Hannah Carmona: Anita and the Dragons

Illustrated by Anna Cunha

Published by Lantana Publishing Ltd, UK, 2021

In the early 1950s, when my father was 17 years old, he left his small village at the foot of the northern mountains in Italy and ventured alone by boat to Australia. I can’t imagine the kind of bravery that takes. To leave all that is known and loved and take steps towards all that is unknown and unseen, is a lesson in understanding oneself and finding courage to face whatever dragons come your way. For my father, everything was new: the language, the food, the culture, the work, the people and the place. But despite the hardships and the challenges, he made a life for himself here, taking the best values from his home in Italy and his home in Australia to forge something good for his long life.

Anita, in this story, is leaving her village in the Dominican Republic and travelling with her family to America. She refers to the planes that will take her away as the dragons which look like large, winged beasts. Anita is a brave and feisty princesa in her village but as she thinks about what the future will look like and what she will be leaving behind, she compares the reality of what she has with the opportunities that are yet to come. Hot water, reliable electricity, and fancy restaurants all sound exciting, but Anita’s abuela is not coming and no longer will Anita breathe the salty air or dance in the blue waves in the spicy heat of the day. No longer will she be the adored princesa, the centre of life in her village.

As Anita and her family board the mighty plane, humming in readiness for departure, she cries aloud all the thoughts that are unspoken but threatening to overwhelm everyone:

“I won’t let this horrible beast take me away from everything I love! What if I hate it? What if I’m lonely? What if I get scared? What if I’m sad? What if I’m NOT brave at all?”

Despite the unanswered questions, despite the anxiety and not knowing what is ahead, the family bravely face the dragon of the air and whatever adventures await them on the other side of this momentous flight.

This is a story of courage and bravery during immigration, the rending of a heart torn between the known and the unknown and the emotional and physical upheaval of leaving one’s country for another. The illustrations are tender, and imbued with soft colours, creating a sense of place and helping the reader to visualise the bonds that tie us to our family and our home.

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and below are more stories that explore the idea of immigration, moving house and home, and what that might feel like in different situations:

Migrant by Maxine Trottier Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

A Kiss Goodbye by Audrey Penn Illustrated by Barbara L.Gibson

The Keeping Quilt
by Patricia Polacco

Moving Molly by Shirley Hughes

The Journey by Francesca Sanna

I Dream of Popo
by Livia Blackburne
Illustrated by Julia Kuo

I’m an Immigrant too! by Mem Fox Illustrated by Ronojoy Ghosh

A Different Pond by Bao Phi Illustrated by Thi Bui

The Dress and the Girl
by Camille Andros
Illustrated by Julie Morstad

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Bad Bye, Good Bye
by Deborah Underwood
Illustrated by Jonathan Bean

The Matchbox Diary
by Paul Fleischman
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

Ten Pound Pom
by Carole Wilkinson
Illustrated by Liz Anelli

Eureka! A Story of the Goldfields
by Mark Wilson

King of the Sky by Nicola Davies Illustrated by Laura Carlin

The Color of Home
by Mary Hoffman
Illustrated by Karin Littlewood

All the Way to America
by Dan Yaccarino

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

I’m New Here
by Anne Sibley O’Brien

Waves: for those who come across the sea by Donna Rawlins Illustrated by Heather Potter
and Mark Jackson

Kate Gordon: Amira’s Magpie

Illustrated by Krista Brennan

Published by Wombat Books, 2021

You can be lucky in life when wild creatures freely come to you. A butterfly might land on your shoulder and rest for just a moment, an echidna might shuffle and snuffle close to your feet looking for food, a rosella might come to the seed bowl you have on the balcony table and feed from it, knowing you are just there. And when we see these creatures up close, it’s hard not to wonder what they are thinking as they go about their business, are we communicating, is there a connection, will they come back?

In this picture book, we meet Amira and she has a magpie that comes to her railing just outside the door, and she has a beautiful description for it:

“His eyes are black pearls. The white on his feathers makes her think, perhaps, he has daubed his wings with paint, to write messages in the sky, love letters to her, because she is his friend.”

