Literary polar bears and the refugee crisis

http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-polar-bears-and-the-refugee-crisis/article22744437.ece

What is your idea of home and identity, when everything familiar is lost? That’s the central theme of Welcome, a picture book by award-winning French illustrator

Barroux. I chanced upon this book a while ago, while browsing in Lightroom Bookstore in Bengaluru. The blurb read, “I am a polar bear. Life is quiet and peaceful on the ice, but wait a minute — what’s that noise? Crack!” Of course, I had to get it.

In Welcome, our literary polar bear is doing bear-y things — paddling in the water with friends — when the ice cracks and they find themselves drifting away. Just three of them, “floating in the middle of the big blue ocean” looking for a new home. Barroux creates a sense of isolation as the bears bob about in the relentless blue ocean. You despair with the bears as they huddle up in a pile on their dwindling slice of ice.

Yet it’s not as simple as “Land Ahoy!” The bears come across many lands — but everywhere they go, the denizens turn them away. For some, they are just too many of them or they are too bear-ish, and the others? They just can’t be bothered. But of course, the book ends with hope and optimism, because what else does humanity have, if not hope?

I am constantly looking for books that explain climate change and environment security in simple ways to young readers, which is why I was thrilled to have stumbled upon this one — Welcome is a triumph of a book. Barroux has previously written the gorgeous Where’s the Elephant? a hide-and-seek book on deforestation.

Welcome cleverly uses polar bears, the poster-animals of climate change, as a metaphor to talk about refugees. And perhaps it’s a smart thing to have anthropomorphised here. In 2013, a study published in The Journal of Environmental Education, by Janis Dickinson and team, suggested that people are more likely to act on climate change if they think that a particular non-human species is at threat.

Apart from that there’s the story of climate change, timely and vital. Earlier this month, scientists revealed that the Arctic permafrost thawing would release powerful greenhouse gases as well as gallons of mercury, a neurotoxin that is a serious health risk to humans. Tom Yulsmun, a professor and environment and science journalist, wrote in Discover – “January’s average ice extent in the Arctic was 525,000 square miles below the 1981-to-2010 average, making it the lowest January extent in the satellite record. This is an astonishingly large loss of ice — equivalent to 80 percent of Alaska.” And this, as he points out, is during winter!

Climate change, empathy, and refugees are difficult topics to talk about with children. There’s so much intangibility in the weather. Further, a lot of this crisis is unfolding in what feels like remote corners of the world. Which is why Welcome is a good way to start a conversation with your child about the refugee crisis we are seeing in India and across the world.

Barroux uses very little text, letting his illustrations do the talking — they are beautiful and funny, eliciting a myriad of emotions in the reader as well. There’s a strong feeling of loss and of danger, and at the same time, it mourns our shared indifference. After all, you can’t help but wonder, that the polar bears were not at fault, and yet they lost their home. The little text he does write is powerful and probing.

The story throws up questions about belonging and differences. And of course, our collective empathy, something that seems to be eroding away, being washed away by rising sea levels and melting away in this ferocious heat.

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