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Building Empathy with Picture Books: The Refugee Journey

Featured Image - Illustration by Elise Gravel from What Is A Refugee?

Photograph of Lisely Laboy

Lisely Laboy is the project manager at Diverse BookFinder. Lisely holds a master's degree in Information and Library Sciences from Florida State University and undergraduate degrees from the University of Florida in Sociology and Women’s Studies. She has 10 years of public library experience, including time as a programming librarian for children and teens.

War and the refugee crises that too often result from it are difficult topics at the best of times, and can be downright overwhelming when mired in the context of current events.

One way to support conversations about war and refugees with younger children is through the use of diverse picture books.

Anyone could become a refugee. It's a thing that happens to you, it's not who you are.

Trevor Noah on 3/3/2022 for The Daily Show

Using books to shed light on the journeys of wartime refugees from around the world allows children to see beyond current events and find commonalities in the experiences of people from different races, cultures, and nationalities.

Even so, different types of picture books can offer different experiences and reinforce different kinds of learning. Here are three different styles of picture books that can provide starting points for conversations around wars and refugees, as well as support for empathy-building lessons.

Simple & Factual

Informational books for young readers can strike the right balance between factual knowledge and simplicity by providing age-appropriate introductions to difficult topics.

What is a Refugee? by Elise Gravel uses short sentences and simple language to explain the concept of refugees in a way that is both factual and easily digestible for the young mind. The illustrations in this title match the text as they are effective but simple; leaving lots of white space on each spread.

Illustration from What is a Refugee? by Elise Gravel

Likewise, Where Will I Live? by Rosemary A. McCarney offers photographs of children and families captioned with statements and questions that can gently guide conversations about the refugee experience. The photographs in the book were taken by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and picture real refugee families. The country names labeled on each photograph can spark conversations about the universality of the refugee experience and the diversity of the people who we call refugees.

Photographs by the UNHCR from Where Will I Live? by Rosemary A. McCarney

Evocative Illustrations

The constant barrage of images of hurt and suffering offered by the media can be traumatic, overwhelming, and difficult to grasp for children. Children may feel scared or worried when frightening new reports and video reels make wars feel too real and too near. Picture books can offer a safe space wherein to learn.

Choose picture books with bold colors and evocative illustrations. Little ones will begin to understand the reality of war and the life of a refugee but in a format they can examine, process, and then close, and set aside. By reading these stories with our students/patrons/children, we can help guide and support them as they formulate their thoughts about what they are seeing and reading. Ask children if they can imagine how characters might feel; if they've ever been scared or felt homesick.

In The Voyage, Robert Vescio offers just one word per page and allows plenty of space to process Andrea Edmonds' powerful illustrations. The bright colors and expressive figures transport us through the many emotions of one family's journey away from a country at war.

Illustration by Andrea Edmonds from The Voyage by Robert Vescio

In The Day War Came, Rebecca Cobb's illustrations touch the heartbreaking reality of a long and exhausting refugee journey while the words of Nicola Davies' poem express the complexity of a life that is, at once, full of fear and hope.

Illustration by Rebecca Cob from The Day War Came by Nicola Davies

Francesca Sanna's colorful and saturated illustrations in The Journey use size and perspective to represent a refugee's fear of being turned away from a border crossing; from a safe haven at the end of a long and difficult road.

Illustrations by Francesca Sanna from The Journey

Real Children, True Stories:

We build empathy when we learn to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Few things make that process easier than when we can see ourselves in someone else. It is just for this reason that biographies and autobiographies about the refugee experience can be an excellent source for learning and empathy-building on the subject.

At least 82.4 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes.

Among them are nearly 26.4 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee - USA (UNHCR-USA)

It is an unfortunate fact that among refugees, there are always large numbers of children; children who have had no say in their situations and who often find themselves voiceless and isolated in foreign lands, surrounded by strangers.

