Barbara Lehman

Sense of Place and Displacement:
Children’s Literature and Forced Relocations

Barbara A. Lehman (
The Ohio State University, Mansfield Campus, Ohio, USA

South African author Dianne Case’s semi-autobiographical 92 Queens Road (1991) describes life under apartheid in the 1960s in Cape Town. The 1950 Group Areas Act had established separate living areas for different racial classifications and led to the relocation of millions of Blacks, Coloureds, and Asians out of city residential areas to outlying townships and even so-called “homelands.” By 1968, this law began to be enforced in Cape Town, an event that figures prominently in Case’s novel. She writes: “One day Dolores [a friend of the family] arrived to visit us, in tears. The old people she lived with in District Six were being forcibly removed. They were moving to Wynberg to live with their only daughter” (p. 55). This experience had a devastating effect on Dolores’ two old friends, especially Uncle Herbie (as she called him), who lost his will to live. Eventually, 60,000 residents of the district were removed, although, since 2003, the new government is helping to repatriate former residents who can prove their claims—a process that will take some time. (For a fuller discussion of Dianne Case’s work, see my article listed in the references [Lehman, 2006].)

Throughout history there have been many instances of forced relocations such as this of specific ethnic, racial, or religious groups of people by governments and other oppressors. Unfortunately, today there are still involuntary relocations being perpetrated around the world. Children’s literature has poignantly and graphically depicted the tragedy of humans’ displacement when their sense of place is unwillingly disrupted. In this session, I discuss a sample of titles that trace relocations, such as the one portrayed in 92 Queens Road.

Another account of the tragic effects of the apartheid law described above is found in Chain of Fire (1990), by Beverley Naidoo, first published in England in 1989. This book, a sequel to her earlier Journey to Jo’burg (1985), shows the political coming-of-age for 13-year-old Naledi and her schoolmates, when the South African government declares their village a Whites-only area and their families are faced with eviction to a barren “homeland” they have never seen. Led by high school students like Naledi, a resistance movement quickly develops, often over their parents’ objections, that crescendos in a bloody demonstration similar to the 1976 Soweto Uprising. In the end, readers are left with tragic images of government bulldozers razing homes, but Naledi feels more committed to the struggle than ever.

Within modern times, one of the most infamous examples, of course, occurred during the Holocaust when Jews and other “undesirables” were sent first to ghettos and then concentration camps. In the last two decades, many books have been published about this experience, and as an outstanding example, I have selected Schoschana Rabinovici’s memoir, Thanks to My Mother, first published in 1991, translated from Hebrew into German in 1994 and into English in 1998, and winner of the American Library Association’s Mildred Batchelder Award for best translated book. This remarkable first-person account of survival after the Nazi invasion of Lithuania shows, in grim detail, how the author (then known as Susie, an eight-year-old girl) and her family first tried to hide, then were moved into the Jewish ghetto in Vilnius and, finally, routed through three concentration camps. Susie credits her mother with saving Susie’s life during the war to emerge alive at the end—a moving testimony to the endurance of the human spirit.

The United States has made its own contributions to this shameful legacy through numerous forced relocations, beginning with the push by colonial settlers of Native Americans from their ancestral homes and claiming ever more land for their European rulers. Many books have captured a variety of these early displacements. Later, in what is now Arizona, Navahos were forced to migrate from their homeland to Fort Sumner in New Mexico, as depicted in Sing Down the Moon (1970), by Scott O’Dell, who won the 1972 Hans Christian Andersen medal. This story is told from the point of view of a 14-year-old girl, Bright Morning, and depicts the brutal displacement in 1864, known as The Long Walk, a well-known piece of Navaho history. Held prisoners at the fort for four years, many of those Navahos and others who went into hiding, survived to return to what is now a Navaho Nation reservation that extends into Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Another American historical disgrace—the government’s forced removal during World War II of Japanese Americans from the west coast to internment camps—is documented in different texts. For example, Yoshiko Uchida’s Journey to Topaz, published in 1971 is a gripping story based upon her own experiences when her family was forcibly “evacuated” from California in 1942 and imprisoned in a camp in Topaz, Utah. Eventually, 120,000 people were uprooted in this way for the duration of the war. A nonfiction account, The Children of Topaz (1996), by Michael Tunnell and George Chilcoat, tells the story of this camp, with excerpts from a classroom diary and original photographs.

