Picture Books about Refugees: Watercress, Yang Warriors, and The Suitcase

Two memoirs and one parable show children how to have sympathy for refugees, even within their own family.

Watercress by Andrea Yang, illustrated by Jason Chinn. Holiday House, 2021, 32 pages.

Reading level: Picture Book, ages 4-8

Recommended for: ages 6-10

“We are in the old Pontiac, the red paint faded by years of glinting Ohio sun, pelting rain, and biting snow.” A sullen girl stared out the back window, unmoved when the car abruptly brakes and both parents cry out, “Watercress!” The girl and her brother have to get out and dredge the icy creek for the “long stringy stems with leaves round as coins. It’s clearly a beloved childhood memory of China for her parents, but means nothing to the girl or her brother—just another weird custom in a new country where they’ve scrounged for furniture and cast-off clothes and hardly anyone looks like them.

But that evening, as their mother shares gray-tinged memories of China, where everyone dressed alike and there was seldom enough to eat, the girl comes to understand both the blessing of food and the power of memory. Jason Chinn’s luminous palette contrasts gray, barren China with hot, blooming Ohio, with gratitude the only proper response.

Overall Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 4
  • Artistic/literary value: 5

Yang Warriors by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Billy Thao. University of Minnesota Press, 2021, 40 pages.

Reading Level: Picture Book, ages 4-8

Recommended for: ages 5-10

Ben Vinai Refugee Camp, in northern Thailand, was the first stop for Laotias fleeing the communist upheavals in southeast Asia. In the 1980s, the camp was crammed with 45,000 refugees, mostly Hmong. It wasn’t a prison, exactly, but food was scarce and internees were not allowed to leave without permission. The author, a little girl at the time, recalls gathering around a TV with other kids, watching videos about traditional heroes. Then some of the kids, including her big sister, would rush outdoors for “warrior training” with 10-year-old “Master Me.” Me (pronounced May) meant “little,” and it fit, up to a point: “Though his arms and legs were small, his belly was round and sat on his middle like a bowl.” Dedication and determination set Me apart; only he could have come up with a plan to break out of camp and forage for food. And the raid was a success—up to a point.

It’s a simple story, but packed with detail and pathos, told in a musing, reminiscent style. I had to look up Ben Vinai. The author includes pictures of her family (who eventually relocated to the US) but gives no context as to why they were in a refugee camp in the first place. Though some background would have been welcome, the inspiration of the 10year-old Asian warriors should resonate with any ten-year-old American kid today.

Overall Rating: 3.75 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.5
  • Artistic/literary value: 4

The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballestreros. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, 32 pages

Reading Level: Picture Book, ages 0-4

Recommended for: ages 3-6

“A strange animal arrived one day, looking dusty, tired, sad, and frightened.” It’s had to tell what kind of animal this is—a salamander? Lizard? He’s obviously downcast, a point the suspicious natives seem to miss. Instead they all fixate on the suitcase. What’s in it? The stranger’s explanation that it holds a teacup, a table, and a chair is met with growing skepticism by the fox, rabbit, and bird. Impossible! So when the stranger takes a nap, they have to break it open and take a look. What they find changes their attitude entirely.

This is a simple, beautiful exposition of what it means to welcome the stranger and sympathize with the refugee. We never learn what tragedy the animal was escaping, but fear and loneliness are common to everyone. Even small children will get the message: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers . . .” (Heb. 13:2)

Overall Rating: 4.5 (Out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 4.5
  • Artistic/literary value: 4.5

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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