A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I’m not in the mood for Christmas. I can’t be bothered. I’m busy, and the festive season just feels like one enormous admin dump. I’m not religious, although in past years carols that reach back to older traditions invoked a shiver – rising sun, running deer. But in 2015 we’ve had barely a frosty morning, only the early dark to remind us that we’re edging closer to the shortest day. It’s just one perpetual mild drizzle, this winter, punctuated by jobs that I used to enjoy. What, you mean I’ve got to write cards, buy presents and work out what to do with the pets whilst we’re away – balancing this on top of all the other plates I barely continue to spin?
The secret valley next to my house, two years ago. Home of red kites, aforementioned running deer and the most epic sledge battle of all time. Where is the winter, 2015?
I would like to thank Sam Usher and Anne Booth for handing me a wiser sense of perspective, all contained within the heartbreaking, beautiful pages of their book, Refuge. I’ve been following the horrific events unfolding in Syria and closer to home: I have no excuse. I knew. But, even so, knowing what I knew, I still fell into a rut of self-pity about Christmas. I will even admit that scheduling this blog post led to some frantic scribbling-on-hands-with-a-biro.
Refuge was a little hard to get of, you see. It’s sold out almost everywhere. How was I going to write this review if I couldn’t read the book because everyone else already had? Apart from anything else, I was keen to make a donation to War Child (£5 from every copy sold goes to the charity). I was planning to make my donation directly and worry over what to do about my Christmas blog post later when I found one copy of this gorgeous book still available in Castle Books, a lovely little independent bookshop in my adopted home town of Ludlow.
Refuge is a retelling of the Nativity story from the point of view of the donkey, a humbling reminder that one family’s long-ago flight from an oppressive regime is a more important thing to remember than who you sent cards to last year. It’s also a very beautiful object produced on a schedule that made my eyes twitch, nine years after leaving my scheduling job in the editorial department of a publishing house. Everything is in the right place. The foiling on the front cover lines up. It’s perfect. It is, in short, an extraordinary and Herculean achievement by everyone who was involved at Nosy Crow and beyond.
But let’s return to the contents of the book– Refuge is a very good way of explaining the plight of refugees to young children, even if you don’t celebrate Christmas. My 7 and 5 year old listened in stunned silence to a news story on the radio about seven children drowning along with their mother. “Are they all dead?” asked my five year old. “They’re all with their mum in Heaven now,” I said. I don’t think I even believe in Heaven. I didn’t know what else to say apart from “When things get bad, look for the people who are helping. There are always people helping.” (Thank you for that line from Mr Rogers, Keris Stainton. It’s a consolation for young children, or anyone, at times like this). Refuge offers a gentle reminder that there is hope when people help. None of us, on our own, can solve this. But what we can do is light a candle: the van driver who takes a load of clothes and supplies to Calaid, the Maltese shipping family who pull drowning people from the sea, the volunteers sorting donations in carpet warehouses and village halls, the author and illustrator working for nothing to ensure that this story is told. May the winter continue to be mild. May the homeless not freeze.
The tale of a baby born in a stable still is more relevant today than it ever was, whether you keep Christmas or not, or even if you’re simply fed up of it. Anne Booth’s prose is beautifully spare, and Sam Usher’s illustrations are breath-snatching: reading Refuge, I felt the parents’ vulnerability and the kindness of those who helped them. I read it thinking, Yes, yes. This is what it’s about. I read the final pages, and I imagined a long-ago family reaching the gates of Egypt. Let’s be the one who runs from the gates in welcome, let’s be the one who lights a lamp in the darkness.