The Day War Came: telling the story of child refugees

Published on: 12 June 2018 Author: Nicola Davies

A picture book for children may seem an unlikely place to discuss the refugee crisis. But Nicola Davies has written a powerful poem for younger readers that will help them get to the heart of some difficult issues. Here's why and how it was made.

Most people think of picture books as fluffy. Cutesy. And they can be. But they can be so much more. Working together, the words and images of a picture book can carry any message, and do it in such a way as to be accessible to everyone.

I believe it’s really important that everyone, even the youngest of us, is given the opportunity to understand as much as possible about the world – not just the cutesy, fluffy bits.

From a child's perspective

So, two years ago, prompted by the Syrian war and the wave of refugees it had created, I began to write a picture book about war, from a child’s perspective. I thought about the utter alone-ness of what we call "unaccompanied child refugees" and the first line I wrote in my notebook was:

‘War took everything, war took everyone’

That line sat on its own for some time, while I thought about how it might be for families in war zones, for parents trying to protect their children from harm, and from the fear of harm. Parents trying to keep things normal, until the day when that becomes impossible. So the next lines I wrote were:

‘The day war came, there were flowers on the windowsill
And my father sang my baby brother back to sleep.’

I wanted to talk about school too. School is a big part of ordinary normality for kids, and without education they lose not just their present stability, but their chance of a future.

Just as I was thinking about how to talk about that, I heard a story about a refugee child coming to a school next to the camp where she’d ended up, and asking to come in. The teacher turned her away, saying, 'There isn't a spare chair or desk for you sit at.' The next day, the child returned carrying some broken, improvised approximation of a chair and asked: 'Now, can I come in?'

'An empty chair is a powerful symbol'

I don't know how that ended, I don't know if its true, but I heard alongside the news about MP Alf Dubs’ (who had escaped the Nazis in the Kinder Transport) campaign to allow more child refugees into the UK. The fact that he met with any opposition at all, incensed me.

I pulled the fragments of The Day War Came together and wrote the whole thing in a morning. Then, as I so often do, I rang my friend, artist and author Jackie Morris, and tried it out on her. She suggested I contact The Guardian and said she’d do an empty chair to go with the piece.

With typical campaigning genius, she suggested that perhaps other people might want to draw chairs, as an act of solidarity with those lone children. She saw at once that an empty chair is a clear and powerful symbol, with many meanings: it is empty because there is no one left to sit in it; it is empty because those who might use it are shut out; or it is empty, only for the moment that it takes one of us to offer the spare chair at the table to someone who needs it, or to get up so that someone less able to stand, may rest.

That first chair, drawn by Jackie Morris

Thanks to the support of Emily Drabble (former co-editor of The Guardian's children's book site), the poem and the chair, soon joined by one by another artist friend, Petr Horacek, were posted on The Guardian website.

Other empty chairs began to appear on Twitter, on Jackie’s Facebook, in my inbox... Pretty soon, I couldn't keep up with giving a personal thank you to everyone who had drawn, painted, embroidered or felted an empty chair.

Touching a nerve

In the last two years, I’ve had emails from people of all ages and nationalities sending chairs, translating the story into other languages... A journalist from Southern India asked to reproduce the poem, as she said it told the story of so many Tamils. Kinndergarten children in Ohio sent me their lovely little chair pictures. The voice performance director from New York University asked to use the piece in a performance. Students from Hereford Art College made it into theatre for the Hay Festival.

Something about this story, something about the image of an empty chair, has touched a deep, deep nerve.

And now at last it IS a picture book, with beautiful, sensitive illustrations by Rebecca Cobb. Walker Books have done something wonderful, too – they will donate a pound from every copy to the charity Help Refugees, and I’ll be donating my Public Lending Right from the book, too.

'We need to be kind'

But what I hope for most of all is that The Day War Came helps to change things just a bit. Refugees are not a new thing. The first people to leave Africa, 70,000 years ago, were probably refugees of sorts, from drought, from too many big predators. In the coming decades, climate change will create millions more. The story of refugees is the story of our species. Tomorrow, you and me, our kids, our grandchildren, could be the ones fleeing for our lives with our babies on our backs and the wrong kind of shoes on our feet. So it’s time we changed our attitudes to accommodate this reality.

People talk about "human nature" as a negative. They shrug their shoulders about war and say it’s "human nature". But if that were the whole story, we’d be extinct already. The really successful bit of human nature is compassion, empathy. Remember, we have special words, even medical diagnoses, for people without those qualities.

The message of The Day War Came is so simple, as simple as an empty chair: we need to be kind; we need to share. Because we could be next. Because every person matters. Because that’s what makes us truly human.


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