Nov 2, 2016

Interview: Margriet Ruurs, Author of STEPPING STONES: A Refugee Family's Journey

I first "met" author Margriet Ruers many years ago at a Wisconsin Reading Conference where I spoke with her during her book-signing after her presentation. I was as impressed by her advocacy for young readers and writers as I was by her delightful books. Since then I've followed her "virtually" through her Facebook and website postings, admiring her literacy-connected world travels, new releases, and openness to cultures across the globe. 

Earlier this fall I read about her latest release, STEPPING STONES: A Refugee Family's Journey, with artwork by Nizar Ali Badr.  I wrote about it in my last post, here. Now I'm delighted to report that, in the midst of her current travels to visit schools around the globe, she found time to respond to some questions so that I could share them here.

SB: Welcome, Margriet, and thank you for joining me here. The premise of this blog is that picture books have incredible power to reach and teach and touch lives across many ages. Your latest release in collaboration with artist Nazir Ali Badr is a perfect example of that power.
Let's start with this-
Orca Book Publishing says: “Stepping Stones tells the story of Rama and her family, who are forced to flee their once-peaceful village to escape the ravages of the civil war raging ever closer to their home. With only what they can carry on their backs, Rama and her mother, father, grandfather and brother, Sami, set out to walk to freedom in Europe. “

Your author's note and website say you assembled individual scenes  form Badr's art into a narrative that allowed you to imagine a family of refugees.  The family you describe in the text feels undeniably REAL. If this is an imagined story, meant to be representative of so many families facing today’s harsh world, do you consider it fiction or nonfiction, and why?

MR: This is often the question with books such as this, isn’t it? I consider this to be realistic fiction. Rama is not a real child, not a child that I know or interviewed. Rama is a child who sprouted from my imagination, but in a very realistic way. I watched the war in Syria on TV every night, seeing thousands of children and their families flee the war. 
At the same time, I had just finished reading a memoir of someone who survived WW II in the Netherlands, which brought back so many accounts told to me as I was growing up, by my parents who lived during that war. In my head, I combined these events, realizing that war is all too common. To this, I was able to add my own feelings from when I left my parental home, my country, to emigrate to the USA and Canada. I was never a refugee. I chose to come here. But I did recall how it felt to spend that last night in my own, safe bed, knowing that I would never hear these sounds or see these sights again. So, the characters in my book are fictional but the descriptions are very realistic.
I asked Nizar, and his friend Saji who translated my emails to Nizar, for input into the text. They asked that the grandfather in the story stay alive rather than die, as I had him do. So I kept him alive… 

SB:  And I'm pleased that you did, as I suspect it will please other readers, too. The story told by your lyrical text and Ali Badr's incredibly evocative art doesn't shy away from the painful aspects of refugee experiences, but it is ultimately a very optimistic book. The opening spread features a quotation by Albert Einstein: “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”  Ideally, how do you see this book advancing understanding of the challenges faced by refugees and society as a whole? 

MR: I firmly believe that people need to know, to understand, each other before they can treat them as they would like to be treated themselves. The whole ‘do onto others..’ thing.
It is much easier to be harsh with strangers. But once you know and understand another person, you realize that this person may look or sound different from you, but that he or she has the same feelings, similar values, the same human emotions… I believe that if children understand that other people in other cultures are not so different from us, that they will treat others with more respect. 
Sometimes people are afraid of someone who is different. When I travel and visit international schools in far-away countries, the children may seem different at first glance. Sometimes they dress differently. They eat different foods or speak a different language. But when I get to know them, I discover that they are just like kids everywhere: they like to play soccer, or video games, they love reading Harry Potter or comics. They like candy and playing game.
Their parents, too, may seem different at first, but all parents want their children to be safe, to get an education, to be happy. We may pray to a different god, but ultimately, we are more similar than we are different. I believe that acceptance of that might be the foundation of world peace.
Once we understand that refugees were forced to flee, that they don’t really want to leave their own homes, that they are not coming here to take our jobs… then I believe it is easier to make room and accept them. That is why I use ordinary scenes in the story - the family eating tomatoes and yogurt, the girl playing with dolls - to show how similar we are. 
If our country was invaded, if our homes were suddenly bombed, we too would hope that another nation would welcome and shelter us.

SB: Can you describe the impact/reaction you had the first time you saw Nazir Ali Badr’s creations on Facebook? 

