I read two adult nonfiction titles last month that have influenced my reading of children’s and young adult literature. The first was The Plateau by Maggie Paxson which looked at a region of Southern France called Plateau Vivarais-Lignon. This region is best known for the number of individuals and families that hid Jews during World War II. Now, the people within the region are accepting refugees from a number of countries into their community. Paxson attempts to answer the question of what makes the people within this region sacrifice their own comfort to help others. She does so in exquisite prose that demonstrates the complexities of what is, quite simply, showing humanity.
The second book is The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri. Telling the story of her own immigration experience as a child, Nayeri also traces the stories of a number of current refugees. The processes involved in gaining asylum or protected status around the world today are, in many ways, grotesque. Imagine sitting in front of someone and explaining why you fear for your life in your home country and the actions you took in order to escape. While you are exhausted, frightened, and possibly injured, you are told that your story is not believable or that you have not demonstrated sufficient need and you will be deported back to the country you fled. While The Plateau describes seeing humanity in everyone, The Ungrateful Refugee details how we diminish the humanity of those in need.
Both of these books are remarkable and I would recommend that every educator read them. However, the focus of my blog is on children’s and young adult literature and these two works of nonfiction influenced my reading of the young adult novel Butterfly Yellow. Thanhhà Lai has written a book that takes place in the early 1980s but that, unfortunately, still reflects the experiences of many refugees today. In fact, the dedication reads, “In memory of the unknowable number of refugees at the bottom of the sea.”
Lai tells the story of Hằng, a young woman who has traveled to the United States to find the brother who was taken from her in an airlift after the Vietnam War, six years ago. She arrives to discover that her brother, Linh, is happy with the woman who adopted him and has no memory of his family or life in Vietnam. Hằng is one of the most determined and courageous characters in young adult literature today. Having learned most of the English that she knows from Clint Eastwood movies, she struggles to communicate with almost everyone she meets. LeeRoy, an aspiring cowboy who is practically forced to drive Hằng to find her brother, might be the only person who seems to understand what she is trying to say.
It isn’t until close to the end of the book that we find out exactly what happened to Hằng on her journey to the United States. However, it is clear from the very beginning of the book that she has lived several lifetimes worth of pain in her short eighteen years of life. Her unwavering persistence in reaching out to her brother is a vivid reminder of all that she has lost and all of the trauma that remains. This is also a story of the power of friendship and of hope. LeeRoy brings joy to the book and his interactions with Hằng are highly entertaining.
While none of Butterfly Yellow takes place in a classroom, that is where many refugees will find their own LeeRoy. Schools and teachers can save lives, as one did in The Plateau, or they can treat refugees as inconveniences or people to resent, as some did in The Ungrateful Refugee. Education and educators need to be a bridge to hope and we need to listen, without judgment, to the stories our students tell.
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:
Diversity 6: I interact comfortably and respectfully with all people, whether they are similar to or different from me.
Diversity 8: I respectfully express curiosity about the history and lived experiences of others and exchange ideas and beliefs in an open-minded way.
Diversity 9: I relate to and build connections with other people by showing them empathy, respect and understanding, regardless of our similarities or differences.
RL.1- Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
RL.2- Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
RL.3- Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).
RL.5- Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.