- Creating Nations from Silent Books
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Refugee: a word that speaks of leaving and losing, fear and flight. But it is also an arriving word, deriving from the Latin refugium, "a place to flee back to." With media images of refugees escaping untold terrors, any attempt to find hope in the word runs the risk of belittling their ordeal. Conversely, to dwell solely on the trauma is to risk portraying refugees as powerless victims.
A workshop for primary school children, designed and run by IBBY Ireland, has helped to balance the narrative by imagining a future where the victim becomes the victor, where the once disempowered get to rule on their future, literally. If that sounds a little heavy for Irish eight to twelve-year-olds, the Nation Creation workshop has also proved huge fun, allowing participants to journey imaginatively from the horror of forced migration to the delight of dreaming up their ideal country.
Nation Creation has accompanied IBBY's Silent [End Page 76] Books Exhibition on its tour of Irish libraries. The workshop adds another brick to the "bridge of children's books" envisioned by IBBY's founder, Jella Lepman. The Silent Books have been building that bridge in spatial and psychological ways since they were first collected from around the world in 2013. Geographically, one set of the books lives permanently on a "bridge" to Europe—the island of Lampedusa — which serves as a transit point for migrants from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Imaginatively, the wordless picturebooks offer a bridge across which refugees can escape horrific memories into pages full of beauty, color, and comfort. And an empathetic bridge forms when the story behind the travelling set of Silent Books is told, connecting children all over the world to the experiences of those forced to flee their countries.
"The exhibition was an absolute gift," says Marian Keyes, programmer of events and exhibitions at the dlr LexIcon library near Dublin and a former committee member of IBBY Ireland. "It appealed to all ages from babies to primary and secondary school pupils, artists and illustrators, storytellers, authors, and of course the public."
The Silent Books formed the springboard for the Nation Creation workshop, facilitated by illustrator and children's author Tatyana Feeney and myself, also a children's writer, both committee members of IBBY Ireland. We introduced the exhibition by asking participants to think of a group of people that might particularly benefit from wordless picturebooks. Answers included pre-reading toddlers, adults who cannot read, and people who speak different languages, such as refugees. Children looked at a map showing Lampedusa and heard about the library set up by IBBY. After browsing the books, they discussed how these stories beyond words could comfort, entertain, educate, and inspire refugees. This led to a consideration of the feelings that might accompany forced migration—from terror, loneliness, and anger to the more positive possibilities of relief, gratitude at escape, and hope of a better future. In groups, participants then dreamed up their own ideal country as an island state, complete with laws, flags, and other markers of national identity.
With Tatyana's help, they began by drawing a map of the island on a large sheet of paper. "That allowed them to visualize the worlds they were creating," she says. "Having a physical space to work with led quickly to other ideas." These ranged from the predictable "islands made of chocolate" to wildly inventive new languages, anthems, and names. There was Nuevo Saol ("new" in Spanish and "life" in Irish) and Yorland, a country that welcomed everyone. The island of Atlasia "supports the rest of the world like the giant Atlas," according to its founders, and Cisilěně, in the Mediterranean, was colonized by Celts from Sicily.
The children then worked in groups to design flags on paper and cut them out of felt, sticking bright pieces on a rectangular background. "This was a great way to encapsulate a national identity," says Tatyana. "The flags focused the students' thoughts about how they wanted to represent their new land. Some were very specific, such as pineapples and unicorns, while others were more...