MR: When I first saw Nizar’s art on his Facebook page, it really touched me that his art showed such emotion. The first image I saw was one of a mother carrying her child. She was tender, the child was looking for comfort. Then I realized that the entire picture was made with just plain rocks. That blew me away. As a children’s book writer, I always keep one eye open for unusual art that will appeal to children. Authors really are not involved in the process of illustrating books, but I can still recommend art to a publisher. I instantly knew that art such as this had never been done in a book and that it would appeal to children.
When I saw more of his images, I felt that his art told a visual story of refugees, of people fleeing their homeland, of people trying to escape bombs and death, of people looking for help and a safe place to live. I felt drawn to compose words to string his images together as a picture book.

SB:  Your introductory author’s note describes the inspiration and challenges you dealt with to make this book a reality.  Now that it’s published, how well did it meet your hopes and expectations? Does something more need to occur to make your dreams for it come true?

MR: Orca Book Publishers responded immediately. They, too, recognized the need to tell this very current, yet timeless, story. They blew me away as they designed Nizar’s art and my words into a gorgeous book in a very short period of time. It was their decision, and Nizar’s request, that the book be published in both English and Arabic. That had not occurred to me but, in retrospect, that was a wise decision. I believe that the two languages on each page, bring two cultures together - the very intent of my story. It has been wonderful to meet newly arrived refugee families and see their eyes light up when they realize this is a book that they, too, can read. Audiences have been in tears listening to a young Syrian girl read the story in soft, melodious Arabic. 
But ultimately, a book is merely paper and cardboard. It is the readers, the teachers, the parents, the children - who bring a book to life and choose to change the world, or even one attitude. When a teacher picks up this book and decides to share it with her class, that makes a difference. When a child reads this book and decides to fundraise for refugees, that changes the world. One reader at a time. When that occurs, it is a dream come true for a writer like me.

SB: Have you had an opportunity to meet the artist (in person or digitally)?  If not, do you have plans to do so?

MR: I haven’t met Nizar in person. He looks like a kind man and is a skilled artist. His art expresses his anger at the current situation in Syria and his love of humanity, his caring for his people and his homeland. Even though I will be in Saudi Arabia in the next few weeks, which borders Syria, I have not considered going there because it is just too unsafe. But yes, I’d love to meet him some day. He would say ‘Inshallah’ - a lovely expression which means ‘god willing’ - we will meet one day. I hope that our book not only helps to create understanding of, and financial support for, refugees, but also helps to bring a wider audience for his amazing art.

What has surprised you most about this book (or reactions to it)  since its release? 
I’m pleasantly surprised at how well the book has been received. It seems to verbalize the refugee situation and also touches readers as a human story. I’m surprised now at how easy it was to tell the story - I think many pieces fell into place for me at the time of writing. We hardly had to do any editing. It is very seldom that a writer “is given” a story such as this. Sometimes, it’s easier to write from the heart than from the head. 
Later, once it was printed, I worried about the fact I wrote about a refugee situation which I had never experienced. “Who am I to tell this story?” I worried. But when a Syrian man cried when he read it, and told me that “this is exactly how it was…” then I felt that perhaps I had found the right words, at the right time.

SB:  Was there anything else you hoped I’d ask about? Anything you’d want to sahre with readers?

MR: Just that I am so pleased that Orca Book Publishers immediately agreed to donate a portion of each book to a refugee cause. I decided to donate most of my royalties to different refugee causes because I feel that really this is their story, not mine. I am also thrilled that Orca is making this book available to schools and organizations as a fund raiser. If a school, or a class, decides to do service learning, they can order the book at a 50% discount and sell it. This means that, if a class sells 100 books, they can then donate $1,000.- to a refugee cause of their choice. This can be to help a local family, or they can send it to the Red Cross or Unicef, or any other cause they select. So, besides this being a book to read, it becomes a book that can help people. What more can a writer ask for?


Margriet, it has been a privilege to have you share your process and purposes regarding this book. It's one I can't praise highly enough to do it justice. Deepest thanks and best wishes that your dreams for all that this book might achieve will be met and exceeded.

Readers, I urge you to get your hands on a copy to see if you agree with me, and with such luminaries as Mem Fox ("It's exquisite! One can only pray that its message will spread and make the difference we need.") and award-winning author Eric Walters ( "Brilliant and beautiful and inspiring. A book that should be read with every child in the world! An instant classic as solid as the stones on which it is based!"). If you agree, please use every networking means at your disposal to encourage others to read it and share it: word of mouth, reviews on blogs and sales sites like Amazon, social media, and schools/libraries in your communities. 
Learn more about potential fundraising options through ORCA BOOKS here.  

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