Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Zoe’s list: the refugee experience retold in children’s books

Zoe Toft is a part-time infant school librarian and sits on the National Executive of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups, a nationwide charity which focuses on children’s reading for pleasure. Since 2009 she has been writing a blog about children’s literature, interviewing authors and illustrators, reviewing books and sharing the games and activities those books have inspired her family to play.


Zoe Toft’s contribution to this year’s Refugee Week was a series of posts about children’s literature and refugees. She reviewed the Amnesty International endorsed Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland, a wonderful, indeed award winning graphic novel for young children about the experience of a Middle Eastern refugee child settling in a new country, compiled a list of over 75 books for children and teenagers which explore the refugee experience, and also investigated which children’s authors and illustrators were themselves refugees. “It was extremely important for me to bear witness to the contribution refugees have made to our society,” said Zoe. “I wanted to show how much richness they’ve bought to our cultural lives. Reading through the list of where the refugees came from it’s a horrible summary of the biggest conflicts in the 20th century; I can’t help wondering how long till I’m reading books with my children created by a refugee from Syria.” Reposted here with permission is Zoe’s post about children’s authors and illustrators who were refugees themselves.



Judith Kerr

Anne Judith Kerr OBE (born 1923) is a German-born British writer and illustrator perhaps best known for her debut picture book, ‘The Tiger who came to Tea’, her ‘Mog’ books, and her autobiographical novel for children ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’. Kerr was born in Berlin but left Germany with her family in 1933 following a tip-off that her father’s passport was about to be seized; her father, journalist and screenwirter Alfred Kerr, had been openly critical of the Nazis. The family travelled first to Switzerland and then on into France, before finally settling in Britain. In a recent interview with former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, Kerr rather surprisingly described being a refugee as rather enjoyable: for her the travelling was “absolutely marvellous”, and she recounts how her father told her that she said to him once “Isn’t it lovely being a refugee?“. If you want to listen to the interview in its entirety click here – the interview begins 8 minutes and 40 seconds into the programme. Here’s an interesting interview with Judith Kerr in the Guardian. Here’s another interview, this time in the Independent, and here is Judith being interviewed on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs.

Anne Frank

Annelies “Anne” Marie Frank (1929 – 1945) was born in Frankfurt am Main in Germany, but lived most of her life in or near Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, having been forced to flee there in 1933. In 1942, with persecution of the Jewish population on the increase, she and her family went into hiding. However in 1944 her family was betrayed and transported to concentration camps, first in the Netherlands. Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, were eventually transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they died of typhus in March 1945. Anne’s father, Otto Frank (the only survivor of the family), returned to Amsterdam after the war and found Anne’s diary, which she had kept from 12 June 1942 until 1 August 1944 had been saved. His efforts led to its publication in 1947 in the Netherlands (it was originally written in Dutch). It was first published in English in 1952 as ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’. Here is a link to the Anne Frank Museum, and here a link to the official Anne Frank Youtube channel.

Bic Walker

Bic Walker fled the country of her birth, Vietnam, in 1979 with her family. The boat Bic and her family fled in was attacked by pirates and the family was left for dead. Eventually rescued by a Canadian oil tanker, Bic and her family were transported first to Malaysia, and then on to Australia. In Australia Bic qualified as an architect but she is now a children’s author and illustrator. Her first book, ‘A Safe Place to Live’ is an account of her family’s flight from Vietnam.

Sonia Levitin

Sonia Levitin, author of over 40 books for all ages of children, and recipient of numerous awards, was born in Berlin. However, in 1938 in the face of rising anti-semitism, aged 3, she and her sisters and mother fled the city, seeking sanctuary first in Switzerland, before eventually being reunited with Sonia’s father in New York in 1939. Levitin has written about her refugee experience in ‘Journey to America’ (1970) whilst ‘Silver Days’ (1989) and ‘Annie’s Promise’ (1993), focus on her family’s experiences and adjustment to America. Here is a link to Sonia Levitin’s entry in the Jewish Women’s archive.

Ilon Wikland

Ilon Wikland is a Swedish artist and illustrator, perhaps best known for her illustrations to various books by the author Astrid Lindgren. Wikland was born in Tartu, Estonia but in 1944, aged about 14, she escaped with the family of a classmate from the second Soviet occupation of Estonia, fleeing to Sweden. Wikland has written about her childhood in ‘Den långa, långa resan’ (The long, long journey – 1995) but I believe it has not been translated into English.

Doris Orgel

Doris Orgel, author of more than 40 books for children, was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, in 1929. In 1938 the family was forced to flee and the family spent time in Yugoslavia and the UK before settling in New York. Her book ‘The Devil in Vienna’, about a Jewish girl who is friends with the daughter of an SS Officer, and which is partly based on Orgel’s own experience of the Second World War, received a Phoenix Award Honor in 1998. Her books ‘Sarah’s Room’ and ‘Dwarf Long-Nose’ were illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

Eva Ibbotson

Eva Ibbotson, author of over 20 novels for children and young adults, and winner of the Nestle Smarties Book Prize in 2001, was born in 1925 to a non-practising Jewish family. When Eva was 7 she left Vienna for the UK. Ibbotson’s son, Piers Ibbotson has said of his mother: “Fleeing Vienna was a strong thread throughout my mother’s life and work. She was very disturbed by it, even though she got out ahead of the difficulties and the dangers. A lot of refugees came through London. People would turn up who were desperate. She was very influenced by the sight of friends and relatives who were in fear.” (The Journal, May 10 2011)

George Szirtes

George Szirtes is a Hungarian-born British poet who recently won the 2013 CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) Prize for In The Land of the Giants, a collection of poems for children. Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1948, Szirtes came to England as a refugee in 1956 aged 8, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of the country.

