Children’s picture book Our World Is a Family: Our Community Can Change the World (Sourcebooks Explore), written by Miry Whitehill and Jennifer Jackson and illustrated by Nomar Perez, tackles a timely subject: refugees. The book, published March 8, explores why people become refugees and how children can help refugees newly arrived in their communities.
Whitehill is the founder of nonprofit organization Miry’s List, which helps families emigrating to the United States with housing arrangements, food and supplies and to form community. They have supported 840 families since the group’s founding in 2016.
Whitehill began Miry’s List when her own children were a newborn and three years old, respectively, and they joined her on many of her family visits to help newly arrived refugees. Of those interactions, Whitehill says, “It was remarkable to watch actually, because adults, especially when there is a language barrier, often feel a sense of social awkwardness that prevents us from relaxing when in a new or unknown environment. Kids have this amazing ability to override or even not notice that discomfort. ” She found that as she continued this work, she needed “a language to explain in more detail to my kids what the situation was for their new friends and why their homes did not look full and messy like ours.”
To pass that message along to a wide range of younger readers, Whitehill says that it took a lot of trial and error to perfectly explaining concepts involved with refugees for the book’s target audience of ages three through eight. Whitehill met with 12 kids in pre-kindergarten through third grade for an our once a week six weeks in an afterschool club called People of the World, which she developed into a curriculum for others interested in following suit. “We spent our time talking through different topics in resettlement, potential solutions, making crafts and tasting foods from other countries and cultures. These conversations with kids, their feedback, questions, and ideas is how we put the words of Our World Is a Family into action, ”Whitehill said in an interview.
The book came about after Jackson, who met Whitehill in a parenting group, was moved by Whitehill’s work with Miry’s List and proposed that the pair co-author a children’s book. Jackson said in an interview the two have a “seamless” way of working together, elaborating, “She’ll share this incredible idea that already has the core of the message. Then I transform that until it takes the shape of a full story in book form. From there, we work together to get the language just right, mocking up the pages to be sure it reads well, and in this case, that it aligns with the mission of Miry’s List. ”
Whitehill says the topic of refugees is very important to children of the book’s intended age group. “What most people do not realize is that often children are the first line welcoming for resettling kids and students,” she explained. “Those interactions in a classroom and on the playground are an integral part of the new arrival students’ experiences and integration into their new school and community. I think a lot of what we are doing is empowering people with information which ultimately builds confidence. ”
Whitehill also said that this is not a topic that’s too dark or complicated for kids to understand. “Kids are more emotionally intelligent than we often realize and they can handle and understand a lot,” said Whitehill. “Now we need to be careful because we of course do not want to create worry or anxiety for them, but there is plenty of room to be honest and age-appropriate in a way that empowers young people to take action to improve the experience of other people in their lives. ”
Illustrator Perez, who’s also the author and illustrator of children’s picture book Coquí in the City, said his process involved creating “sketches based on cues provided as well as using my own experiences and artistic input to produce the illustrations. I wanted to be accurate in clothing and show a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I was happy to include a spot from my birth home of Puerto Rico which I always hold dear to my heart. ”
Whitehill believes it’s important to address not just the plight of refugees but also to make young children understand how they can be of assistance. “Toddlers can understand the idea of missing someone or something when you can not see it,” said Whitehill. “They understand the idea of moving around the world. They understand what it means to be alone versus together with the people you love the most. That is the top line of the message for little ones. But the most important part is putting it into practice. ”
Similarly, Jackson hopes the book will inspire young readers to not just read passively but to get involved. “We hope that after reading this book, children and families will feel a deep sense of empathy and understanding about what refugees might need in their new communities, and then they’ll hopefully be inspired to take action,” said Jackson. “There are so many ways to welcome newcomers, from learning words in their language, to sending a gift on your own or through Miry’s List, to sharing favorite foods.” Miry’s List includes a guide aimed at children ages 10-15, with a sample welcome letter that can be written to newly resettled children.
Whitehill said that in the wake of the war in Ukraine, Miry’s List has been even more active, reaching out to Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking volunteers so they are ready should families from Ukraine and Russia begin to arrive in the United States. “It’s been wonderful to engage with schools here in Los Angeles and all over the country who have proactively reached out to us asking for more educational materials to support talking about refugees in classrooms. We received hundreds of handwritten welcome letters from students, scout troops, and families who have been inspired to make these human connections with our new neighbors, ”said Whitehill.