In my first year of teaching I learned the value of a carefully chosen picture book for the purposes of introducing a topic or addressing tricky issues. Seventeen years later, I have a growing stash of these that I continue to revisit with students in the secondary classroom across a range of subject areas. As an English specialist, I continue to appreciate the accessibility of these texts, the many layers of reading they encourage as they engage captive audiences in a reading activity that nearly always harnesses a range of interpretative skills. Picture books are a blessing for the time poor educator. They tick many boxes and set the scene for a high level of student engagement.
First published in Canada, Stepping Stones, is a welcome addition to my personal collection and is one that I will draw upon for use in the English, HaSS and Religious Education classroom. Told in both English and Arabic, and narrated by a young girl, Rama; we follow her experience of persecution, death and loss in their war-torn homeland, her families’ escape, journey by foot and their crossing of an unforgiving sea to their eventual, albeit bittersweet, liberation. While clearly drawing from recent history with the story illuminating the experiences within the Syrian context, the tale might easily be supplanted into another setting. Nizar Ali Badr’s artwork which utilises stacked stones to recreate scenes in the story, is culturally neutral, thus inviting a transposing of other refugee narratives. Within the Australian context, I imagine that educators might specifically draw upon experiences of the Vietnamese and Cambodian ‘boat-people’. Similarly, Christian communities would certainly draw parallels to Gospel narratives (Matt 2:13-14) concerning the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.
The provision of both English and Arabic text adds additional linguistic dimension to the story that could be readily exploited by students as an extension activity. While I would use this text exclusively in the secondary classroom, it will appeal to older primary students and, with discretion, may be an effective tool for engaging dialogue with new arrivals in our school communities. The story will certainly find its place in many of our Syrian and Middle-Eastern communities in Australia with many families likely to embrace it as a vehicle for intergenerational sharing and a celebration of language.
I commend Stepping Stones as a text that provides an authentic voice for educators who seek to promote cultural diversity, while engaging frankly with their students on issues related to refugees and asylum seekers.
Tanya Grech Welden