking over the country. Mina is a Muslim and a refugee, too. She and her family represent what Michael’s family is fighting against. When they meet, Mina is sure Michael is racist and unpleasant, but Michael finds himself intrigued, and wanting to get to know her better. In order to do this, he’s going to have to adjust his thinking and find out if what his parents seem to know is actually true.

When Michael Met Mina is a story about values, justice and friendship. Although there is a gentle romance element, the story line deals with the struggles and joys of Mina’s family, and the broader issues of refugees and Muslim Australians, as well as the dynamics of Michael’s family, especially the issue of a teenager holding different political and moral views than his family. Issues of disability, difference, families and more are explored, but the story isn’t crowded out by these issues – rather being enriched by them

Tol through the alternating first person perspectives of the two main characters, When Michael Met Mina is an important, absorbing, read.

When Michael Met Mina, by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Pan Macmillan, 2016
ISBN 9781743534977

The Bone Sparrow, by Zana Fraillon

Soon Subhi, the people out there will remember us. Soon they’ll see that living in here isn’t living at all. We just need to show them who we are, that we’re people, and then they’ll remember. This time, they won’t forget.

Subhi was born in a refugee camp, and has never known freedom. His mother and sister remember life before, and the dangerous journey to get to Australia, but now even his mother has stopped hoping, stopped telling the stories of home, and teaching Subhi their language. Subhi still believes in goodness, and lives with the hope that one day his father will come and join them and that they will live outside of the camp.

Jimmie lives close to the camp, with her father and brother, but since the death of her mother the family is barely functioning. Jimmie rarely goes to school because Dad works shifts and her brother is too busy to take her. She wonders about the nearby camp and whether its inhabitants have things she doesn’t. When she finds a way in, it is Subhi that she meets.

The Bone Sparrow is a moving story of friendship and survival. Both children are scarred by what is happening in their own lives, but each is able to offer the other hope.

But, though Jimmie’s story is part of the book, it is Subhi’s life which will shock young readers, offering a glimpse of life in detention camps and, particularly, of the children who live in them. The story is confronting, with Subhi and fellow inmates being poorly treated – physically and emotionally. It is this confronting nature that makes the story so important, giving an empathetic voice to a problem happening here in Australia and abroad – as the book’s afterword claims, “an all too true reality.”

Beautifully told, The Bone Sparrow will bring tears, and a desire to change things for kids like Subhi.

The Bone Sparrow, by Zana Fraillon
Lothian, 2016
ISBN 9780734417138

One Thousand Hills, by James Roy & Noel Zihabamwe

This story starts with a bell.
There’s also the slanting sun, and the hawks overhead. The rooster and the goat and the town and the mist and the church above the clouds. There’s the radio, with its message that chilled the boy to the bone.

It is April 1994. In Agabande, Rwanda, Pascal’s life is good. He has a friend called Henry who he loves to play with, a mother and father who love him. They are not wealthy, but there is food on the table and they work hard. His biggest problem is his pesky older brother, who shirks work whenever he can and plays tricks on Pascal too. But things have started to change. There is strange talk on the radio about ‘cockroaches’ and people around town are looking at each other strangely. The neighbours have left town without saying goodbye. Pascal’s parents tell him not to worry, but in one terrible night everything changes forever.

One Thousand Hills tells the story of the terrible events of 1994, where eight hundred thousand Rwandans were slaughtered in just 100 days, and many more were forced to flee the country. Told in third person from the perspective of young Pascal, but broken with interviews between Pascal and a school counsellor five years after the events, the reader is given the opportunity to witness the trauma of the events and their long term aftermath.

Pascal’s experiences – and those of the people around him – are heart-breaking, and as a child character readers are given the opportunity to see the innocence of childhood being shockingly eroded. This is an important insight into both the events of Rwanda and to the experiences which bring refuges to our shores.

One Thousand Hills, by James Roy & Noel Zihabamwe
Omnibus Books, 2016
ISBN 9781742990750

The Stars at Oktober Bend, by Glenda Millard

9781743315897.jpgi am the girl many loves. the girl who writes our story in the book of flying. i am alice.
they sewed me up when I was twelve. mended my broken head with fishbone stitches. tucked my frayed edges in. tucked everything in. things meant to be and things not. do it quick. stem the flow. stop life leaking out of alice. that’s all they wanted. so gram said.

Alice Nightingale is fifteen and longs to be all that fifteen year old can be. But when she was twelve something terrible happened and now when she speaks people can’t understand her – won’t understand her. So she writes instead, poems which she scatters around town – and on the wind.

Manny James, who is alone as Alice, runs at night, trying to escape the memories of his past as he tries to make a new life in Australia. He finds a poem, treasures it, and wonders if it came from the girl he sees sitting on the roof of the house near the river.

The Stars at Oktober Bend is the beautiful, haunting story of two wounded teens who together strive to make sense of themselves and of the world around them. Alice must overcome the troubling events of her past, and the way her family has splintered, while Manny must adapt to life in a new country, the loss of his family and the terrible effects of war. Author Glenda Millard manages to give both characters authentic, wonderful voices.

Poetic, shocking and movingly perfect.

The Stars at Oktober Bend, by Glenda Millard
Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN 9781743315897

Teacup, by Rebecca Young & Matt Ottley

TeacupOnce there was a boy who had to leave home…and find another.
In his bag he carried a book, a bottle and a blanket.
In his teacup he carried some earth from where he used to play.

Teacup is the story of a displaced boy who travels in search of a new home. His teacup yields a surprise – a tree that grows as he lives upon the sea. Eventually he finds an island, where he sets up home and waits for company to arrive.