The five-book "Seeking Refuge" series gives voice to the stories of five refugee children from five different countries. These award-winning stories were originally produced as animations for the BBC and were narrated by the titular children. The adapted books retain each child's voice within the text.

Young readers will see themselves in the stories of Ali, Juliane, Navid, Rachel, and Hamid as they describe their every day lives before and after their refugee journeys and their universal desires for safe homes and close friends.

Illustration by Salvador Maldonado from Ali’s Story by Andy Glynne 
Illustration by Karl Hammond from Juliane’s Story by Andy Glynne

We encourage all readers, parents, librarians, and educators to incorporate books with diverse characters and storylines into their conversations about war and refugee crises. We hope that in using picture books for these purposes, we can help to expand the understanding of the refugee journey as one that is both universal and worthy of empathy.

See below for more details about the books recommended in this article and check out our Immigrant/Refugee Book List for even more great titles.

For even more information on the importance of books in supporting positive conversations about immigrants & refugees, and in building welcoming communities that foster empathy & belonging, please visit our partner organization; I'm Your Neighbor Books.


Books Recommended In This Article:

What Is a Refugee?


by Elise Gravel

"An accessible picture book that oh-so-simply and graphically introduces the term “refugee” to curious young children to help them better understand the world in which they live. Who are refugees? Why are they called that word? Why do they need to leave their country? Why are they sometimes not welcome in their new country? In this relevant picture book for the youngest children, author-illustrator Elise Gravel explores what it means to be a refugee in bold, graphic illustrations and spare text. This is the perfect tool to introduce an important and timely topic to children." -- publisher

Informational Oppression & Resilience

Where will I live?


by Rosemary A. McCarney

"This stunning photo-based picture book for younger readers takes a look at the thousands of children around the world who have been forced to flee war, terror, hunger, sickness, and natural disasters - young refugees on the move with very little left except questions. It's hard to imagine, but the images here will help unaffected children understand not only what this must feel like, but also how very lucky they are. The final message is that children, even with uncertain futures, are resilient and can face uncertainty with optimism. Gripping images are from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and include photographs of children in countries including Lebanon, Rwanda, Iraq, Niger, Hungary, Jordan, and Greece, among others"--|cProvided by publisher

Oppression & Resilience Race/Culture Concepts

The Voyage


by Robert Vescio and Andrea Edmonds

"The Voyage is the powerful story of a family fleeing their war-torn country and making a dangerous trip across the ocean to a new life in a new land. Displaced by war and conflict, a refugee family sets out on a voyage into the unknown. Told in only a few words (one word per page) this is the powerful story of a family fleeing their war-torn country and making a dangerous trip across the ocean to a new life in a new land. ‘Chaos’ begins the story, as the family escapes. ‘Wild’ is the midway point, as the small boat battles through a storm. ‘Companion’ marks the sighting of a whale that briefly keeps them company as their voyage continues. ‘Beauty’ is the sight of a green, beautiful land ahead of them. ‘Safe’ is the beginning of their new life in their new home. Simple, yet evocative, The Voyage gives new meaning to the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words," as Robert Vescio’s sparse text and Andrea Edmond’s beautiful illustrations encourage young readers to create their own background story and thus identify more deeply with the plight of refugees and those less fortunate." -- publisher

Oppression & Resilience

The day war came


by Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb

A powerful and necessary picture book - the journey of a child forced to become a refugee when war destroys everything she has ever known. Imagine if, on an ordinary day, war came. Imagine it turned your town to rubble. Imagine going on a long and difficult journey - all alone. Imagine finding no welcome at the end of it. Then imagine a child who gives you something small but very, very precious ... When the government refused to allow 3000 child refugees to enter this country in 2016, Nicola Davies was so angry she wrote a poem. It started a campaign for which artists contributed drawings of chairs, symbolising a seat in a classroom, education, kindness, the hope of a future. The poem has become this book, movingly illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, which should prove a powerful aid for explaining the ongoing refugee crisis to younger readers.

Oppression & Resilience

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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