Workshop Report – Between Fact and Fiction: Refugee Narratives in Children’s Literature – Birkbeck College 9 June 2017
In early June, the Reluctant Internationalists held a one-day inter-disciplinary workshop with children’s authors, illustrators, publishers, booksellers, school teachers, librarians, and academics. The agenda for the day was to discuss the role of children’s literature as a vehicle for refugee stories and voices, and to think about potential collaborations between children’s authors/illustrators and historians and other scholars. This workshop was a follow-up to an earlier event held in March, which began conversations about the process of researching, writing, exhibiting and depicting stories about refugees to children. (Further details of the discussion on how factual research, both historical and contemporary, can be interpreted for children, can be read here.)
The day was structured around three sessions, each grouped around the different perspectives of people creating, selling and using children’s books. The first session featured school teachers and librarians. Laura Cernis from Belham Primary School spoke on her use of Francesca Sanna’s debut book, The Journey, in teaching young children empathy and understanding. She noted that in England there is currently no expectation in the curriculum to teach about refugees, instead it is expected that teachers teach ‘tolerance’ more broadly. Following this, Michael Margerison and Matt Imrie from CILIP’s School Libraries Group, outlined the role of school libraries and librarians in providing resources on refugees and migrants for children. Both noted that school libraries often enjoy more freedom when selecting resources than teachers do, but also that their positions were very dependent on their school’s resources. All three speakers also highlighted the difficulties they had faced in obtaining suitable texts on refugees and migrants for young children, with Michael and Matt commenting in particular on the difficulty of finding relevant titles between the stages of picture books and young adult fiction, equivalent with key stages 1 and 2.
The second panel of the workshop was devoted to injecting the perspectives of authors and illustrators into discussions. Annemarie Young began by sharing details of her research for the creation of the Refugee Diaries series. This series of four books focused on the true stories of children who came to Britain to escape persecution and violence. Annemarie noted that her research included interviews with over fifty refugees undertaken in conjunction with the Red Cross and in her talk, she discussed some of the challenges she encountered during this process. June Allan then spoke about the process of illustrating the books, outlining the research involved and the artistic methods adopted. She noted how unusual it was for both photographs and impressionist illustrations to be featured alongside one another like they are in the series. Subsequent discussion focused on the use of the series as a teaching resource and the importance of remaining true to the language and narratives used by the children when interviewed.
The remainder of the afternoon was devoted to discussion of the publication and marketing of children’s literature. Hannah Love, Children’s Publicity Manager at Faber & Faber, talked about how books dealing with refugees can be marketed for commercial purposes, whilst still retaining ‘sensitivity’. She commented on a growing trend in children’s publishing to employ ‘sensitivity readers’ who comment on the authenticity and historical accuracy of draft book characters and plots. Following this, Romana Küpfer, editor at NordSüd publishing house in Switzerland, spoke on the editorial decisions taken before publishing the German-language edition of The Journey by Francesca Sanna and Mr Benjamin’s Suitcase of Secrets by Pei-Yu Chang. She noted that the German market had witnessed a significant rise in the number of children’s books which focus on stories of refugees; with roughly one hundred titles published in the last year alone. Both Hannah and Romana remarked on the current focus in children’s publishing on finding unusual stories that tell exceptional and diverse narratives that are different from what has already been published. Discussions that followed probed the concept of ‘sensitivity readers’ and the differences in reception of books focused on refugees across the Swiss, German, and UK children’s literature markets.
The workshop concluded with a more general discussion of the opportunities and challenges currently facing practitioners seeking to broaden the field of refugee stories in children’s literature. Participants reminded the group that a growing number of resources and children’s books on refugees are now available. For an overview of some of the works discussed see here: we hope that this resource will prove useful for developing both teaching materials and greater awareness of the subject. At the very least, it is a reminder that the subject of migration and refugees has been developed in a body of recent, and not so recent, publications and that the question of how best to depict fact and fiction in refugee narratives for children remains ever prominent.