Refugees by Brian Bilston and illustrated by José Sanabria is a picture book containing Brian Bilston’s powerful poem, titled, ‘Refugees’, which can be read from top to bottom and then read backwards, from the last line to the top of the poem to convey two opposing points of view about refugees. It contains two voices. One view is prejudiced against refugees, full of hatred and intolerance, not willing to welcome people fleeing their countries, their homes, in sheer desperation because of war, famine, slavery, intolerance, economic and political upheaval, often in harrowing conditions fraught with danger and the real possibility they may pay the ultimate price, their lives. This agonising decision is made in the hope that those seeking refuge may have the opportunity to live in peace and safety. The opposing voice is rooted in compassion, empathy, tolerance and understanding. This book is structured in a way that the first half of the book is written (with all of the text presented on the left pages) so that the reader reads the poem from the first line through to the end of the twenty-four line poem. In the second half of the book, the text (written on the page on the right) is written starting with the last line of the poem through to the first.
This story begins on the front end paper, which is different to the back end paper. The front end paper features fabric pieces that are mostly devoid of patterns and are single coloured pieces of material, some are stained. Each fabric piece has been hand sewn together in what appears to be a rushed manner, with different stitching styles and coloured thread. This leads to a disjointed creation, one that lacks any cohesion. The story concludes with the back end paper featuring patterned fabrics that have been meticulously stitched together by machine and are inclusive of different cultures, it’s symbolic of many coming together as one, whereas the front endpaper does not convey this feeling of unity
José Sanabria’s illustrations deftly convey the two very different views, moods and emotions and add another layer to the text. In the first half of book the illustrations are dark and hostile which is in contrast to the colour palette used when the poem is read from bottom to top. Here the colours are bright and serene. The refugees are generously welcomed and included into the community with gestures of kindness, their happiness and freedom is evident.
This book is an excellent resource to encourage conversations that have the power to dismantle bias as well as foster empathy and inclusiveness.
It is important to add that this picture book is suitable for children in upper primary school, as the words at the beginning of the book are harsh. It is vital to explicitly explain to students, prior to reading the book, that the text contains confronting words. Then explain that the book needs to be read in its entirety. Once the entire book is completed, reflection and discussions can be had.