Stepping into another world

25th April 2008 at 01:00
Encourage children to see beyond the stereotypical portrayals of refugees and asylum seekers with this emotive book, says Laura Frascona

Encourage children to see beyond the stereotypical portrayals of refugees and asylum seekers with this emotive book, says Laura Frascona

Gervelie's Journey

Anthony Robinson and Annemarie Young Illustrated by June Allan

Frances Lincoln Limited pound;11.99

Gervelie is a 13-year-old girl who goes to St Thomas More School in Norwich. One day she wants to be a lawyer or a singer. So far, there is nothing to mark her out from thousands of other schoolchildren. But the sequence of events that have brought her to this point is anything but typical.

She was born about 4,000 miles away in the Republic of Congo. When fighting broke out in 1997 in her home town of Brazzaville, Gervelie and her father fled to the coast. This was just the first in a series of traumatic experiences that led them to seek asylum in the UK.

Gervelie's Journey tells the true story of this remarkably courageous and resilient young girl and, although not written by Gervelie, authentically recreates her voice.

The book refuses to shy away from the more disturbing parts of her story, including the murder of her relatives by the Congolese militia and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her violent stepfather. Although this captures the truth of Gervelie's experiences, do children as young as eight need such gritty realism?

Annemarie Young, one of the authors, gives a resounding "yes". She says: "I want children to understand what it is like to suffer the sort of turmoil that forces you to flee your home and seek refuge in another country."

Despite the inclusion of horrific incidents, Gervelie's story is overridingly a positive one. "I think that I'm quite lucky to still be alive, as lots of people have lost their lives in the war," she says.

Her remarkably upbeat attitude is something she hopes other refugee children will learn from.

"The book is the first in a powerful new series of four distinctive stories that fit together well as a quartet," says Annemarie.

The Refugee Series is aimed at children aged eight and upwards. The remaining books will tell the stories of Mohammed from Iraq, Hamzat from Chechnya and Gabriela from Bolivia.

"Our hope is that, through these individual stories of real children, the ciphers conjured up by the words `refugees and asylum seekers' might become real people with whom children can empathise," the authors say.

The beauty of this book is that it tells a story about a real little girl, in many ways just like her audience, but one who has faced extraordinary and traumatic circumstances. This helps pupils look behind the label "asylum seeker" and see the individual.

The personal photographs add to the story's authenticity and encourage children to see the connections with themselves, while the illustrations make the events of the story more accessible.

The book ends with a history of the Republic of Congo, which places her story into a wider context.

It is ironic that true stories of life and death adventures could come across as lacking in excitement, and the matter of fact style in Gervelie's Journey does tend towards this. But over-dramatising the story would have undermined the realism that lies at the book's core.

The authors have tackled a difficult subject with sensitivity and compassion and the result is a poignant and moving story. This book has the potential to be an inspirational classroom stimulus as well as being an example of optimism, courage and resilience for children everywhere.

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