'We hope readers will have compassion and empathy': Ming and Wah Chen on telling true stories of refugees

Published on: 15 June 2021

In Refugee Week, authors Ming and Wah Chen tell us about their new book Escape - and how they hope it will help to humanise the plight of millions of people.

The front cover of Escape: One Day We Had to Run

Every year on June 20, the United Nations celebrates World Refugee Day to acknowledge men and women and children who are forced to flee.

Our non-fiction picture book Escape: One Day We Had to Run portrays real people and real reasons why people have had to leave their homes, not just today but throughout history. We are honoured to share these true-life stories in partnership with our super-talented illustrator Carmen Vela. It was such fun to work on this book!

Taking inspiration from those around us

We grew up as identical twins in the United States, loving words, especially unusual ones. Each double-page spread of Escape is built around one action word to describe a historic episode of escape.

The first one was SWIM. Our own childhood nanny escaped impoverished circumstances in mainland China by literally swimming from the southern tip of China to British Hong Kong. We were always intrigued by her journey, which was not uncommon during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

We quickly realised that there were even more incredible migrant stories for a more robust picture book. We even drafted a few pages like HOODWINK (Tehran, Iran 1979-1980), FORD (North Korea 1990s-2000s), THRASH (Cambodia 1970s) and HIDE (Rwanda 1994) that ultimately did not make it into the final book.

Highlighting hopeful stories

Currently in the United States, we are seeing an unprecedented number of migrants, many of whom are unaccompanied minors from Central America travelling through Mexico to the US borders. They are leaving because of gang violence, climate change, and extreme poverty.

We wanted to take politics out of the immigration issue and put migration into context with true-life heroes and heroines. We do have an optimistic perspective on what too often are very tragic circumstances, but we and our wonderful publisher, Alice Curry at Lantana, thought it would be better to focus on more hopeful stories for young readers.

At a time when people are turning inward and some are not as welcoming to refugees and immigrants, we wanted to highlight successful stories of brave, productive people. We hope readers will have compassion and empathy before they judge another human being fleeing or forced from their homes.

When we were little, our parents used to take us to a big bookstore on Fifth Avenue in New York City and let us pick out any books we wanted. It was like a slyly educational sweet shop trip!

We grew up wanting to write mystery and adventure thrillers. Although Escape is not a mystery, it does capture elements of adventure. We hope teachers and librarians and parents will use our picture book not only as a history lesson, but also for geography. We have a map at the beginning of our title, but the book also pairs very nicely with an atlas.

We end with two specific articles from the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights: freedom to move and the right to asylum. We hope to humanise the plight of millions of people in a simple, understandable, beautiful format.

Discover more books about refugees and asylum seekers

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