ZIBA CAME ON A BOAT
by Liz Lofthouse, illustrated by Robert Ingpen – Penguin/Viking, 2007
ages 4 to 12 years / diversity, picture books, powerful lives, s.o.s.e.
An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking protection as a refugee but hasn’t yet been granted recognised refugee status. So in this story, Ziba and her mother—who have left their own country after war and oppression came to their village—are both asylum seekers and refugees.
They're traveling by boat to a new country where they hope to find ‘azadi’—freedom—and it’s implied that that country is Australia. (This is an Australian book, and many refugees come by boat.) Although there's no explicit mention of the country that they've left behind, ‘azadi’ is a Persian word, so they have probably fled Iran.
As they travel on a ‘soggy old fishing boat’ Ziba thinks of home. Her memories are full of nostalgia:
“cool mountain air … the warmth of the mud-brick house …the rich spices of the evening meal …stories and poems of long ago.”
But her childhood is marred by war and oppression. A time comes when she must hide, when she listens in fear to gunfire, when she and her mother run:
“on and on through the night, far away from the madness until there was only darkness and quiet.”
This is a tremendously impactful story, for children and adults alike. For me, the page that sticks in my mind is this one:
"He told her stories and poems of long ago,
She felt the strength of his arms and
she gazed into his peaceful face."
The contrast between Ziba’s loving memory of story-telling and her father’s worried face tenderly evokes a father’s love and protection—and it deepens the concern I feel for families under stress, wherever that may be.
Ziba’s story is one of recovery, remembering and resilience—all of which are fundamental to the experience of refugees. A few thoughts:
Recovery from trauma is surely one of humankind’s most impressive accomplishments—trauma happens in every life, but the details and depth vary wildly. Ziba, her mother, and their companions on the boat, are working towards recovery. They’re seeking freedom in the face of peril and they continue to hope and dream.
Remembering both the good and bad of life, and valuing the memories of other people helps develop empathy, and perspective. Ziba remembers her past life, and those memories sustain her as she travels to a new life where she’ll make new experiences that will, in turn, colour the way she remembers.
Resilience is more than simply coping and moving on—it lies in the ability to hope for good things to come. Ziba dreams of her new home and expects welcoming faces and a life without fear. By continuing to have hope and optimism for the future, she is a lovely representation of what it means to be resilient.
Some small reading hints:
I’ve read this book to children as young as 4-years-old. The complexities of the story are a bit out of reach for them, but grappling with complexity is a wonderful learning experience in itself.
When reading to very young children I usually go smoothly over the more traumatic moments—the gunshots, running, the boat tossing on a wild sea, etc—and linger on the pages that show Ziba’s life before the conflicts and her ongoing relationship with her mother.
I’ll talk about the food Ziba’s family prepares, the hawk thy seem to keep as a pet, the stories her father might have told. And of course, I’ll always answer questions as honestly and gently as I can.
Ziba’s story is personal and moving. Her life, hopes, fears and dreams are made real through the deeply evocative pictures.
It’s a life of contrasting beauty and tragedy—and those contrasts coexist at every stage of Ziba’s life. There’s never a moment of pure tragedy, nor of unmarred beauty, which makes this a complex if troubling story. It's a story that will help readers to care more deeply and have more hope for refugees and asylum seekers.