Has a Ukrainian child recently joined your child's classroom? Perhaps their best friend comes from Syria, Afghanistan or Ethiopia. Helen Cooper's Saving the Butterfly (Walker Books, 3+, £12.99) is a picturebook for young readers that places the experience of forced migration at its centre. The story follows two displaced siblings trying to make a new home together after being "lost in the dark seas".
Cooper takes care not to call them refugees, but the contemporary context is clear: as the only two “left in the boat . . . They could have died. The bigger one thought they wouldn’t survive. But they did.” Kind hands carry them to land and find them shelter, but while the little one learns to laugh again, the bigger one cannot help remember the darkness from which they have come from. The focus here is on the children struggling to redefine themselves away from all they know.
We track them as they move from danger to safety, from fear to friendship. Engagement with the natural world becomes a catalyst for healing, but it is offered not as a forced panacea but an organic accommodation. Cooper has crafted a compelling narrative that works as a stand-alone story, but also as a complement for discussing the sensitive subject matter with young children. Gill Smith’s illustrations, a wash of watercolour pencil and crayon, provide beautiful and ultimately celebratory visual support.
In Marie Dorléans' Our Fort (NYRB, 3+, £12.99), the author immerses the reader in the gloriously involved imagination of the child, where the world is "waiting impatiently for us to wander through it", as the chorus of narrators describe. In this classic French story, newly translated into English by Alyson Waters, we follow three siblings heading off into the countryside for an adventure. They pass the neighbours' house and the sheep meadow, plough their way through billowing green fields, and as they walk, the conversation meanders, as the conversation of young adventurers will. They face a little danger but the dark blows away and when the blue sky returns they find the fort that they have built, standing as firm as it stood in their imaginations. Dorléans perfectly captures the elasticity of time and the circular simplicity of childhood dreams and chat, while the A5-sized pages immerse us visually in the comparative grandness of their little adventures.
For older readers curious about current events, Nick Sheridan's Breaking News: How to Tell What's Real From What's Rubbish (Simon and Schuster, 8+, £9.99) is an excellent introduction to news-making and journalism. The gentle comic approach to factual material is reminiscent of the informal style of Adam Kay's medical books for young readers (which are also to be highly recommended). There is an efficient history of journalism and fake news told through tweets (From OCTAVIAN @bestemperor: "OMG @Mark Anthony is such a loser – drunk all the time and his ratings are awful. He would be such a terrible ruler. SAD!"). There are also engaging real-world and fictional examples of fake news, and practical exercises to help readers spot the difference. The idea of teaching young people how to read critically and sift fact from fiction in "news sources" is particularly welcome given the role that fake news has played in the pandemic, and continues to play in the current geopolitical climate. Illustrations by David O'Connell provide visual stimulation, while the textual layout plays with newspaper features to create an engaging page-by-page design.
In Varsha Shah's Ajay and the Mumbai Sun (Chicken House, 9+, £6.99) a young Indian boy sets up his own newspaper. Orphaned Ajay makes just enough money to eat by selling newspapers at the railway station. However, although Ajay has greater ambitions, traditional avenues of achievement are not available – they are even laughable – for a "slum rat" like him. When he finds a discarded printing press, Ajay sets up his own news outlet and, with his friends, sets about exposing the corruption that is conspiring to raze the slums that are home to his friends and acquaintances. Shah warmly evokes Ajay's love for and history with the written word. "His earliest memories were of sleeping under newspapers for warmth on the station platform. He had learned how to read from newspapers, hoarding each new word like a jewel. At night, when child-snatchers were at their most predatory and dangerous, Ajay kept himself awake by reciting headlines." Short chapters give the book an urgency that ensures Ajay and the Mumbai Sun is every bit as compelling as the scandal that Ajay and his friends uncover.
Finally, it is worth looking out for Maya And Her Friends (Bonnier Books, 5+, £12.99) written by Ukrainian writer, lawyer and activist Larysa Denysenko, with Ukrainian illustrator Masha Foya. It follows the stories of ordinary Ukrainian children, who have lived in the shadow of the constant threat of war following the occupation of Crimea in 2014. The book was originally published in 2015 but has been updated in light of the new invasion, with all profits to be donated directly to Unicef.