The illustrations are soft, mostly black and white and grey, and on one page we see the magpie’s eye magnified, as if it is really seeing Amira and her dreams and hopes. Amira wants to imagine her beautiful magpie soaring through the skies and flying all the way to her home and her grandfather. Amira wants to imagine her grandfather recognising the magpie as a messenger from Amira herself, letting him know that she is okay, that she is growing, that she is thinking of him and can’t wait to see him again one day.

But for the moment, these are all dreams because it seems that Amira is far from her homeland and that her days are closed in by wire fences and dark shadows of detention. So for now, Amira’s favourite colour will be blue, she will dream that her magpie is free and that it will fly back and forth between her homeland and here, singing a song of hope and freedom.

This a wonderful story about hope when days are dark and the future is unclear, Amira, with her black and white cape and soft blue hijab, bravely faces her confinement by holding on to her dreams.

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-6 years and below are more suggestions for picture books which explore what it means to be a refugee, seek asylum, hope for a better future and hold on to your dreams:

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

The Wooden Camel
by Wanuri Kahiu
Illustrated by Manuela Adreani

Mia’s Story by Michael Foreman

Spirit of Hope by Bob Graham

The Garden of Hope
by Isabel Otter
Illustrated by Katie Rewse

The Happiness Box
by Mark Greenwood
Illustrated by Andrew McLean

Greta Thunberg
by Isabel Sanchez Vegara Illustrated by Anke Weckmann

Little Lion by Saroo Brierley Illustrated by Bruce Whatley

Little Mole Finds Hope
by Glenys Nellist
Illustrated by Sally Garland

Lost and Found Cat
by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes Illustrated by Sue Cornelison

Reach for the Stars by Serge Bloch

The Lion and the Bird
by Marianne Dubuc

The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin Illustrated by Anne Spudvilas

Ziba Came on a Boat
by Liz Lofthouse
Illustrated by Robert Ingpen

Four Feet, Two Sandals
by Karen Lynn Williams
and Khadra Mohammed
Illustrated by Doug Chayka

Refugees and Migrants
by Ceri Roberts
Illustrated by Hanane Kai

My Name is not Refugee
by Kate Milner

The Day War Came
by Nicola Davies
Illustrated by Rebecca Cobb

Running with the Horses
by Alison Lester

Room on our Rock
by Kate and Jol Temple
Illustrated by Terri Rose Baynton

Gleam and Glow by Eve Bunting Illustrated by Peter Sylvada

Michel Streich: Scary Bird

Illustrated by the author

Published by Scholastic Press, NSW, 2020

My father emigrated to Australia in the early 1950s at the tender age of 17, leaving his small Italian village and family behind. He came to Melbourne, not knowing much about the language or the country, but prepared to blend together the best of what he brought with him and what he would find here. Learning the language was hard and making a life for himself even harder. Time and work and marriage softened the differences, until it was difficult to tell if he was more Australian or more Italian, but perhaps he just became a better version of both.

In this picture book, we see a small orange bird with green polka dots peeking nervously out of a closed box. An anonymous hand places it into a bird cage and the other birds completely freak out, they are not happy to make room for the scary newcomer. They worry about the lack of space, the food that will need to be shared, and the language they can’t understand.

A marauding mouse shares a little morsel of wisdom while pinching some bird seed, Hey, birdbrains! Don’t you know you’re ALL exotic birds?

And then the breakthrough happens. One soft pink bird with a curly tail decides to be a friend and the acculturation begins, stories are shared, accents are accepted and customs are admired. Before anyone knows it, the orange green polka dotted bird is part of the group, but what happens when the next scary bird comes along?

This a very clever story about acceptance, diversity, cultural norms and friendship. Being a newcomer is daunting for everyone, whether you are making a new country your home or starting kindergarten. Perhaps not so subtly, this story embraces the idea that when we focus on our similarities rather than our differences, the more harmonious all our lives can be.