Probably the most glaring American transgression began shortly after the first European invaders set foot on soil in the New World—the forced migration of millions of Africans to toil as slaves. In 1619, the first African slaves were introduced to English territory in Jamestown Colony, Virgina. Their labor was deemed essential to the Colony’s viability, a reality that was repeated throughout both North and South America. (In this manner, for example, Africans were brought to Haiti in the 18th century.) This topic has been covered in dozens of excellent works for young readers, but Julius Lester and Rod Brown’s 1998 publication of From Slave Ship to Freedom Road is one of the most provocative accounts of the Middle Passage—as the transfer of slaves from Africa to the New World is known. Through direct, startling questions and vivid paintings, readers are led to take different perspectives on this subject, which gives it a sense of immediacy and engenders both anger and empathy.

One of the most intractable problems in today’s world is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Since the birth of modern Israel in 1949, two groups have competed for the same land in many areas. Ibtisam Barakat recounts her childhood as a Palestinian in Tasting the Sky (2007). Barakat was just three years old when the 1967 Six Days’ War erupted, and her home in Ramallah came under attack by Israeli forces. They were forced to flee to Jordan, but although they returned, they always felt threatened and eventually gave up their home place permanently. To date the displacement of Palestinians to make way for Israeli settlements continues to have an enormous impact on the West Bank and Golan Heights.

Barakat, in a speech at the November, 2007, IBBY Regional Conference in Tucson, Arizona (USA), described displacements as a means of trying to gain power by rendering someone else powerless and stated that everyone is in a position of privilege in relation to someone else. A peace activist, she believes in healing and that the child’s voice can lead the way—a voice that clearly is heard in her book. She stated that we need to “stop this narrative of all displacing one another.”

Heeding those words and to bring this paper full circle, I present a vision of healing from South Africa. Niki Daly has been that country’s Hans Christian Andersen nominee for illustration, but he also authors many of the books he writes. One well-known series of picture books he has developed, features an indomitable young girl named Jamela. In the first two books—Jamela’s Dress (1999) and What’s Cooking, Jamela? (2001)—the homes, street scenes, and people of a typical Black township give a clear picture of the setting for these stories. However, in Where’s Jamela? (2004), Daly moves her family to a formerly all-White neighborhood from which persons of color would have been forcibly removed under the Group Areas Act. (In fact, Daly slyly claims that he moved her into his own house [Lehman, 2006]!) The fourth book, Happy Birthday, Jamela! (2006), shows the family fully integrated into their vibrant, multi-ethnic neighborhood. This also will be the setting of his forthcoming title, Song for Jamela.

To follow the reversal of a historically brutal displacement as depicted by the settings in these books is uplifting, although many forced removals never come to such a positive end. The settings in all the books I’ve discussed clearly provide a sense of place. When we study literature with children, we also can help them to recognize underlying social, political, and moral implications when we closely examine where and when the story is set. Stories of displacements from around the world often make these implications most starkly. We may even ask hard questions about current events, such as those in Darfur and the holding of prisoners without charge in Guantanimo Bay. Children who have had similar experiences may find identification and catharsis, while children whose lives have not been touched in this way may gain empathy.

Barakat, I. (2007). Tasting the sky: A Palestinian childhood. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Case, D. (1991). 92 Queens Road. Cape Town, SA: Maskew Miller Longman.

Daly, N. (1999). Jamela’s dress. London: Frances Lincoln.

Daly, N. (2001). What’s cooking, Jamela? London: Frances Lincoln.

Daly, N. (2004). Where’s Jamela? London: Frances Lincoln.

Daly, N. (2006). Happy birthday, Jamela! London: Frances Lincoln.

Lehman, B. A. (2006). Sense of place and displacement: Exploring international places in the writing of Dianne Case. Journal of Children’s Literature, 32 (2), 66-69.

Lehman, B. A. (2006). Niki Daly: Renaissance person—Artist, writer, and composer. USBBY Newsletter, 31 (2), 8-9.

Lester, J., & Brown, R. (1998). From slave ship to freedom road. New York: Dial.

Naidoo, B. (1985). Journey to Jo’burg. London: Collins.

Naidoo, B. (1989). Chain of fire. London: Collins.

O’Dell, S. (1970). Sing down the moon. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Rabinovici, S. (1998). Thanks to my mother. New York: Dial.

Tunnell, M. O., & Chilcoat, G. W. (1996). Children of Topaz: The story of a Japanese-American internment camp. New York: Holiday House.

Uchida, Y. (1971). Journey to Topaz. Berkeley, CA: Creative Arts.