Migrant waves ripple into children's books

Franck IOVENE, and Angus MacKinnon in Rome
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The French book "Planete Migrants" by Sophie Lamoureux and Amelie Fontaine is on display at the International Children's book fair on April 5, 2017 in Bologne

Europe's refugee crisis is moving from newsprint to the pages of children's books, as writers try to help parents help their kids understand an often disturbing drama shaping their world.

Distressing images of African migrants being plucked from heaving seas or the coffin-strewn aftermath of major sinkings have become a regular feature of television news bulletins since the crisis began spiralling out of control four years ago.

It is an unavoidable part of a new generation's digital landscape and parents and teachers across Europe are having to find ways to enable youngsters to make sense of it.

That's what writers and illustrators are for and the treatment of the issue was a prominent theme at this week's Bologna Children's Book Fair, the biggest of its kind in Europe.

Author Antonio Ferrara was promoting his new book, "Casa Lampedusa", a tale set on the Italian island on the frontline of the crisis.

"There is a word of eastern origin, 'abracadabra', that we think was invented for children playing at magic. In reality, it means, "by speaking, I create," Ferrara told AFPTV.

"For me as an author, that means that something that does not exist, like trust in others or the desire to welcome foreigners, can be created, if a story is well-told."

Ferrara's book is told through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy who sees the islanders' lives transformed by the waves of humanity being washed up, sometimes literally, on their shores.

- Historical context -

"The book begins with something that Bono, the U2 singer, said he had heard a migrant say: 'I'm not dangerous, I am in danger'" the author said.

"The challenge is to touch children's hearts before speaking to their minds and to get there you have to get away from what they see on the news and engage them in a fictional story that is founded in fact."

French publisher Actes Sud addresses the same subject with a new non-fiction book, "Planete Migrants", by writer Sophie Lamoureux and illustrator Amelie Fontaine.

The book, which won an award in Bologna, seeks to place in a historical context the contemporary arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

"We show that it (mass migration) is not a new thing, and that people leaving their homes are doing so for political reasons, because of climate change or wars," said publisher Thierry Magnier.

- 'What would I do?' -

Also being promoted in Bologna was the Italian translation of "The Optician of Lampedusa", a haunting tale for all ages written by BBC journalist Emma-Jane Kirby.

The book, which she describes as a "blur of fact and fiction," emerged from her award-winning reporting on how ordinary Italians were experiencing the migrant crisis.

It recounts the traumatic experience of Carmine Menna, an optician on the island who saved some of the survivors and witnessed many more perish in one of the deadliest sinkings, in October 2013, while out on a boat trip with his wife and friends.

Alerted by screams they first thought were seagulls, the couple and their crew hauled 47 people to safety. But 368 others perished, including a new mother with her baby still attached to her by its umbilical cord.

The book tells the story of the disaster through the eyes of the optician, describing how he is compelled to make life-or-death decisions about which desperately outstretched arm to clutch, then watch as others are engulfed by the waves.

"It is definitely not a children's book, but I have had many under-16s tell me it was so important to them," Kirby told AFP.

"And the French edition seems to be being used by a lot of teachers in their classes, which is great."

The reporter was moved to write the book after finding herself, like her principal character, "completely haunted by the story. I just could not get it out of my head."

Menna himself is not named: Kirby says the last thing he wanted was to be depicted as a hero.

And she thought the story worked best with a central character the reader knows little about beyond what he experienced as "the optician who does not want to see and has his eyes forced open."

Kirby said: "I really wanted people to identify with him so much, to put themselves on that boat and ask: what would I have done?"