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 2-6 years and below are suggestions for picture books that explore the themes of migration, fitting in and belief in the value of being you!

I’m New Here
by Anne Sibley O’Brien

The Littlest Yak by Lu Fraser Illustrated by Kate Hindley

Stellaluna by Janell Cannon

Strictly No Elephants
by Lisa Mantchev
Illustrated by Taeeun Yoo

Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio Illustrated by Christian Robinson

The Day You Begin
by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Be You! by Peter H. Reynolds

The Big Umbrella by Amy June Bates and Juniper Bates

Josephine Wants to Dance
by Jackie French
Illustrated by Bruce Whatley

We Are Together
by Britta Teckentrup

My Name is Lizzie Flynn
by Claire Saxby
Illustrated by Lizzy Newcomb

Eureka! A Story of the Goldfields
by Mark Wilson

Ten Pound Pom
by Carole Wilkinson
Illustrated by Liz Anelli

Hollis Kurman: Hello! A Counting Book of Kindnesses

Illustrated by Barroux

Published by Otter-Barry Books, Great Britain, 2020

I really love the profound simplicity of this picture book. It reminds me of that old acronym KISS…Keep It Simple Stupid. How often do we find ourselves tied up in knots over difficult issues and delicate emotions? Sometimes we just need to peel back the layers of heavy expectations, cultural norms and complex legalities. Sometimes we just need to be human, show empathy, put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, try to imagine what their journey is like and be kind.

On one level, this picture book is a counting journey, exploring how numbers can be found in everyone’s everyday life and that is a simple connection we all share and experience, despite religion, culture or geography.

On another level, this picture book is a poetic unravelling of how kindness works, reminding and teaching us processes that we may have forgotten, infrequently practised or never been taught.

It starts with a family fleeing their homeland because it has become too scary to live there anymore. Starting with one boat, we follow their journey across the seas and into a new land, relying on the kindness of strangers and friends to help them adapt to a new life.

Meals provide sustenance and give energy, beds allow rest and warmth, books are the gateway to learning and knowledge, gifts suggest that you are in someone’s thoughts and speak of generous hearts, and finally friendship…sharing a journey is so much better when you add others to your life.

The evocative illustrations beautifully enhance the sparse text and at the end we are encouraged to reflect on how we can be kind to one another and to realise there are many millions of children who have become refugees, running away from war and persecution. On the end paper at the back of the picture book, there are the names and contact details of organisations that help refugees and migrants.

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years, and below I have included more suggestions about picture books which explore the themes of empathy and kindness:

We’re All Wonders by R.J.Palacio

I Am Human by Susan Verde Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

Four Feet, Two Sandals
by Karen Lynn Williams
and Khadra Mohammed Illustrated by Doug Chayka

My Name is Not Refugee
by Kate Milner

Words Are Not for Hurting
by Elizabeth Verdick
Illustrated by Marieka Heinlen

Dogger by Shirley Hughes

Malala’s Magic Pencil
by Malala Yousafzai
Illustrated by Kerascoet

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

Last Stop on Market Street
by Matt De La Pena
Illustrated by Christian Robinson

The Day War Came
by Nicola Davies
Illustrated by Rebecca Cobb

Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam by Fawzia Gilani-Williams Illustrated by Chiara Fedele

I’m (almost) Always Kind
by Anna Milbourne
Illustrated by Asa Gilland

Mark Wilson: Eureka! A Story of the Goldfields

Illustrated by the author

Published by Hachette Australia, 2019

I had a conversation with my daughter this morning about the chance developments of chosen pathways in our lives. She was reflecting on the good fortune of being involved in her current project and having acquired the skills to do it based on all the previous things she had said “yes” to in her life. Being open to new experiences, taking a risk, speaking to a stranger, applying for a new job, moving to a new home, making the most of once-in-a-life-time opportunities all combine to give us a set of skills, a mindset and a will to squeeze the juice out of life and lead us on to paths that we never expected to find ourselves trekking.

