There has long been a tradition in children’s books of tackling difficult periods in history through the medium of fiction. John Boyne’s powerful Holocaust tale, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas won numerous awards and was made into a successful film, and more recently Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow, set in a modern-day Australian detention centre was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.
While the settings are important, where these stories really succeed is in the characterisation. Jane Mitchell’s new book for age 11+, A Dangerous Crossing (Little Island) joins these novels as an exemplary example of how to tell a difficult story through fiction by making us care deeply about the main character.
Ghalib and his family live in Kobani, a town in Syria near Aleppo. After daily attacks by ISIS they are nervous and exhausted, their future uncertain. The book opens at a souq in Freedom Square in Kobani. Egged on by his cousin, Hamza, Ghalib and his little brother, Aylan are raiding the blown-out shops and stalls for clothes and shoes to sell on to a ‘buyer’. When they get home they realise they are one pair of shoes short and Hamza decides they must go back to the souq without Aylan, but Freedom Square is a very different place at night. ‘The streets reek … the stench of rotting rubbish mixes with smoke and pulverised concrete, smashed-up sewers and rot. The night bloats its evil.’
While they are scavenging, a bomb hits the square. Ghalib escapes with burns to his feet but Hamza is badly injured. After much persuading from his wife, Ghalib’s father, Baba agrees to leave Kobani to find somewhere safer to live.
The family travel by minibus to Aleppo and from here they start the long and arduous walk towards the border with Turkey. Ghalib accidentally crosses the border without his family and finds himself alone in a Turkish refugee camp. The writer spent a week volunteering at the Jungle Camp at Calais and her descriptions of the Turkish camp ring with authenticity and truth.
As the title suggests and as is explained on the back cover of the book, Ghalib eventually makes it to a boat bound for Greece. Mitchell leaves the story open-ended but in an afterward explains what might have happened next to a boy like Ghalib. Mitchell is at all times mindful of her young audience and while she does not shy away from the despair of Ghalib’s situation, there is always hope for the boy and his family.
Each child character in the book is named after a real Syrian child. Most poignantly of all, Ghalib’s little brother, Aylan was named after the three-year-old whose photograph made global headlines when his body was washed up on the Mediterranean coast. He too was trying to cross to Greece with his family.
Endorsed by Amnesty International, this is an important book that deserves to be read in every home and classroom in Ireland.
This review first appeared in The Irish Independent