Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Lost Boys of Sudan: two powerful stories (ages 9 - 14)

It can be very hard to write about world events in a way that makes them accessible to American children who are just becoming aware of the wider world. And yet reading fiction set in different countries, especially during times of crises, brings alive for our children what it might be like to go through those events. Two powerful books about the refugee experience during the Sudanese war are: Brothers in Hope and A Long Walk to Water, as more than 27,000 boys from the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups were displaced and orphaned as their country was consumed by civil war . The first is a picture book for older readers, and the later is a novel by Linda Sue Park that follows the journey of one boy.
Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Books)Brothers in Hope:
The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan
by Mary Williams
illustrated by R. Gregory  Christie
NY: Lee and Low, 2005
ages 9 - 12
available on Amazon and at your local library
This fictional story about eight-year-old Garang is based on the real events and stories of The Lost Boys of Sudan. One day when Garang is out tending his family's animal herd, his village is attacked. He flees to safety, hiding in the forest; when he returns, his village is demolished and no one is left. Orphaned, Garang wander, soon meeting other boys whose villages have been destroyed in the war. Before long they become a moving band of thousands, walking hundreds of miles seeking safety — first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya. Along the way, Garang takes care of a younger boy and leads a group of 35 boys. He lives in refugee camps, and is eventually invited to emigrate to the United States.

Brothers in Hope is a powerful book about inner strength, believing in oneself and perseverance through hardships. Mary Williams creates a moving ficitonalized first person story, letting Garang tell about his suffering and the atrocities of war and life as a refugee. The text is simple, but deeply moving. R. Gregory Christie was honored with the 2006 Coretta Scott King Award for Illustrator (honor book) for his bold acrylics. As the School Library Journal review notes, Christie's illustrations "arresting in their combination of realism and the abstract, and reflect the harshness yet hopeful nature of the landscape and the situation."

Definitely check out Mary William's booktalk on the publisher Lee & Low's site.  I'm also intrigued by a Google Lit Tour developed to help students use Google Earth to explore the journey that these boys followed.
A Long Walk to WaterA Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Storyby Linda Sue Park
NY: Clarion Books, 2010
ages 11 - 14
available on Amazon and at your public library
In this short but powerful novel, Linda Sue Park (winner of the 2002 Newbery Award for A Single Shard) tells the gripping real-life story of Salva Dut, a young boy caught in the fighting in southern Sudan in 1985. In 1985, Salva flees from his village as soldiers attacked his region. He has no idea where his family is, whether they are alive, or where he should go. Salva joins other refugees from his village and they start walking toward Ethiopia, in search of a safe haven. Salva meets first a friend, and then a distant uncle who watches over him. But both are killed during their arduous journeys, first to Ethiopia and then to refugee camps in Kenya. Remarkably, Salva keeps going, persevering and maintaining hope in the face of impossible circumstances. Salva was chosen as one of 3,000 young Sudanese men to go to America.

Running parallel to Salva’s story is that of Nya, a fictional girl living in modern southern Sudan. Each day, Nya must walk hours to a pond near her village to bring back water for her family. Her family and neighbors often get sick from drinking dirty water. Until one day strangers come and talk of water deep under the ground. Park alternates between these two narratives clearly, building both stories and bringing them together at the end.

Park's writing is spare and almost detached, creating a voice similar to one telling a horrible story in a way not to become overwhelmed by the emotions. Drawn on many interviews with Dut, this story has an authentic voice and details. I was especially moved by Park's note at the end of the book, which explains how she first met Dut and was drawn into his story.

While some reviews indicate that this book would be for ages 10 and up, I would recommend it to young tweens only if I knew them well. I found the hardships and deaths that Salva had to endure very powerful, as people very close to him are murdered. However, it is moving and ends by emphasizing Salva's courage and survival. It ends with a note from Salva Dut about what he hopes young people will take from his story. He writes,
“I overcame all the difficulties of my past because of the hope and perseverance that I had. I would have not made it without these two things. To young people, I would like to say: Stay calm when things are hard or not going right with you. You will get through it when you persevere instead of quitting. Quitting leads to much less happiness than perseverance and hope.”
If students like this, I would also recommend Iqbal, which tells the story of a young Pakistani boy's struggle when he was sold by his family to work in a carpet factory. He escapes, helping other children like him. Students who like moving picture books that show difficulties people in other countries face might also like Four Feet, Two Sandals. This tells the story of two young Afghani girls living in a refugee camp in Pakistan who share a precious pair of sandals brought by relief workers.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in SudanThe book I'm especially intrigued by is Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan. This autobiography by John Bul Dau and Martha Arual Acech tells their survival escaping from the civil war in Sudan. They escaped separately, survived life as refugees, and eventually emigrated to America where they met and married. This looks like an excellent choice for older tweens and teens, especially for its first hand account of African life, survival of refugee experience and the perspective of a woman through this harrowing ordeal.

The review copies came from my local library. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support!

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