Mark Wilson takes us to the goldfields in Ballarat in his latest picture book. I wish I had learnt Australian history this way. It begins with a daughter and father, newly arrived from London, pushing a barrow holding all their meagre belongings, trudging to Ballarat. It had taken 9 months for the ship to make the long journey from England to Australia and now, without wife or mother, they face an uncertain future in a new land. Of course, they are not the first people to arrive and the Ballarat fields stretching out before them are teeming with prospectors, all searching for those elusive nuggets of gold.

A chance encounter with Chen, a young Chinese boy who is about 16 years old, sets the course for their lives. He welcomes them to his camp and offers them their first hot mug of tea. Chen’s bravery is remarkable. He has travelled to Australia on his own to make his fortune so that he can return to China with enough money to bring his family here.

The story goes on to include the racism many Chinese men and women experienced in the 1800s, the hefty fees required to buy mining licences and tools, the police and soldiers harshly enforcing the law, the hardships endured by the prospectors when food and money ran out, and the miners banding together to fight against the licence fees, voting rights and land ownership. History records this as the fight at the Eureka Stockade in 1854, a terrible battle where many more miners died than soldiers and police. It is also the beginning of Peter Lalor’s rise to fame and prominence.

It sounds like a lot to include in a picture book, but Mark Wilson has done it marvellously in words and pictures. The best part is that this story was inspired by the real-life adventures of Catherine Martin and her husband Pan Ah Shin who met on the goldfields of Ballarat. A chance encounter that altered the course of their lives and the lives of those who came after them. There is a wonderful photo of some of their descendants at the back of the book with more information about the Eureka Rebellion.

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 5-10 years, and below I have included other picture books which explore the lives of early settlers and their impact upon the land and the indigenous people they encountered:

My Name is Lizzie Flynn:
A Story of the Rajah Quilt
by Claire Saxby
Illustrated by Lizzy Newcomb

Once by Kate Forsyth
Illustrated by Krista Brennan

Meet…Captain Cook by Rae Murdie Illustrated by Chris Nixon

Meet…Banjo Patterson
by Kristin Weidenbach
Illustrated by
James Gulliver Hancock

Meet…Ned Kelly
by Janeen Brian
Illustrated by Matt Adams

Jandamarra by Mark Greenwood Illustrated by Terry Denton

William Bligh: a stormy story of tempestuous times
by Michael Sedunary
Illustrated by Bern Emmerichs

The Unlikely Story of
Bennelong and Phillip
by Michael Sedunary
Illustrated by Ben Emmerichs

Amazing Australian Women: Twelve Women
Who Shaped History
by Pamela Freeman
Illustrated by Sophie Beer

Mike Dumbleton: Anisa’s Alphabet

Illustrated by Hannah Sommerville

Published by Midnight Sun Publishing Pty Ltd, 2020

With few words, many pictures and the alphabet, Mike Dumbleton has taken us on the journey of young Anisa Alidurahn, a refugee fleeing from her homeland with her family. Each letter frames the next step, the next hope and the next feeling as we travel with Anisa, helping us to understand what it might be like to leave all that we love behind. From happy home, to a tent city, to a boat that is overcrowded and sinking, to detention, we journey with Anisa and enter her uncertain world.

The language is simple, evocative and hopeful despite the helplessness of the many challenges that face Anisa and her family. As such, it is an excellent resource to introduce this sensitive and sometimes disturbing topic to younger readers.

If you like this book, look out for these titles by the same author:

See the source image
Meet…Douglas Mawson
Illustrated by Snip Green
See the source image
Passing On
Illustrated by
Terry Denton
See the source image
Downsized
Illustrated by Tom Jellett

If you would like to read more picture books about refugees, here are some of my favorite titles:

What is a Refugee? by Elise Gravel

See the source image
Whoever You Are by
Mem Fox
Illustrated by Leslie Staub

See the source image
My Two Blankets by
Irena Kobald
Illustrated by
Freya Blackwood

The Little Refugee
by Anh Do and Suzanne Do Illustrated by Bruce Whatley

Just Like You by Jo Loring-Fisher