Migration in children’s literature
Migration was the watchword at many of the events I attended at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair this year. With Italy at the forefront of one of the biggest human tidal waves since the second world war, this was to be expected. But coupled with the swell of racism, intolerance and homophobia rearing its ugly head in the country, children’s writers feel compelled to get the stories of the people behind the headlines and the voices behind the numbers into children’s fiction. “We’ve spent too long protecting our children,” publisher Della Passarelli (Sinnos Edizioni) stated. “We’ve robbed them of their ability to empathize, to realize that even though migration may not affect them directly, it does and must concern them.”
Less drama, more imagination
Publishers and writers alike are aware that they have to make sure they don’t fall into the mass media trap of only telling the dramatic stories. Of posting only the gut-wrenching, sensationalized stuff that ends up dehumanizing migrants, especially children, portraying them as “the new Oliver Twists of the modern era” as one publisher put it.
Fuad Aziz, Iranian writer, poet, artist living in exile in Italy, urged his fellow writers “to give a written account of what we see, in stories that go straight to the heart. But the narration must be inventive which means finding the courage to use what is happening around us and turn it into a magical tale. We must invest in education, teach children art and culture, not for the purpose of producing great artists and poets but to make them special.”
What to write about?
Vichi De Marchi (Italy’s UN spokesperson for the World Food Program) feels it is time to describe the normality of the lives of those who have survived the journey and succeeded in integrating. “Children’s fiction could provide new, more attentive perspectives portraying the tolerance that exists and the day-to-day side of integration.”
In the words of editor Della Passarelli, “We need to make our narratives more contemporary, the characters and plots seem less antiquated. Less serious. We should produce more graphic novels and comic strips, bringing the stories of migration to readers in ways that are subversive or funny or both. Literature that preaches or moralizes is harmful and boring. Let’s harness the magic of the great classics, let’s tell stories that are beautiful and powerful.”
To set the ball rolling, the Italian Children’s Writers Association has published, with Mondadori, a slim anthology of stories, snippets of life from migratory journeys, in this century and last. It’s an upbeat, open-arms approach to the subject (in fact, it’s called “A Braccia Aperte“) and the protagonists are always children, always with happy endings.
Manuela Salvi, an Italian children’s author all-set to launch in the UK with a YA novel for Barrington Stoke, knows what it feels like to be a refugee, forced to leave Italy herself for a period and seek new ways of writing in England when her last YA novel was covertly censored in Italy (I’ve written several blog posts on the subject.) For her story in the Braccia Aperte anthology, she chose the city of London as the setting and a young Italian boy as her protagonist. Here’s a wee taster:
A lion for a day
Mum wanted to save the things we’d brought from Naples.
“It’s a matter of principle!” she cried. “We may be living in London, but let’s not forget we’re Italians.”
To start with, she came to school to ask the teachers if they could put the “E”s back into my name.
“He’s called E-M-A-N-U-E-L-E, do you understand?” she explained, grinning from cheek-to-cheek as she made big “E” shapes with her mouth. In England they pronounce E’s as I’s, and an E at the end is always silent, which means they’ve always called me Imanuel. But mum managed to save at least one of the E’s so now I’m Emanuel.
It was so difficult trying to make ourselves understood when we first arrived. Which reminds me of the essay I wrote about why my mum and dad decided to move to England:
When we lived in Naples and ran a restaurant, we had the good Camorra mafia. They took protection money, it was legal, and everything was okay because they watched over the neighbourhood. Then the good Camorra boss had second thoughts and gave himself up to the police.
With him gone, the bad Camorra came. Our restaurant was broken into twice in one month, they took all our money. Mum kept crying and pleading with Dad to leave. Dad agreed. Bringing up children here, he said, means spending your life hoping they’ll find a way to escape it when they grow up. So we might as well run away together.
In Naples, sometimes you had to stay away from the window because there’d be shooting in the street. But when the sun came out, I’d go down and play football with the other kids.
Now, if you want to know why the story’s called A lion for a day in London, you’ll have to get the book (or get it translated). I think I know someone who could help you with that 😉