Tackling Difficult Subject Matter in a Picture Book
Sometimes a picture book idea picks you. This was the case with my latest picture book, my first as author and illustrator, My Beautiful Birds. I was researching the Syrian crisis online to find kid-friendly resources to help explain the situation to my children. I found many helpful and insightful articles, but it got me thinking…these were great resources but we really need more picture books that tell these stories in an honest yet hopeful way. I stumbled upon a short article about a boy who found solace in birds at Za’atari refugee camp. That article is referenced in my extended Author’s note. I just couldn’t get these heartbreaking and moving images and stories out of my head. Although there was some good age-appropriate information online, I wished for more. All of this research inspired me to write My Beautiful Birds, a picture book about a bird-loving Syrian boy who must flee to a refugee camp.
First things first, I knew I had a ton more research to do (not being Syrian myself) to ensure my story was informed, accurate and respectful. I included an Authors Note at the end of my book with more information on the Syrian Crisis and an extended Author’s note is included on the Pajama Press website.
Secondly, I wanted to create a story that not only depicted the Syrian crisis in a real yet age-appropriate way but also focused on universalities that all children share- feelings of loss/grief, displacement, affinity for animals/pets, love of play, love of art and crafts, etc. I wanted this book to be a window into another part of the world but also feel relatable to all children, such that they could not only identify with the character but embrace his sense of hope and empathy.
I chose to tell the story from the first person POV of a young Syrian child, Sami, showing his world, fears, struggles, and experiences through his eyes. Kids are resilient and eternally optimistic so although he struggles initially, he displays an ability to adapt and find hope amidst the uncertainty of refugee life.
Because my story may introduce children to a part of the world and circumstance for which they may not be familiar, I chose to introduce, several relatable experiences which I think are universal to all children: animals (in this case birds), art, and play. All children have a natural curiosity, and affection for animals, be it their pets, backyard critters or animals in nature. I bet if we think about it for a moment we can all recall a tender animal encounter from our childhood? Here’s one of mine: My Dad had a huge aviary in our backyard where he bred and raised finches. I loved watching them and especially enjoyed going into the aviary to help add shredded Kleenex to their nesting boxes and seeing the birds swoop around me. And of course, don’t forget the initial inspiration for the book came from that little article I read about a boy and his love for birds.
During my research, I came across various non-profit groups that visit refugee camps all over the world to provide art therapy to the children. I chose to include an aspect of this in my story because children are also naturally very creative. Art is a fantastic form of self-expression which can be used to help displaced children, many of whom suffer from PTSD, work through their grief and feelings. Art itself is magical in how it transcends language and conveys emotion. Being an illustrator, I love telling portions of the story wordlessly through the illustrations, thereby allowing the reader to make their own inferences and interpretations of the visual images. In an emotionally impactful moment in the book, I felt it was a more effective to convey Sami’s PTSD by illustrating him smearing black paint all over his painting and running outside in a moment of despair.
To take this idea of art and self-expression a bit further, I also had my children and their young friends paint pictures with the simple prompt: how would you feel if you were forced to flee your home and could not go back? All kids at one time or another have encountered some form of displacement, such as moving homes, divorce, escaping the Alberta wildfire, etc. I incorporated the resulting images (and aren’t they amazing!) into the book’s artwork and endpapers.
As mentioned above, all children love to play. Don’t we all? In my story the refugee children play soccer and fly kites, to bring back some fun into their lives. It is my hope that readers will come away from My Beautiful Birds thinking about the commonalities they share, they too like to play, be with animals and create art. Finding a common ground will naturally elicit empathy, and lend to a deeper emotional investment in the main character because the reader may see a little bit of themselves in Sami. It is my hope, as a main take-away from the book, that when children encounter new immigrants or new people in general, they will look past the differences and seek out the similarities they have in common and make a new friend.
Suzanne Del Rizzo has always loved getting her hands messy. She traded her job in scientific research for a career in children’s illustration with her first picture book, Skink on the Brink, which won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award and was a finalist for the Rainforest of Reading Award. Known for her dimensional illustrations that use Plasticine, polymer clay, and other mixed media to bring rich texture and imagination to her books, Suzanne is adding “author” to her resumé with My Beautiful Birds, a picture book highlighting the struggles of children in the Syrian civil war. She lives in Oakville, Ontario with her husband and four children. You can find Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneDelRizzo.
GIVEAWAY INFORMATION (from Stacey):
- This giveaway is for an 8.5×11″ photographic print of original art, printed on matte paper with archival inks of Sami and the Birds (the cover illustration of My Beautiful Birds) and for a copy of My Beautiful Birds. Many thanks to Suzanne Del Rizzo and Pajama Press, respectively, for donating these two prizes (two winners with one prize for each person).
- For a chance to win this copy of the print or the book, please leave a comment about this post by Wednesday, May 31st, 2017 at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, June 2nd.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, Suzanne and Pajama Press will ship your item out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- U.S. and Canadian mailing addresses only for the book.
- If you are the winners of this print or the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – MY BEAUTIFUL BIRDS. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.