Story Boat – Kyo Maclear and Rashin Kheiriyeh, Tundra, 2020
The story of refugees, of their vulnerability and courage, of the injustice of often-chaotic journey from peril to freedom, is an endless one. While young picture book readers cannot assimilate the particulars of each group’s experience in its search for a stable home, they can understand the fears of being uprooted and the joy and finding safety. In Story Boat, author Kyo Maclear and illustrator Rashin Kheiriyeh do not reduce the lives of immigrants to an easy object lesson in tolerance. Instead, they create together an incredible poetic and visual metaphor of strong and determined people, without losing sight of their individuality or the immediacy of their need for freedom. Children will identify with the book’s resilient characters on their journey towards a haven through space and time. (For more on the brilliant work of Kyo Maclear, who often teams with Julie Morstad, see here and here and here and here.)
The book opens with a line of pilgrims against a background of bare trees and flying birds. They are old and young, dressed for a harsh winter, but their origin could be a number of different locations in a globe full of the dispossessed. Maclear’s poem begins, “Here we are./ What’s that?/Well, here is…/Here is just here.”
To children, these words are not a surrealist evocation of life’s impermanence; they are just the way their world is. They have no control of their destination, and the adults with them have little more. But they do have tangible objects and sturdy dreams. An oversized teacup becomes a central image of the book. It is a homely domestic object which the children use to keep warm, “Every morning,/As things keep changing,/We sit wherever we are/And sip, sip, sip.” But an enormous version of the humble cup becomes a paradox, both a home and a vehicle, a magic carpet that alludes to both Middle Eastern and universal traditions of the fairy tale.
The children’s lives alternate between the need for some continuity and their longing for a place of safety and welcome. Both the pictures and the text reinforce this delicate tension. Their blanket is the familiar “color of apricots,” although the people surrounding them are “weary/From hoping and hurrying.” Somehow, the steady gaze of their mother feeding an infant, and the permanence of important objects, need to be enough to sustain them. Some of those objects are pencils and notebooks, implements which help them to dream and to tell a story. Dreaming is important, but so is recording their upheaval and turning it into a tale which makes sense. The transience of their tent city is transformed into meaning in a sentence, “Sometimes it’s here/just for a moment,” and the image of a community interacting as if their setting were normal. Then, just as their cup was elevated to a magic carpet, a lamp becomes a lighthouse leading them through rough seas. Fantasy and beauty take the form of flowers as ladders, allowing the children to literally rise above the chaos which surrounds them.
By the time the refugees reach a village where they are helped across a dock by caring hands, readers know that both the kindness of strangers and the children’s own determination have played a role in their lives. Helpless to change the facts of their existence, they have nonetheless learned how to respond with their own narrative:
We dream and draw,
Make and play,
Search for treasure,
Find our way
Adding words to this story.
In Story Boat, finding refugee is not easy and life is governed by the kind of contingencies that are incomprehensible to children. Words can’t save their lives, but they do allow their authors to impose a kind of structure on their experience. Dreaming, drawing, searching, and waiting, are central to children’s lives, whether they are forced to leave their homes and hope for freedom, or whether they are young readers learning empathy. The unforgettable beauty and strength of Story Boat’s story make it a journey for everyone.