In this roundup of Canadian children’s publishing news: a refugee story illustrated with stones, and another about a boy and a bike; a picture book that brings the “wise men of Chelm” folktales to kids; and a YA mystery novel that presents a moral dilemma.

Images Made of Stones Tell a Powerful Refugee Story

One day this past spring, while author Margriet Ruurs was on Facebook, a beautiful image of a mother holding a baby caught her attention. “The image displayed such strong emotion. It touched me deeply,” she writes in the foreword to her new picture book. “But the amazing thing was the medium. The image was not painted; it was not drawn. It was composed entirely of stones.”

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, which came out in October from Orca Books, tells the story of a girl named Rama, whose family is forced to leave their village one day to escape the escalating Syrian civil war. Each page is illustrated with the stone artwork of Nizar Ali Badr, that Syrian artist whose work Ruurs first saw on Facebook.

But tracking Badr down, to ask if he was interested in collaborating on a book, was a difficult task in itself. Ruurs tried sending Facebook messages, but had no luck. She realized he might not speak English, so she had a friend translate her letter into Arabic, but still didn’t hear back. Finally, a friend of hers in Pakistan was able to get a message to Badr’s English-speaking friend in Syria, and the connection was made.

“It’s an interesting book, because they’re rocks on a board that have been photographed, but it’s incredible, the emotion that’s in those illustrations,” says Orca publisher Andrew Wooldridge. “It’s a pretty powerful book; I’m really proud that we did it.”

Badr made new pieces for the book, using rocks he collected on the beach in Syria, and soon thereafter, the book was published by Orca as a dual-language English-Arabic picture book. The book has sold more than 7,000 copies since October, and it also acts as a fundraiser for resettlement agencies in Canada – the combined total donated so far, from author royalties and book sales, is more than C$15,000. Schools and other groups across the country have also been using the book to raise more money to help Syrian refugees.

Message of Friendship for Refugees and Locals Alike

Terry Farish has spent time working for the Red Cross in Vietnam, and more recently teaching English at a refugee camp on the Kenyan/South Sudanese border, meeting children who have grown up in war-torn countries. And the New Hampshire-based author now meets many refugee families in the U.S., as she talks to groups about her latest picture book, Joseph’s Big Ride (Annick Press), which came out this past April from the Toronto-based publisher.

Since then, Farish has brought her book to dozens of schools and libraries in the New England area, and sometimes there are translators present who can read the book out loud in Nepali, Arabic or Spanish. Some groups are more diverse and include a number of refugee children who are resettling in the U.S., and some groups include less diversity, but benefit from hearing stories about kids who are different from themselves.

“The teachers [in less diverse schools] want a book like this because it brings their kids into the global society we live in, and they get a wider taste of the real world. Even if they don’t have neighbors from South Sudan, they get a taste of who’s in North America,” says Farish. “And [in other communities] I also connect to kids who are just like Joseph, and that’s been really important to teachers, to let kids see books that are about them.”

Joseph’s Big Ride, featuring vibrant paintings by Ken Daley, tells the story of a boy living in a refugee camp. He sees an older boy who appears to be “as fast as a lion, as tall as the sky” when he rides his bicycle. Joseph never gets a chance to ride the bike, and soon he and his mother are flying to the U.S. to start a new life.

Although Joseph is unfamiliar with his new school, he sees a girl riding to school on a beautiful red bike, and quickly befriends her. When she accidentally runs her bike into a tree, Joseph is quick to help out — he fixed bikes many times in his old village. Farish wanted to write about the friendship that blossomed easily between two kids with a shared interest.

“I would love for kids to read this and imagine that people who dress differently, whose use of English is different, could just as easily be their friends as someone who looks just like them,” she says.

Picture Book Brings Jewish Folktales to a New Generation

When Richard Ungar was a boy, he would read Jewish folktales about the so-called “wise men of Chelm,” short, comical tales that depicted well-meaning fools in the fabled city of Chelm. The stories appealed to him, he says, because of the characters’ “dogged determination to solve problems – they don’t give up, and they work together, in their own silly way, and eventually they’ll come up with a solution.”

Ungar’s new picture book Yitzi and the Giant Menorah (Tundra, Sept.), sees the author writing his own Chelm tale. In it, the Chelmites struggle to come up with the proper way to thank the Mayor of Lublin for his generous gift of an enormous menorah. It’s a story that combines silliness – which Ungar says he appreciates, as he spends his days working in the serious business of corporate law – with a lesson in gratitude.

“What I really want is for someone to come away saying, ‘I like that story,’ ” says Ungar. “And that can be, ‘I like it because it’s funny,’ or as a parent, it could be, ‘I like it because it teaches children about gratitude, and that material things aren’t the most important things in life.’ ”

Ungar not only wrote the story, but he also created the artwork himself, using a technique called watercolor monoprint. To learn it, Ungar took a week-long course at the Haliburton School of Art and Design in southern Ontario. The process involved painting on glass, and then transferring that image onto a piece of watercolor paper.

Yitzi and the Giant Menorah was also chosen by PJ Library, a Massachusetts-based non-profit organization, to be sent out to thousands of Jewish families across North America. PJ Library bought 18,000 copies of the book, which families with seven-year-old children will receive for free as part of a Jewish literacy program. The organization also posted a video series on its blog, demonstrating Ungar’s artistic process for creating the book.

And to promote his book, Ungar has been visiting local schools and synagogues, accompanied by a 7.5-foot-tall pink menorah – one that the artist made himself, out of foam board – to match the one in his book. He says he likes to have props when he reads to children.

A YA Mystery and Moral Quandary for the Techno-Obsessed

For author Deb Loughead, inspiration struck while she was reading a piece by the Toronto Star’s relationship advice columnist, Ellie Tesher. A teenage girl had written in saying that her friend was controlling her because of a secret the friend had learned about the girl, and Loughead thought – what if that secret was a truly devastating one? Thus was born The Secrets We Keep (Dundurn Press), a YA mystery novel that came out this month.

The story centers on Clem, a high school student who believes she was the last person to see her classmate, Kit, before he drowned in the quarry at a party. Clem is racked with guilt, as she believes she could have done something to prevent the death – and her friend (who Loughead named Ellie, after the advice columnist) is holding that secret over her head, demanding that Clem be at her beck and call, never letting her phone’s battery die lest she be unavailable.

People’s obsessive attachment to their phones is a current that runs strongly through the novel – in fact, Clem’s parents are worse than she is, constantly reading their devices at family dinner time. So Clem devises a plan, getting her parents to enforce rules against using devices during mealtimes and in bed, which gives her an excuse to brush off Ellie’s demands.

“There are so many families that are techno-obsessed,” Loughead says. “You go out, and everybody’s got their phone in their hand. I see toddlers with tablets – it’s out of hand. People have to make a conscious effort to put their phones away and focus on the present.”

Clem soon finds out that she’s not the only one harboring guilt about what happened that night at the quarry. Her crush, Jake, has a difficult secret about what happened that night too. But in order for them, and Kit’s mother, to find peace, the truth must be discovered. Clem and Jake try to uncover the truth, without getting in trouble themselves.

“Young adulthood is rife with secrets,” Loughead says. “I hope readers will connect with the moral issue and ask themselves how they would react in a similar situation. Was it more important for them to keep the secret or reveal the truth?”