H. A. and Margaret Rey

Hans and Margret, creators of the ‘Curious George’ series of books, were both born into Jewish families in Germany but actually met in Brazil in 1935, where Hans was working as a salesman and Margret had gone to escape the rise of Nazism. They then moved to Paris, but during the Second World War they were once again forced to flee Paris before the Nazis seized the city. With them they took the manuscript of the first ‘Curious George’ book, which was first published in 1941 the city they eventually settled in, New York.

Victor Ambrus

Victor Ambrus is a British illustrator of history, folk tale, and animal story books. He has won the Kate Greenaway medal twice, in 1965 for ‘The Three Poor Tailors’ and 1975 for ‘Horses In Battle’. Ambrus was born in Budapest, Hungary but fled the country in 1956 following the Soviet invasion of the country.

Peter Sis

Peter Sís is a Czech-born American illustrator and writer of children’s books. His books have won many awards including The New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year award seven times and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis. Sís began his career as a filmmaker and it is in this capacity he was sent by the Czech government, in 1982, to Los Angeles to produce a film for the 1984 Winter Olympics. The film project ended up being cancelled and when ordered to return home, Sís instead requested asylum in the US, which was granted. According to Sís’s website, “a correspondence with Maurice Sendak led to a meeting and Peter’s introduction to children’s book editors, and he moved to New York City in 1984 to begin a new career.” The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (2008) is Sis’ book about growing up in Czechoslovakia and includes his account of deciding not to return to Czechoslovakia, but to seek asylum.

Margot Benary-Isbert

Margot Benary-Isbert (1889 – 1979) was a German-born children’s author who fled from her home at the end of the Second World War when the Russians took over the area where her family lived. She first moved to (what became) West Germany, and then to the United States in 1952, receiving citizenship in 1957. Her books available in English include ‘The Ark’ (1953).

Anita Lobel

Anita Lobel (née Kempler) is a Polish-American illustrator of children’s books. She was born in Krakow, Poland and when she was five years old, World War II began and she, her brother went into hiding. They were however found by the German Army and then sent to a concentration camp. They were rescued in 1945 by the Swedish Red Cross and reunited with their parents in 1947. After living in Sweden for some years, in 1952 her family moved to New York. Lobel’s childhood experiences are documented in her book ‘No Pretty Pictures‘.

Felix Salten

Felix Salten, the writer of ‘Bambi’, was born into a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary in 1869. When he was just our weeks old, his family relocated to Vienna, Austria, where they were entitled to full citizenship rights. After quitting school at the age of 16 Salten began to write and by 1906 he was editor of two newspapers and was publishing a book a year. Hitler had Salten’s books banned in 1936 and following the Anschluss, Salten moved to Zurich, Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1945. Although ‘Bambi’ is his most well known work, he wrote several other novels for children, including ‘Perri’, which, like ‘Bambi’, was adapted for film by Walt Disney.

Uri Shulevitz

Uri Shulevitz (b. 1935) is an American writer and illustrator of children’s books who won the 1969 Caldecott Medal for ‘The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship’, a Russian fairy tale retold by Arthur Ransome. Shulevitz was born in Warsaw, Poland, and during the Second World War, his home was bombed. The family fled from Poland and settled in Paris but then moved to Israel in 1949. In 1959 Shulevitz moved to New York.

Thanhha Lai

Thanhha Lai is an American writer of the children’s literature who the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and a Newbery Honor for her debut novel, ‘Inside Out and Back Again’, which is based on her own experience as a refugee from Vietnam. Lai was born in 1965 in Vietnam. Lai writes, “On April 30, 1975, North Vietnam (the Communist side) won the war, and my family and I (living in Saigon, South Vietnam) scrambled onto a navy ship and ended up in Montgomery, Alabama. Why? Believe me, we didn’t know about Alabama to choose it. But to enter the United States, refugees had to have a sponsor. The man who had the nerve to take on all of us (10 in all) lived in Alabama.” [Excerpt from Lai’s website]

Rene Colato Lainez

Rene Colato Lainez has written many picture books, some of which are based on his experience of fleeing the civil war in El Salvador with his family as a child. He now lives in the United States. You can read an interview with him here.

Lord Paul Hamlyn CBE

The son of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, Paul Hamlyn (1926 – 2001), was a publisher responsible for many wonderful children’s books, having created the Paul Hamlyn Group and Octopus Publishing Group, now owned by Hachette Livre. He was born in Berlin in 1926 and moved with his family to London in 1933.


In researching this list many people suggested authors and illustrators whom I might consider. There are some authors and illustrator for whom it is not clear to me whether they consider themselves refugees. These include:

  • Johanna Reiss,a Dutch born Jewish writer who move to the US in the 1950s.
  • Eric Carle (who was born in the US, but then grew up in Germany, from where he returned to the US after the Second World War).

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This entry was posted on June 19, 2013 by in Blogs and tagged , .
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