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On the eve of UK Refugee Week, Diana Hinds talks to the author and illustrator of a new picture book about a young Somalian boy

To ask an author to write a children's story on a subject like asylum seekers could be to risk a book that ends up worthy, tendentious, or plain didactic. But when the late Frances Lincoln asked Mary Hoffman for just such a book, she knew that she was in good hands.

Mary Hoffman's considerable oeuvre - some 80 titles since 1975, mainly for children and teenagers - includes many attempts to tackle the challenging issues that face children growing up today, issues of race, sexism, the proliferating alternatives to the traditional nuclear family. Amazing Grace (Frances Lincoln 1991), one of her most popular titles, tells the story of a girl who refuses to accept that she cannot play Peter Pan in the school play because she is black and female.

But for all that she may take a campaigning stance, Mary Hoffman is a writer who knows how to get to the human heart of the matter.

"You have to write with a passion," she says simply. "I do have messages that I want to get across, but I don't want to write worthy, 'issues'

books. You need to get children to engage with the core of the story."

Her aims in The Colour of Home were twofold: to provide something that asylum-seeker children could recognise as their own experience; and to help their classmates understand "the desperate circumstances from which they had fled - and not be too influenced by media portrayals of asylum seekers as scroungers".

The book focuses on a Somali boy, Hassan, whose family escapes their war-torn home, leaving behind them a murdered uncle, as well as Hassan's beloved cat. At school in a new, cold, grey country, he paints the violent colours of his experiences. But as he begins to settle and make friends, so cheerful, sunny colours emerge around him, both in his paintings and in his new home. Researching the book, Mary Hoffman spent almost a year working as a part-time volunteer at a north London drop-in centre, helping with weekly lunches for refugee mothers and children.

Karin Littlewood, the illustrator, whose expressive, broad-brush paintings bring vibrancy to the story, was also painstaking in her research. She spent time with a group of Somali women and children at Brecknock Primary School, in Camden, chatting and photographing, singling out one small boy in particular.

"After I'd read the text, I knew what sort of child I was looking for. It's an instinct. I was trying to find a child with the same sort of essence as the child I already knew I was going to draw - and I found him." Both author and illustrator felt a keen obligation to get the details right, especially in so sensitive a story - such as the colours of the Somalian women's clothes, the habits of the Somalian home and the names of pets. "There was a sense of responsibility with this book," says Karin Littlewood. "I was very aware that this could be someone's life story."

The portrayal of horrific events in Somalia also posed a major challenge: how to impress children with the gravity of the situation, without scaring them rigid? Karin Littlewood paints a powerful, but disturbing, scene of Hassan cowering under his bed, cat in arms, with a soldier's boots and gun only inches away. But as the story progresses, lightness and smiles return to Hassan's face, which can only be reassuring.

For Mary Hoffman, focusing on Hassan's love for his cat (based on a true story told to her by one refugee boy) was one way to deflect some of the greater horror that surrounds him. And her prose, beautifully measured with never a word too many, sets in motion a tide of soothing echoes around the idea of home.

Hassan, at the beginning of the story, could not feel further from it. But by the end, he is feeling happier and more confident: "Tomorrow he would ask Miss Kelly to tell him the word for 'home'."

The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Karin LittlewoodFrances Lincoln, pound;10.99


As part of UK Refugee Week, June 17-23, Artists in Exile is presenting a new play, I Dream of a Window, at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London W6, June 19-22. Created especially for audiences whose first language is not English, it reflects how the city appears to those who have arrived from afar and is inspired by the experiences of its writer, Ghias Aljundi, who fled to the UK from Syria in 1999. Tickets: pound;12, pound;8 concessions. Box office: 020 8237 1111.

Other events include a free visual arts exhibition in the Riverside Studios Cafe Bar, June 11-July 5, illustrating the cultural diversity of the member artists who come from more than 35 countries including Bosnia, Armenia, Syria, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq, Tibet, Kosova and Nigeria.

Welcome the Stranger, a colour poster set from the National Youth Agency, features images of young people and children using the Wednesday Club, a drop-in centre run by the Asylum Seekers Support Group in Dover.

The group was set up by local people concerned about rising antagonism towards the growing numbers of refugees in the Channel ports.

Price: pound;9.95 plus VAT Tel: 0116 285 3709 (NYA Sales)

Immigration and Asylum and Terrorism are two books in a new series from Franklin Watts that gives young people the facts behind the headlines and encourages them to consider how journalistic techniques are used.

Immigration and Asylum covers issues such as human rights, illegal aliens, racial discrimination, economic migrants and cheap labour.

Franklin Watts, 96 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4XD Price: pound;12.99 each Tel: 020 7739 2181

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