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

Armin Greder: Diamonds

Illustrated by the author

Published by Allen & Unwin, 2020

I have always approached Armin Greder’s work with fear, trepidation and respect.

I have also struggled with the categorisation of his illustrated works as picture books. But, there they are, for all to borrow in the children’s section of the library.

For me, the art is confronting and powerful as Greder tackles complex issues like separatism, repression, exploitation, war, conflict, slavery and the plight of refugees. 

Apart from a few paragraphs of dialogue at the beginning and end of Diamonds, the main story is told without words. It is the compelling, razor sharp dialogue between mother and daughter, however, that raises the hairs on my arms.

I have diamonds in my engagement ring. Have I ever wondered where they came from? No. Have I ever asked about which country in the world they were mined or whether the labourers were treated well and fairly paid? No. Would I buy diamonds again or have them bought for me? Not without asking a few questions about provenance and whether the process of the diamonds’ manufacture was without conflict. Could I ever really be sure of the answers?

In this picture book, Gerder has revealed the complex chain of exchange from impoverished mine worker to armed militia to anonymous men in black suits and dark limousines with briefcases full of money, to jewellery makers…ending up eventually in elegant boutiques where a thoughtful purchase of diamond earrings for a beloved partner is transacted in quiet, plush, genteel surroundings.

The story makes me think, and I am left feeling uncomfortable and prodded. There is an afterword by journalist Francesco Boille at the end of the book and a statement by Riccardo Noury, representing Amnesty International Italy. As well, there are two magnificent quotes by past statesmen, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

I encourage you to read this picture book and share it with young readers who are over 8 years old. Below I have recommended other picture books that deal with confronting issues such as racism, war and repression as well as books about brave people (fictional and real) who have deviated from the well-travelled path:

Malala’s Magic Pencil
by Malala Yousafzai
Illustrated by Kerascoet

We Are All Equal by P.Crumble Illustrated by Jonathan Bentley

Yoko by Rosemary Wells

Skin Again by Bell Hooks
Illustrated by Chris Raschka

The Rabbits by John Marsden Illustrated by Shaun Tan

I Dissent by Debbie Levy
Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley

It’s Okay to be Different
by Todd Parr

A is for Activist
by Innosanto Nagara

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman Illustrated by Caroline Binch

The Island by Armin Greder

The Mediterranean
by Armin Greder

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

My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald Illustrated by Freya Blackwood

A Different Pond by Bao Phi Illustrated by Thi Bui

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

The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham & Karim Shamsi-Basha Illustrated by Yuko Shimizu

Phillip Gwynne: Small Town

Illustrated by Tony Flowers

Published by Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, 2020

When my husband and I married, we moved to Northcote and discovered the delights of inner city living. We made many long-lasting friendships while we were there but there was one special lady who lived around the corner whom I have never forgotten. Her name was Gwen and she was old, ninety something and still living independently at home. Sadly, Gwen is no longer with us, but she told me something one day that I have never forgotten:  be kind.

Small Town by Phillip Gwynne is all about kindness and based on the true stories of small rural townships like Pyramid Hill, Nhill and Strathbogie that have revitalized their diminishing communities by inviting refugees and immigrants to make these places their homes.

Milly narrates the story and tells us all about her wonderful home called Gong Gong: “so nice, they named it twice” is a repeated refrain throughout the book.

Milly is a member of a basketball team whose players are all called Chloe! That is not a big problem, until one by one, members of the team move away to live in the city. Milly’s parents explain that sometimes families move because there is more work in the city and sometimes they move to be closer to larger communities.

At school Milly learns about refugees, war, famine and persecution. Observing all the space available in her hometown, the houses for rent and job vacancies, Milly decides to invite refugees to come and try country living. Milly makes a video with her Granny Mac, they send it out to the world, and wait and wait.

Soon, refugees are coming to Gong Gong by the carload and a township that was diminishing is revitalized with the influx of new families, some of whom play basketball! This is a wonderful story about people being kind to people and the amazing things that can happen when we embrace diversity in our lives.

Tony Flowers created the illustrations for this book and took inspiration for his images from exploring small Tasmanian country towns. Also take a close look at the end papers and check out the Flowers Bakery in the “video”, apparently it’s a tribute to Tony’s baking skills and the fact that his family owned a bakery in Victoria from the late 1800s to early 1920. Phillip Gwynne is an Australian author and best known for his YA novel Deadly Unna?

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and below I have included suggestions for other picture books which explore the theme of kindness:

Finding Kindness
by Deborah Underwood
Illustrated by Irene Chan

Kindness Grows
by Britta Teckentrup

A Sick Day for Amos McGee
by Philip C. Stead
Illustrated by Erin E. Stead

How to Heal a Broken Wing
by Bob Graham

Make Way for the Ducklings
by Robert McCloskey

Enemy Pie by Derek Munson Illustrated by Tara Calahan King

How Kind! by Mary Murphy

All Are Welcome by
Alexandra Penfold
Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman

The Farmer and the Clown
by Marla Frazee

Should I Share My Ice Cream?
by Mo Willems

Counting Kindness: Ten Ways to Welcome Refugee Children
by Hollis Kurman
Illustrated by Barroux

Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller Illustrated by Jen Hill

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
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