Originally published by The NY Times
Last year, during a visit to a school in Birmingham, England, I met a seventh grader who told me he had traveled there from Syria as a refugee.
I wasn’t equal to imagining what that journey was like. Yet here was this rosy-cheeked boy in a British school uniform, clearly a survivor, sitting in on my author event along with 150 other interested students. I tried to respond. “You must be …”
Brave? Resourceful? Determined? I struggled for an appropriate word. The boy filled in the gap himself.
“Unstoppable!” he pronounced triumphantly.
And “unstoppable” is the word that best fits the fictional children in three timely, poignant and sometimes tragic new novels describing the current global refugee crisis. Two address the plight of Syrian refugees; one takes a more general look at the common suffering of those who choose, or who are forced, to leave a turbulent homeland. All three revolve around a pivotal and devastating shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea, which must be crossed before a better life can be found on European soil. It feels inevitably, exhaustingly appropriate that Europe should be the focal point for the worst humanitarian displacement crisis our interconnected global community has experienced since World War II.
That war is very much remembered in NOWHERE BOY (Roaring Brook, 368 pp., $16.99; ages 10 to 14), by Katherine Marsh, a resistance novel for our time, and the parallels between the two crises are both natural and sobering. “Nowhere Boy” tells the story of Ahmed Nasser, a Syrian teenager who flees his home to escape the civil war that killed his sisters, mother and grandfather.
After losing his father during the sea crossing, Ahmed makes it as far as Brussels, where he becomes friends with Max Howard, an American expat his own age. Together, the boys find a way to hide and support Ahmed for nine whole months.
Marsh sets her tale against the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks of 2015-16 and the ensuing anti-Muslim backlash in Belgium, and she does a superb job of making her story parallel the stifling atmosphere of Nazi occupation. Max takes his inspiration from local wartime resistance heroes, but in Brussels he’s almost as much of an immigrant as Ahmed, a foreigner who struggles with a new school and an unfamiliar language. Ahmed remains in control of his own destiny throughout, and Max’s well-intentioned schemes don’t always work. But both boys are determined to survive and to do “the decent thing.”
Marsh makes her European setting and viewpoint easily relatable for young American readers, and in addition to a vivid supporting cast of policemen, teachers, family, friends and enemies-turned-friends, there’s a nail-biting race across Europe and an uplifting ending. “Nowhere Boy” is elegantly structured, plausible in its improbable plot and studded with moments of rapturous prose. The book ends on a single word that sums up its entire message: “Hope.”
The graphic novel ILLEGAL (Sourcebooks, 144 pp., $14.99; ages 10 and up), written by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin and illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, offers a similar message. Ebo, the story’s young hero, is from sub-Saharan Africa. We see through his eyes as he journeys across the desert with his brother Kwame, and then across the Mediterranean, on a quest to find their vanished elder sister, Sisi. The sea journey ends in disaster as Kwame is drowned, along with most of the other desperate passengers on their overcrowded ship; Ebo is picked up by a rescue helicopter and ends up in a refugee center in Italy. There is an unlikely but heartwarming reunion at story’s end, promising Ebo a brighter future.
Ebo’s story is told in flashbacks, beginning with his later journey across the Mediterranean and then alternating with his earlier trek across Africa. Structural flashbacks like these are often used as a shortcut to plunge the reader into narrative action, and apart from that, there’s no obvious reason “Illegal” couldn’t be told in chronological order. But the contrast between the warm golds and browns of Africa make a stunning visual pattern as they alternate with the blues, greens, grays and purples of the sea voyage, and it works. The visual aspect of “Illegal” is both manageable and richly complex; there is a gorgeous and glorious level of detail and attention to hue in Rigano’s illustrations, which lift a relatively straightforward story to a higher plane. The graphic novel format, and Rigano’s inspired illustrations, drive and enhance Colfer and Donkin’s written dialogue. The complete package is a highly accessible introduction to the plight of all refugees.
The surprising reunions at the end of “Nowhere Boy” and “Illegal” give us the taste of hope. But hope is relative. Like Holocaust victims, our main characters lose entire families during their journeys: a situation so desperately grim, and so unthinkable, that one single other survivor constitutes a happy miracle. When a story doesn’t end in the worst-case scenario, the death of the main character, it fools us into thinking that losing your home and most of your family can have a happy ending.
There is no such miracle in the graphic novel ZENOBIA (Seven Stories, 94 pp., $19.95; ages 11 and up), written by Morten Dürr and illustrated by Lars Horneman. “Zenobia” is not so much a novel as a fable, a vignette in a lost life. The title character, Zenobia, is a Syrian child whose parents vanish (presumably killed in the war that we see shattering her city) and who attempts to leave her devastated and war-torn home with her uncle. The fragile ship Zenobia boards for the Mediterranean crossing to Europe, like that of Ahmed and Ebo, is lost at sea.
Zenobia’s namesake is a warrior queen who united Syria and conquered surrounding civilizations in ancient times. Our young Zenobia uses her national hero’s name as an inspiration for strength and courage, even in the moment of her death. The legacy of her name is Zenobia’s only comfort on her pointless journey; but is it pointless if we learn from it? “Zenobia” highlights, with simple clarity, Syria’s noble historical legacy as well as the plight of its modern people. Zenobia’s short and tragic story, inspired no doubt by 2015’s searing media image of the drowned Syrian child Alan Kurdi, is harrowing and instructive.
If there is a single moment from these books that will prove impossible to forget, it is the full-page spread in “Illegal” in which Ebo’s drowned brother drifts lifeless beneath the sea, surrounded by the other lifeless bodies of friends and strangers, fish nibbling at their exposed skin. This image, shocking and moving, represents the theme of wasted life that runs through all three books — a memorial to the dead and, to the unstoppable living, a call to action.