Finding the right words

Updated: Mar 13

KULTURMAMA'S NOTE: I'm neither a pedagogue nor psychologist, but I am a compassionate human with a love a picture-books who strongly believes that stories are powerful tools for even more powerful conversations. As I have no first-hand lived experience war, I acknowledge that I will have blindspots which keeps me committed to keep learning. Please don't hesitate to reach out with feedback, thoughts, questions or otherwise!


The past few weeks have been beyond tumultuous, as we've collectively witnessed the invasion of the Ukraine and the resulting, often harrowing escape of more than a million people and rising. We've also seen a global outpouring of public solidarity and compassion, from public marches and vigils, to community support efforts for asylum seekers, collection points for supplies and donations, and volunteers moblizing to provide safe passage for those fleeing the country.


If the ever shifting mixture of uncertainty and hope and anger and fear and strength and all the other messy emotions in between has already been difficult for us adults to process, I wonder: what are our children are sensing and experiencing?


Thus, this blog post was inspired by my own struggles, as well as those I've heard from other parents, to find the right words to explain to their children what's happening.

In my search for guidance, I really appreciated this article from PBS, the US-based Public Broadcasting Service, known for its educational programming, most notably Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. The author, Deborah Farmer Kris, reminds us that:

"Sometimes, our instinct is to avoid talking to kids about tough stuff on the news because we don’t want to upset them. And perhaps we don’t know where to start.....But there’s an insight from Fred Rogers that touches all aspects of my parenting: 'Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.' "

I've written before about the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop and the power of books to serve as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors, and in this case we have the particular opportunity to see stories as a means to engage our children in age-appropriate conversations around war, displacement and empathy.


So if you're looking to create a brave space to talk with your kids about this topic, in addition to the picture books suggested by Kris in her article, I have a few titles in my library which I'd love to recommend:


The Journey by Francesca Sanna

This beautifully illustrated book by a Zürich-based author and artist tells the story of a family in flight through the eyes of a child. I won't lie, as an empath I find this story difficult to read without becoming emotional. It touches on the big feelings faced by both children and their parents forced into a journey of uncertainty, confusion, fear and hope. That's also what I really appreciate here, namely the complexity of emotions that the author illustrates in this narrative. In Sims parlance, a great "sliding glass door" for parents and children to engage compassionately with the refugee experience.


Malala's Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai

Nobel Peace Prize winning education activist, Malala, shares her own story in this picture book, where she imagines a magic pencil that could draw her ideal world into existence. Hinting at the Taliban takeover and its effects on her beloved city and personal freedom, she speaks of her choice to resist, and in doing so encourages children to trust themselves and believe in the power in their own voices.


The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros

Three friends encounter a stranger one day "looking dusty, tired, sad and frightened" carrying only a suitcase, within it, his home. An incredibly moving and easy to connect to story about compassion and kindness for those in need.


My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood

Using a blanket as a metaphor for language, comfort and safety, this story is told through the eyes of a young girl adjusting to life in a new country with her Auntie after fleeing a war in her home. A simple and touching expression of the experience of resilience, adaptation and the collective "weaving"of the fabric of belonging.


How War Changed Rondo by Romana Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv

In this story, we meet three unique residents of the peaceful and beautifully floral town of Rondo, whose lives are irrevocably changed by war. We are drawn into their resilient journey from light to darkness to light and watch as they resist, heal, rebuild, and remember. A bit more text heavy, this stunningly designed picture book is better for listeners with a slightly longer attention span.


Islandborn by Junot Diaz

This book holds a special place in my heart, as it centers a young girl who, by nature of growing up in a different country from her parents, has no personal memories about "where she's from." While this book mostly focuses on how third culture children learn about about and keep traditions from their family's culture, there is a section where a neighbor speaks to memories of dictatorship in the Dominican Republic (in the book, "the most dreadful monster the island had seen"), revolution, solidarity and resilience.


This is by NO MEANS an exhaustive list, and I would love to hear from you, dear reader, what titles you think should be added to it.


We may not always find the right words, but we may be able to find the right story to guide us. May those stories mirror the compassion, bravery, love and peace we wish to see in the world.


“We are the stories we tell, we are the stories we’re told.”

- Oliver Jeffers

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