By Margriet Ruurs, translated by Falah Raheem, illustrated by Nizar Ali Badr. Orca Book Publishers, 2016. 28 pages. $20/hardcover; $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 6–10.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey tells the heartrending story of Rama, a little girl whose life changes dramatically. At first, her childhood is delightful. She eats a delicious breakfast prepared by her mama, plays with her brother and friends on “sunbaked soil,” and listens to her papa tell stories under the orange tree. “We were free,” Rama says. But were they? Her grandfather reminds her that they cannot “sing [their] songs,” “dance [their] dances” or “pray the prayers of [their] choice.” Soon war arrives, and it changes everything; they endure its ravages—the hunger, the departures, and the terror—until finally they join the fleeing exodus; refugees on a perilous journey, they manage to survive exhaustion and anguish, indiscriminate bombs and beating waves. While others are not so lucky, Rama and her family’s journey ends in hope and peace; their final destination is welcoming, hospitable, safe—“a new home now.”
The book is beautifully written in two languages: English and Arabic. Its English prose is straightforward, piercing, and lyrical.
And on we walked.
Tired. I was so tired.
My feet felt like the rocks
on which we walked.
My legs were trees, rooted to the soil.
The Arabic is no less deft and poetic. It stands on its own and not simply as a translation of English. For example, the translator’s Arabic choices for “juicy” and “sunbaked” are inspired. I wish credit to the Arabic translator Falah Raheem had been indicated on the book’s cover. I had to hunt for his name in the publication information page.
The book’s foreword describes the author’s own circuitous journey in connecting with the Syrian sculptor who created the artwork for the book and their subsequent collaboration. It is the artwork that makes the book truly special. Nizar Ali Badr’s stone tableaus of humans, animals, and landscapes are so vivid and multidimensional that they jump off the page, invite the reader’s touch. The Arabs have a saying about an emotionally powerful thing: “It can make stone cry.” And under the hand of Badr, the stones he collects from the shores of his hometown of Latakia and arranges in stunning scenes move, speak, cry—and make us cry.
Before I read the book, I asked my seven-year-old daughter to read it to me out loud. She is bilingual and read the book with ease. When she got to the page about the dangerous sea passage, she paused after the phrase, “those whose journey ended at the sea.” After a moment of quiet, she read the sentence again out loud, this time to herself, trying to understand the connections between the words and the accompanying image, which is both beautiful and heartbreaking: shiny stone bodies floating on the surface of shiny stone water. When I asked her what she thought of the book she said, “It tells me what people’s lives were like in Syria.” For this reason and many others, it is a book worth reading. Its story, in two languages, is beautiful. Its artwork is original and touching. And most importantly, it teaches us empathy and compassion for humans often dehumanized who live and love the way we too would like to live and love. It’s also a book worth buying since a portion of the proceeds goes to resettlement organizations in North America. Appropriate for six- through ten-year-old Arabic, English, or bilingual readers, the book’s artwork could engage pre-readers as well. I can see this book being used by teachers as a way of talking to their students about the plight of refugees and displaced individuals and about our shared humanity and universal desires. However, it might be worth discussing with older children how the ending of the book, sadly, does not reflect the fate of the majority of refugees who continue to live in limbo or inhospitable environments and encouraging them to think about the ways they can be involved in changing that reality.
(Editor’s note: The online version of this review differs from the print version with the addition of text at the end, beginning with “students about the plight of refugees …” which was cut due to space constraints.)