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Kidlit Spotlight: A chance discovery online led author Margriet Ruurs on a journey to her altruistic new picture book

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October_KidsSpotlight_SteppingStones_Interior04_CCFor most of us, social media is nothing more than a way of avoiding the more important things we should be doing. But it was via Facebook that Margriet Ruurs, author of more than 30 books for children, found inspiration for her latest picture book, Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, out this month with Orca Book Publishers.

As Ruurs was surfing online one day in fall 2015, an image in her newsfeed caused the author (and owner of Between the Covers, a book-themed bed-and-breakfast on Salt Spring Island, B.C.) to do a double take. In the tender image, a mother carries a child in her arms; the father trudges behind with a heavy load on his shoulders. What made the art even more impressive than the scene it presented was its medium: carefully arranged and photographed pebbles. Curiosity piqued, Ruurs went to the Facebook page of the artist, Nizar Ali Badr, where she found thousands of photos, many equally touching. “When you see them bent over, under the weight of what they’re carrying, and then you see joy – and for goodness sakes, it’s just rocks!” says Ruurs.

As she scrolled through the images, a narrative – and an altruistic idea – began to emerge: “Immediately it occurred to me that I could write a story and have the book benefit refugees,” says Ruurs.

Inspired and determined, Ruurs set about contacting Badr, who lives in Latakia, Syria. What followed were months of unanswered Facebook messages, pleas to friends fluent in Arabic for help, and even emails to random departments of Tishreen University in Latakia, on the off chance someone there knew of Badr. Eventually, a Pakistan-based friend of Ruurs’s tracked down an English-speaking friend of Badr’s, who was able to act as a go-between for author and artist. Once Badr agreed to the project (in theory), Ruurs moved on to her next task: finding a like-minded publisher. Her first thought was Orca.

October_KidsSpotlight_SteppingStones_Interior02Ruurs had met Bob Tyrrell, president of Orca, years before at an IBBY congress in China, and thought he might be sympathetic to her plans. “So I broke another rule by phoning him,” she says. Unbeknownst to Ruurs, Tyrrell was already involved with a group raising money to fund the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Victoria. The timing, and intention, was perfect. “As a publisher, I don’t usually nod my head in the right direction quite so easily as I did with this one,” says Tyrrell, whose excitement for the project grew after seeing Badr’s work online. “It went from ‘Yeah, we’ll do it and maybe we can raise some money for the refugee situation’ to, ‘Wow, the potential here is huge.’ Just bringing this artist to a broader audience is a tremendous opportunity for us.”

Told from the point of view of a young girl whose family is forced to flee their war-torn homeland and join the “river of strangers in search of a place to be free, to live, and laugh, and love,” Stepping Stones is being published with text in both English and Arabic. The bilingual edition, says Tyrrell, is designed to get the book into the hands of the 25,000-plus refugees who have arrived in Canada over the past year, providing both familiarity and a learning opportunity for Arabic speakers tackling English for the first time.

Any educational element is secondary to the book’s primary purpose of raising funds, however. To that end, Orca is donating one dollar from the sale of each book to organizations involved with refugee resettlement. “We’re going to give it to organizations where 100 per cent of the money will go to refugees,” says Tyrrell. Plans are also afoot to offer the book at a 50 per cent discount to organizations that use it to fundraise for refugees. For her part, the author is donating her royalties.

Ruurs, who has travelled to more than 50 countries on author visits to English-speaking schools, where she shares her passion for books and literacy, says she wrote the book with her six-year-old grandson in mind. But both author and publisher hope Stepping Stones will hold broad appeal. With its large format, beautiful artwork, and arresting design by Ocra’s art director, Teresa Bubela, the book is as likely to grace coffee tables as nursery bookshelves. “To me, it’s not just a children’s book,” says Ruurs. “I hope it will really open people’s eyes to how silly war is, and how we need to help each other regardless of faith or religion or race. It’s such a universal story.”