In the Eye of the Beholder

April 11, 2019 Comments Off on In the Eye of the Beholder

One of the superpowers young children possess is the ability to transfer human qualities onto inanimate objects. My Emily might be eight years old—well versed in the impossibility of stuffed animals coming to life—but she still likes to tell me about the skydiving adventures her plush lamb has at home while she’s off at school (apparently in cohorts with my stuffed bear). When I tuck her in at night, it’s not uncommon for Emily to inform me that Baba will be keeping watch for bad dreams. Whenever her pride is bruised or her tears are flowing, Emily predictably runs to her room, snatches up Baba, and presses the soft frayed body to her cheek. (Baba has also been known to “peck at” prime offenders, otherwise known as Older Brothers.)

It’s remarkable, this ability of children to draw entertainment, companionship, and comfort from non-living things. It certainly plays a part in why children are naturally resilient, even or especially when the humans around them fall short. After all, an object can be whatever a child wants or needs it to be. It can be a kind of “stand in,” or a bridge to a time when that child might reliably find that entertainment, companionship, or comfort in another living being.

Lubna and Pebble (Ages 4-8), an impossibly gorgeous and profoundly moving new picture book about the refugee experience, takes at its center the conceit of a young girl’s redemptive friendship with a pebble, which she finds on the momentous night she arrives with her father at the “World of Tents.”

There has been a surge of refugee-themed picture books lately (a number, including The Journey, The Day the War Came, and Marwan’s Journey are excellent), but none feel quite as intimate or immersive as Lubna and Pebble, by British author Wendy Meddour and Greek illustrator Daniel Egnéus. If the intent of these picture books is to kindle empathy for the displacement of today’s refugee populations, the most successful will strike a familiar emotional chord with children. Connection will always win over didacticism.

Moments after getting off a packed boat, dark-haired Lubna bends down to retrieve a pebble from the beach—“shiny and smooth and gray”—before collapsing from exhaustion into her father’s arms. As she explores her new tented home the next morning, Lubna grips the pebble for security. When she finds a felt-tip pen, she draws a crude but happy face on the smooth surface. “‘Hello, Pebble,’ whispered Luna.”

Pebble doesn’t just provide comfort; it also provides a critical outlet for Lubna to unload her fears and dreams about her changing world.

Lubna told Pebble everything.

About her brothers.

About home.

About war.

Pebble always listened to her stories.

Pebble always smiled when she felt scared.

“I love you, Pebble,” Luna said with a sigh.

Pebble also provides an opportunity for Lubna to connect with her father, to help him love her during their displacement. When winter comes, when the wind and snow threaten their tent and Lubna fears for Pebble’s well-being, Lubna’s father makes a shoe-box shelter to keep Pebble from “catching a cold.” “‘That must never happen,’ said Daddy.”

The security Lubna derives from Pebble eventually translates into confidence of her own, as she develops the courage and conviction to forge a real living friendship. When Amir shows up at the World of Tents—“he had no words. Just blinks and sneezes and stares”—Lubna introduces him to Pebble. The two play hide and seek with Pebble, using their imaginations to capture some of the beauty of the homes they have each had to leave behind.

As Lubna opens her heart to Pebble and Amir, our hearts inevitably fall under the spell of Egnéus’ lush watercolor illustrations, which perfectly complement Meddour’s sparse, poetic text. First, there are THE EYES. Can we talk about the eyes in this book? Much of the time, Lubna’s are downcast, connoting worry and timidity. But when she gazes at Pebble, Lubna’s eyes fill the page. They are gaping, piercingly clear, and spilling over with love. In their center, we can make out the soft grey roundness of Pebble. BE STILL MY HEART. I have never seen eyes more evocatively illustrated than these.

In fact, Egnéus makes copious and beautiful use of round and crescent forms throughout the story. From the sweep of Lubna’s hair, to the underbelly of the ship, to the gentle rocking motion of “Daddy’s salty arms,” it is as if the artwork is mounting a resistance to the harsh, unyielding edges of fear and uncertainty which more commonly surround Lubna and the other refugees.

When Lubna’s father announces he has found a permanent home for them, Lubna’s thoughts turn immediately to having to leave Amir. She will miss him, but she also guesses correctly that the greater grief will be his. The grief of being left behind. After some quiet reflection in Pebble’s presence, Lubna makes the difficult and touching decision to leave Pebble with Amir. As Lubna gives Amir careful instructions on how to care for the stone, what she is really demonstrating is how to love.

I imagine that, someday, my Emily’s Baba will move from top billing on her pillow to a shelf or even to a donation box. (Possibly even the garbage, because that thing does not smell like roses.) It will bring me some sadness, I’m sure, but I will also be proud of her choice to open up more of her heart to the messy, unpredictable, and beautiful world of the living.

And yet, Lubna does more than leave Pebble behind. She gifts him. She gives another the opportunity to find the companionship she knows what it’s like to crave. Lubna’s story is both powerful and resonant; it not only shows our children how others live amidst turmoil and uncertainty, but it also reminds them of how, deep down, all children yearn for the same things.


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Review copy from Dial Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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