Academic journal article Journal of Children's Literature

Storytelling in Global Children's Literature: Its Role in the Lives of Displaced Child Characters

Academic journal article Journal of Children's Literature

Storytelling in Global Children's Literature: Its Role in the Lives of Displaced Child Characters

Article excerpt

Story is rooted in the need of every one of us: children and adults, readers and writers, Indonesians and Americans and Chinese and New Zealanders, the whole of the family. (Wrightson, 1996, p. 161)

HOW MIGHT WE understand the experiences of the millions of displaced children around the world on a personal rather than impersonal level? How might we understand in a way that is immediate rather than abstract? The relevance of these questions becomes clear in the context of the civil war in Syria. According to a senior advisor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Syrian conflict has created "a children's refugee crisis" (Mosbergen, 2013, para. 5). This observation is supported by the fact that in September 2013, the number of Syrian children forced to flee their homeland exceeded 1 million. Nearly 750,000 of these children were under 11 years of age, and over 3,500 were unaccompanied minors. An additional 2 million children were displaced within the country. By March 2015, over half of the Syrian population, 7.6 million people, were internally displaced, and 3.9 million had fled to other countries (United Nations Population Fund, n.d.). Recounting these numbers does not convey the impact of this crisis on individual lives; numbers this large become impersonal.

Yet, the photograph of a 3-year-old boy lying dead on a beach in Turkey brought this crisis to a personal level. Taken in September 2015, the photograph of Alan Kurdi resonated with people throughout the world and created a public outcry. It did not depict a graphic image of a maimed body, nor did it depict a devastated war zone; it simply depicted a child lying utterly alone and dead on a beach. The Independent published the image because of "the telling nature of it" (Gunter, 2015, para. 23). This photograph brought the Syrian crisis to a personal level because of the story it tells. Syria represents but one humanitarian crisis in the world today; there are many, many others, and children caught up in these crises often become displaced youths with their own stories.

Displaced children tell "stories of home, of survival, exile and journeys to safety, stories of loss and separation and arrival in a place so far from home" (Deveci, 2012, p. 378). Internally displaced and refugee children are particularly vulnerable to child labor, early marriage, gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, and forced conscription and trafficking; many suffer psychosocial trauma because of the horrors they have witnessed and endured (Mosbergen, 2013; Thompson & Walsh, 2010). In addition to the trauma that children experience in their countries of origin and during their often dangerous emigration experiences, they are likely to experience institutional racism, prejudice, and xenophobia as immigrants upon relocation. For these children, telling their stories is a necessary precursor to healing and to regaining a sense of power and agency in their lives (Block & Leseho, 2005; Mahy, 1996; Thompson & Walsh, 2010).

The experiences of displaced child characters in global children's literature mirror the experiences of children in our embodied world, and stories are important in the lives of both literary characters and real children. Like Alan's photograph, the stories of literary characters make the impersonal personal and the abstract immediate. These stories "arise out of human need" (Wrightson, 1996, p. 157), as do the stories of actual displaced children, as do the stories of their families, as do all of our stories. We are connected when we tell our own stories and when we hear and bear witness to others' stories (Cottle, 2013; Deveci, 2012; Thompson & Walsh, 2010). It is through storytelling in all its guises that we come to truly know and understand one another. There is a double layer of story in the books included in this study: the narrative of the novel and the stories told within it. Children in the United States might come to know displaced children around the world through global children's literature, and they might see parallels in the role that storytelling plays in all of our lives. …

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