STEPPING STONES: A REFUGEE FAMILY’S JOURNEY, by Margriet Ruurs, with stone art illustrations by Nizar Ali Badr – Review by Sandy Brehl
Canadian author Margriet Ruurs is an educator, a prolific author, and a world traveler. Her visits to international schools and other global destinations have inspired several of her titles.
But Margriet found inspiration for her latest picture book while at home, scrolling through Facebook posts. There, she first viewed the stone-assemblage scenes of Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr. In the forward of STEPPING STONES: A REFUGEE FAMILY’S JOURNEY she relates the complex pursuit that resulted from her first glimpse of Badr’s images. I love that her story behind the book is shared as a forward rather than in back matter, because it sets the stage for the reality behind her eloquent story.
When I interviewed Margriet I wondered if this is a work of fiction or nonfiction. She considers it realistic fiction, because Rama, the young Syrian girl, is a composite, representing countless individual, actual lives facing similar threatening realities. Although Margriet’s version of this imagined family’s journey incorporates harsh details, it has an uplifting and potentially realistic ending.
Sadly, too few families manage to achieve such positive outcomes.
Ruurs’s text is mirrored in Arabic and introduces readers to a family life of love and security, one that might feel familiar: The rooster crows young Rama awake, breakfast includes yogurt, bread, and food from the garden. Rama says, “When I was little, not so long ago, my brother Sami…and I…laughed…. free as birds…”
“…But that was then and this is now.”
When war disrupts their lives, neighbors begin flowing past their home like a river. Rama’s freedom, safety, and life itself shift and crumble beneath her feet and her family eventually joins the migration.
The lyrical phrasing of Margriet’s free verse narrative captures the eloquence and simplicity of young Rama’s reactions to her experiences. In poetry, shifts of word order, punctuation, and line breaks take on enormous significance, requiring readers to invest emotion and empathy. That investment continues in the visual narrative. Badr instills life into his stone-art with seemingly simple shifts in background, angles, and minute adjustments of one stone in relation to another. In the earliest spreads, the “face” stones have minimalist eye placements. Those soon disappear, immersing readers in this journey.
The endpapers display an intriguing variety of stones, yet their random arrangement has no story. That reminded me of the style in which refugee stories are reported: massive numbers of nameless bits, one blending into the next. Our mind might digest numbers or distances or locations, but no human connection is triggered in our hearts. One “stone” may appear different from another, but none is unique or valuable.
Young people have been bombarded by news and images of a river of nameless humanity. Yet water-worn stones have distinct individuality and sensory elements that suggest life itself. Here readers will find a welcome, if ironic, opportunity to empathize with the individual dignity of refugees through inanimate stones. Ruurs has embedded Badr’s artfully arranged, faceless stones with individual identities and family strength, allowing us to recognize lives like our own within those news clip portrayals.
At a time when “the other” is portrayed as threatening, when an entire generation has been born into a background of endless war, when tribal isolation is glorified, these books matter. Proceeds from the sale of STEPPING STONES are being donated to refugee support programs, and back matter offers details about the author and artist, as well as contact information for recognized refugee support agencies.
STEPPING STONES pairs perfectly with an earlier picture book featuring another distinctive design. Author/artist Jeannie Baker produced wordless parallel stories in MIRROR (Candlewick, 2010). Using the left-to-right English format and right-to-left Arabic format, readers enter the book from the front and back covers simultaneously. Turn by turn the two societies and families reveal unique patterns but even greater similarities, until they and their communities intersect at the center.
In a world hyper-saturated with stereotypes, propaganda, and fear-mongering, books like these two can open conversations and authentic inquiries across many ages, providing windows and mirrors across cultures, and offering an honest reassurance that not every cultural encounter is a tragedy.
Sandy Brehl is a retired educator and is now a fulltime author. Her middle grade historical trilogy is set during the WWII German occupation of Norway: Odin’s Promise (2014), Bjorn’s Gift (2016), and Mari’s Hope (scheduled for 2017). She posts picture book reviews and interviews on her blog, Unpacking the Power of Picture Books and shares a blog about historical books for young readers at The Storied Past. You can find her on Twitter @SandyBrehl and @pbworkshop.