Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

The New York Times | Can Reading About Trauma Help Kids Cope?

Two new picture books dive into refugee childhoods. Featuring works such as “Simone” by Viet Thanh Nguyen and illustrated by Minnie Phan as well as “The Mango Tree” by Edel Rodriguez for The New York Times

From “The Mango Tree.” Edel Rodriguez

Do children’s books about frightening events make the very young more afraid, or do they comfort them?

THE MANGO TREE (Abrams, 48 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 8), by Edel Rodriguez, author of the graphic memoir “Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey,” begins happily enough. Its opening pages are a succession of vibrant, stylized images in ruby red, dandelion yellow, harlequin green and turquoise blue that show an island, at first in the distance, far away from the ocean’s fantastical, writhing sea monsters; then closer up, a junglelike Eden brimming with flora and fauna — with a potted, perfectly round mango tree, in which two boys play, at its heart.

The mango tree is everything to the friends, both home and haven. They swing from its branches and fly kites from its top, all the while eating mangoes and drinking mango juice, and taunt the island’s horned, fanged beasts from a place of safety high above.

But a storm comes, as storms inevitably do, and the world turns menacingly monochromatic.

One of the boys is swept out to sea with the tree, its pot becoming his lifeboat. The boy, the tree, a dove they’d raised amid its boughs, and a lone mango travel the monster-infested ocean until they reach another shore.

This island, too, is filled with technicolor plants and animals, but these are different. Alien.

There are people here as well — blue people — and they welcome him. With their help, the boy plants his mango in a new pot. Soon there is a new mango tree, something familiar among all these strange and beautiful things.

Rodriguez’s vivid, woodblock-printing-style illustrations had me marveling at how a simple shape becomes a leaf, a kite, a fin, a house.

The wordless scenes, each filling a double-page spread, make the book feel a bit like a handful of panels in a very short comic book. But the absence of text gives the story a dreamlike, fairy-tale quality. The nameless boy becomes The Boy. The nameless island The Island. The nameless beasts The Beasts. In the absence of narration, readers of all ages will inhabit the child’s journey on their own terms, making “The Mango Tree” an absorbingly personal experience.

From “Simone.” Minnie Phan

In SIMONE (Minerva, 48 pp., $18.99, ages 5 to 9), written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen (“The Sympathizer”) and illustrated by Minnie Phan (“The Yellow Áo Dài”), pictures and words tell the story of a young girl driven from her home by wildfires. Simone’s mother wakes her in the night, and with go-bags, the family dog and a few prized possessions they flee in their car. (Along the way, California’s brave emergency workers, including the state prisoners who have volunteered to fight the fires, are given their due.)

Simone’s mother is a two-time climate refugee — first from the floods that drove her from her home as a child in Vietnam, and now ferrying her own child away from wildfires.

They take shelter at a school gym, where Simone hears phrases like “climate catastrophe” and “global warming,” noting that “the adults were louder than the kids.” She shares her crayons with other children in the shelter, and for a short time they forget their troubles through art and friendship. A few days later, the lucky ones like Simone and her mother are able to return to their homes. “But what about the next time?” Simone worries. “Who would save us?”

Phan’s simple, charming style is reminiscent of Lois Lenski’s. Like Rodriguez in “The Mango Tree,” Phan paints the world during the natural disaster as devoid of color, except for points of focus: the orange flames outside the window, the blue water dumped from planes, the yellow jackets of firefighters, Simone’s box of rainbow-colored crayons. Only when the fire is gone does the color begin to seep back into the rest of Simone’s world, mirroring her own hesitant relief and the slow return of her confidence.

Both books demonstrate what newcomers add to the communities where they find refuge, but also what is lost in the process. The boy in “The Mango Tree” still has mangoes but not the best friend who once spent every day with him. Simone’s mother has her daughter, and a dry roof over their heads, but she realizes to her surprise that the American-raised Simone doesn’t know the Vietnamese word for water. There is a price to be paid for safety.

When Simone is feeling scared and helpless in the shelter, she remembers something her mother once told her: “You don’t fight fire with fire. You fight fire with water.” In the same way, you don’t fight fear with fear. You fight it with fear’s antidote: the truth. Both “The Mango Tree” and “Simone” do that in gentle, moving ways, showing young children that yes, there is sadness and suffering in the world, but we have family and friends and other helpers to see us through.


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