We All Sleep Under The Same Stars, a collection of illustrated poems written by eleven year old children
Written by Karen Argent, Project Director of the Letterpress Project
I have always been an avid book lover and book collector, so when I recently retired from being a university lecturer in early childhood studies, I and my husband set up The Letterpress Project which is a not for profit initiative that focuses on the specialness of the printed book for readers of all ages. As part of the project I offer events in schools based around a negotiated theme and one of my ex- students recommended me to her son’s head teacher at Greenfield Primary School in Stourbridge. He invited me to work with the whole of Year 6 about asylum seekers and refugees and how they are portrayed in books. This is always a tricky and sensitive subject to discuss with children but I was so impressed with their intense concentration and obvious concern for the terrible plight of people who had to flee their homes.
How did it all begin?
I started the one hour session by showing them a badge designed for 'People in Motion’, which is a local refugee charity that I support. It has the inspirational slogan ‘We all sleep under the same stars’ and the children were very keen to tell me that this meant that people were the same across the world, because they were human.
Which books did I use with the children?
We looked at When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr as an introduction to the scale of the refugee crisis in Europe caused by WW2. This autobiographical story is such a good way to demonstrate how such experiences can have a happy ending with a child eventually settling in a new country and, in this case establishing herself as a well -loved author, still writing children’s books aged 94. As we talked about the book, several of the children volunteered some points about what a significant war it had been and how it had affected their own families.
I then read the spectacular opening paragraph to The Other Side of Truth by Beverley Naidoo as a tried and tested way to engage people of all ages with the horror of two young Nigerian children witnessing the murder of their mother. Their consequent need to escape to seek safety in England as unaccompanied asylum seekers never fails to bring home the dreadful decisions that need to be made very quickly. I was pleased to find out that there were some Michael Morpurgo fans in the class and that a couple had read and enjoyed Shadow which is a great story that illustrates how perilous the journey from Afghanistan to a place of safety can be. I read an extract from one of the most poignant parts of the story where the children have to leave their elderly grandma behind because she is too sick to travel.
Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman is another one of my favourites because I like the way he emphasises the ordinariness of the two children who are avid football lovers forced to leave Afghanistan to make the dangerous journey to make a new life in Australia. It is such of experiences that can really help children to understand that they have lots in common with the characters in the stories.
Sometimes pictures can be even more powerful than words so we also looked at some of the beautiful sepia images about migration and the strangeness of trying to understand a different culture in The Arrival by Shaun Tan. I am pleased to say that I heard at least one ‘ wow’ and some gasps in reaction to this stunning wordless picture book which is one that can be enjoyed equally by children and adult readers. As ever, the time was too short but they also were very impressed with the powerful pictures in The Journey by Francesca Sanna and the comic like style of Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland. I came away feeling very encouraged at their compassion, empathy and enthusiasm to read some of the books and looked forward to receiving some of their resulting creative writing. They also gave me some great written feedback which told me that they had really thought about what I had been talking about.
What happened next?
A few days later I was delighted to receive twenty wonderfully illustrated poems written by the children in pairs that demonstrated tremendous sensitivity and empathy. Not only was their understanding of the subject impressive but the quality of the writing showed them to be promising young authors. They had clearly been inspired and encouraged by teachers who are passionate about helping them to develop their creative writing.
They have since been congratulated by many people, including several children’s authors who have been moved by their words. When the author/illustrator and current children’s laureate Chris Riddell also signalled his approval by sending one of his fabulous drawings in response to the poems – we decided to publish the collection in book form. The pdf was made available on The Letterpress Project website on World Book Day and gained lots more attention and praise.
The printed book was so special that we wanted to make a big fuss of the talented authors and illustrators and held an official splendid book launch at Newman University in Birmingham as they had kindly contributed to the cost of printing 100 copies. It was attended by all the children, their teachers and some proud parents as well. By happy co incidence, the author Beverley Naidoo had been giving a lecture to undergraduate students beforehand and helped with the general celebrations by reading extracts aloud from their book. She went on to congratulate them on their achievement in producing such an important book that demonstrated such talent as authors and illustrators alongside showing empathy for refugees. I was very impressed by the way she spoke directly to them as fellow authors. As they listened to her read some extracts from their poems aloud, I watched them glow with pride.
Should all children be educated about refugee rights, whether they have personal connections to the issue or not?
Developing empathy is something that I believe should be strongly emphasised in education from the earliest age. Becoming an asylum seeker or a refugee is not an experience that anyone chooses and I think that this is really important to emphasise. I always start a session like this by talking about what they think is important to have a happy childhood. As part of this I often show some pictures from the Amnesty books We Are All Born Free, to illustrate this in a way that connects with even the youngest children. The powerful illustration by Hong Sung Dam that interprets Article 14: ‘If we are frightened of being badly treated in our own country we have the right to run away to another country to be safe’ is an excellent way into the discussion because, after all – who would not agree?
Tips for running a similarly successful session
- Talk with the teachers or other adults who know the children before doing the session. I believe that the Greenfield Primary School relationship worked so well because we all agreed that we wanted the session to be powerful and stimulating.
- Read the books yourself beforehand if you really want to help children to understand about the experience of refugees. My project is all about books so this isn’t a problem for me. Reading a review of a book might be helpful to give the gist in the first instance, but all the books that I use are ones that I rate very highly and have read several times. This means that I feel confident to pick out the highlights and read some particularly good extracts. I hope that my knowledge and passion for these books comes across to the children and is infectious.
- Encourage the children to respond to the session by drawing pictures, writing a response in the form of a story or poem as soon as possible. This takes time and practice and I believe that the quality of We sleep under the same stars is because the children go to a school that has a very positive culture that values and gives time to reading books and creative writing.
- I used a power point presentation to give structure to the session which meant that the children could refer back to the content.
- Working in pairs to write the poems helped to emphasise the importance of helping one another, reflecting on what they wanted to convey, creating a positive partnership and sharing the satisfaction of the end product. I think that each pair worked differently according to their personalities but this is in itself a valuable way to learn about different perspectives on the same subject.
Some useful links
We All Sleep Under The Same Stars (link to PDF)
(a few printed copies of the book at £5 plus £1.50 postage and packing are still available on request)
My review of The Other Side of Truth by Beverley Naidoo
My review of The Journey by Francesca Sanna
If you would like to know more about The Letterpress Project follow this link.
You can also contact me by email here.
- PowerPoint presentation by Karen Argent
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.