From the first page the stunning images of rolling clouds, roiling seas, massive whales and more draw the eye away from the text which, printed in white, almost disappears into the page – echoing the very understated nature of the narrative. The story is slightly whimsical – with the idea of a tree growing in a teacup, and the absence of any adults or explanation for the boy’s need to find a new home – which enriches rather than diminishing the parallels with the plight of refugees who take to the seas looking for better lives. There is plenty of room to discuss both what is happening in the story and these parallels.

The combination of Rebecca Young’s gentle text with Matt Ottley’s incredible artwork makes for a breathtaking whole.

Teacup, by Rebecca Young and Matt Ottley
Scholastic, 2015
ISBN 9781743623848

Available from good bookstores or online.

Small Bamboo, by Tracy Vo

I was on a plane from Sydney to Perth to see my parents, but it was much more than just a flight west. It would eventually take me back more than thirty years, all the way back to Vietnam, back to a time when my parents were young and brave and desperate.
Desperate enough to get on a leaky boat.

In 2012 a break from her Sydney-based media career to visit her parents made Tracy Vo realise how homesick she was. It was time to move home to Perth. Ultimately, this decision took her much further, on a journey of discovery into her parents’ past. Thirty four years earlier, they had fled post-war Vietnam in a leaky boat, making a new life in Australia, where Tracy and her b=older brother Trevor were born and grew up.

Small Bamboo is a captivating account of the Vo family’s life in Vietnam prior to and during the Vietnam war, their subsequent escape and journey to Australia, and their lives adapting to this new country. Vo also shares her own experiences as the child of refugee parents, and charts her career to date as a television and radio journalist.

Readers will be entertained and intrigued by this glimpse into one family’s lives, and also witness to the way that hard work and determination can overcome adversity and lead to success.

 

Small Bamboo, by Tracy Vo
Allen & Unwin, 2014
ISBN 9781743316153

Available from good bookstores or online.

The Boy Who Wouldn't Die, by David Nyuol Vincent with Carol Nader

Bodies slick with sweat, we walked in silence. To talk was to waste energy.
I looked at my father’s face, searching for something that would reassure me. But all I saw was fear.
Don’t die, don’t die, don’t die, don’t die. I chanted the words in my head like a mantra.

At an age when Australian youngsters would have been playing with toys or starting school, David Nyual Vincent was trekking across the Sahara Desert with his father, in a desperate attempt to flee war-torn Sudan and stay alive. Sudan was in the grip of a terrible civil war, and his father had taken him away from his mother and sisters, believing they would be safer in neighbouring Ethiopia.

Over the next 17 years David grew up, separated from all of his family – including his father – living in refugee camps, struggling for food, shelter and hygiene, even being trained as a child soldier. Eventually, in 2004, David was granted a humanitarian visa and resettled in Australia. Here his life changed, but he had new battles to face, including the demons of his past and his determination to make a difference for the country of his birth.

The Boy Who Wouldn’t Die is a moving, honest account of a young man’s struggle and growth as he faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles. There are scenes of horror and despair, but also many moments of triumph and even humour.

Written in first person voice by David, with support from journalist Carol Nader, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Die gives a wonderful insight into the life and journey of one person, and at the same time helps readers to a more intimate understanding of the refugee experience.

The Boy Who Wouldn't Die

The Boy Who Wouldn’t Die, by David Nyuol Vincent with Carol Nader
Allen & Unwin, 2012
ISBN 9781743310250

Available from good bookstores or online from Fishpond.

The Ink Bridge by Neil Grant

Omed, a boy, flees Afganistan after a run in with the Taliban. He leaves behind his family and all he knows. His agonising and protracted journey leads him to Australia. There he is supposed to find peace and prosperity. Hector is an Australian boy, locked into silence by trauma. He’s gradually withdrawing from all he has known.

Omed had the Buddha’s eyes and a tongue that refused words. His was the silence of caves; the false peace that descends when a mortar shell rips apart a building. His was the stillness of bald mountains and long beards and the paths cleared by bullets; the quiet of a long-bladed knife.

Did all this begin with Omed? Or did it start with me at fifteen, shouting for answers; words running sour in my mouth, bleeding to whispers in my throat, evaporating in numbed ears. Those ears: my dad, my invisible friends, teachers that either didn’t care or cared too much.

Omed, a boy, flees Afghanistan after a run in with the Taliban. He leaves behind his family and all he knows. His agonising and protracted journey leads him to Australia. There he is supposed to find peace and prosperity. Hector is an Australian boy, locked into silence by trauma. He’s gradually withdrawing from all he has known. Their lives intersect in a candle factory in the suburbs. It is a place of numbing boredom, but also a place of secrets. Dangerous secrets. Hector and Omed are linked by their stories, by their experience and by the secrets they uncover.

Hector and Omed are from very different worlds. Both are silent, although it’s not immediately obvious why that is. Candles are supposed to light up the darkness, but illumination leaves shadows, even when two candles combine. There are dark corners in the worlds these boys encounter, separately and together. Meeting each other is a turning point, although neither could have predicted the direction. Grant takes the reader into the enduring horror of Afghanistan’s wars and shows the complexity of the challenges, the realities for a people so long the focus of aggression and hate. The metaphor of a bridge linking the seemingly unlinkable features strongly. He also shines a light on the desperation that impels refugees to seek homes elsewhere, and the barriers that make the journey so much harder than it should have to be. Hector’s rites of passage journey contrasts with Omed’s, but shows the power of empathy and shared experiences. Recommended for mid-secondary readers.

The Ink Bridge, Neil Grant
Allen & Unwin 2012 ISBN: 9781742376691

review by Claire Saxby, Children’s Author

www.clairesaxby.com