a rare story about an internally displaced family that is, at once, sobering and uplifting

by Florence Parry Heide & Judith Heide Gilliland, illustrated by Ted Lewin – Clarion Books, 1992
ages 6 to 12 years / diversity, picture bookspowerful lives

The civil war in Lebanon ran for about 15 years and even though it officially ended almost thirty years ago (in 1990), the IDMC says that there were still about 12,000 displaced people in Lebanon in 2015. This book tells the story of Sami, who is ten years old and has lived with the troubles of the Lebanon Civil War all his life.

Sami is internally displaced—he still lives in Lebanon but his home is destroyed or not safe and so he lives in his uncle’s basement.

He calls the war the ‘time of the troubles … a time of guns and bombs.’ He longingly remembers the ‘quiet days’ when he and his family could go the beach, and even earlier days when his father was alive and talked to him about the family’s peach trees.

As the bombs fall the family huddles around a radio and waits for the announcement: “It is safe.” Then they can emerge from the basement onto the streets of their town, greet friends and neighbours, buy supplies and clean up.

There’s time to play too, and to remember a wonderful day when children marched with their parents to protest for the end of war.

Sami’s story is a testament to courage and strength in the midst of war. It’s a sad story but triumphant at the same time. The boy is a victim of circumstances, so are his family, but they remember the good days and work towards their return. 

Although the summary on the title page tells us that Sami lives in Lebanon during the civil war, there's nothing in the story itself that identifies Lebanon specifically. That means the story remains relevant and current. There are, of course, many children living in circumstances that exactly mirror Sami’s—just in a different time and place.

But in all times and places, in peace time or times of trouble, there's plenty to learn from Sami and his family. For example:

Beautiful things can uplift and encourage. Displaced people are so often left without beauty in their lives but Sami’s mother insists on carpets and brass vases coming with them to the uncle’s basement. She says, ‘there must be nice things around us to remind us of the good days, to remind us of how it used to be.’

Stories, especially family stories, help to increase resilience. Sami is inspired by stories of a children’s protest march he and his father took part in. At night, while he waits for more bombs to fall, he talks to his grandfather and begins to plan another march. His grandfather encourages him: 

“‘Maybe now the ones who fight will hear, maybe this time they will listen. Yes,’ he says again.”

Meaningful work helps with recovery from trauma. The people in Sami’s town are hopeful and resilient. As soon as the bombs stop:

".... the streets are filled with people working, talking, buying, selling. … It is always a surprise, and my mother is always pleased, that there are so many things to buy after a bad time."

A small reading hint:

This a sober story, with haunting pictures. There is a heaviness to the words that's best left unanimated. There's no need for character voices or dramatic readings—it’s a story that deserves to stand on its own merits. You’ll probably want to leave some processing time at the end of the book, at least on the first reading.

Sami and the Time of the Troubles is by the same authors as one of our all time favourite books – The Day of Ahmed’s Secret. Both have a special place in our picture book library, and I’m sure they will in yours too.

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Names in this book – Sami, Leila, Amir