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Explaining big issues to little people

Boy Overboard author Morris Gleitzman tackles issues such as asylum seeking in his children’s books. Photo by Tim De Neef
Author Morris Gleitzman remembers the point when he decided to write children’s books that dealt with big issues.

His 2002 book Boy Overboard told the story of a young Afghani boy seeking asylum in Australia with his family.

“The government of the day were telling what I thought to be very unkind, one-sided stories about the people on the boats,” he said.

“I wanted to write a story for young people about the experience of being a refugee, to invite young readers to consider that whole life experience.

“The Howard Government’s mantras always involved name calling terms like queue- jumpers, health risks, criminals and terrorists; the implication of course that they were the inhumane souls who would hurl their children into the seas.”

His starting point with Boy Overboard was to humanise the people on boats, such as the Tampa, at a time when the media were not allowed direct access to the asylum seekers’ stories.

It was, and still is, all about the boats, not the people.

Mr Gleitzman said teaching children about asylum seekers is, like most aspects of parenting, a long lesson.

“I would encourage parents to invite the young people in their lives to consider the circumstances that might cause a family to become refugees,” he said.

“Say ‘how do you think we would feel if we had to become refugees’ or ‘what might happen to us in contemporary Australia to make us refugees’?”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2009 nearly 43.3 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced due to conflict and persecution.

This number includes 15.2 million refugees and nearly one million individuals whose asylum application had not yet been adjudicated.

“We’re talking about huge numbers of people who are essentially looking for what we in Australia take for granted,” said Mr Gleitzman.

“There are so many people who potentially need our help, so immigration policy is not a simple, easy-fix situation.”

In his books Mr Gleitzman’s characters are much like his readers.

“Every good story will take readers inside the world of the characters, and no matter how different to us the characters are on the surface, we will always find some area of commonality.

“No matter what our cultural, religious or socio-economic backgrounds are … we all share at least some of the same basic human needs and wants.”

He uses humour to avoid some confronting stories becoming crushing.

“My characters always have available to them and alive in them this capacity for love, friendship and, perhaps most importantly, optimism.

“I think young people who are coming to terms with the daunting aspects of the nature of the world deserve the opportunity to stay in touch with those positive aspects of being human, which will hopefully fuel their optimism and their determination to make the world a better place.

“In the age group I write for, primarily eight to 12 years, that’s the time of life where we are beginning to develop our capacity for empathy and, if we’re allowed to, it becomes one of our strongest characteristics.

“Empathy is a resource that in the adult world can sometimes become depleted.

“Young people can remind all family members that it is something we’re all capable of and need.”

Photo : Boy Overboard author Morris Gleitzman tackles issues such as asylum seeking in his children’s books. Photo by Tim De Neef