Czech picture book is a winner, whichever way you look at it

Czech illustrator is delighted by the response of refugee children to her new picture book.

Photo: © UNHCR/Michal Novotný

 

Front to back or back to front: Czech illustrator Tereza Pchalková’s new picture book works either way, and without the barrier of words tells a touching story of a refugee father and his daughter coming to Europe.

Tereza, 29, who created the book New Home for her master’s degree, is showing it to refugee children for the first time during an outing to the zoo in the town of Ústí nad Labem.

 

“I have been looking forward to this moment,” she says. “I will see their reaction. I made it for kids. This is the whole purpose of the book.”

Refugee families, mostly from Kazakhstan, are enjoying the excursion, organised by volunteers from UNHCR’s iVolunteer programme. The sun comes out as the zoo’s little puffer train takes everyone up the hill to the first attraction, the elephant enclosure. The forests all around are green and cleaner now than when chemical industries polluted this area in Communist times.

“We left because of dictatorship. We saw no future for our children. Europe has done 100 times more to help us.”

While the children watch the elephant perform a few gentle circus routines, the grownups talk. They have fled persecution and ask not to be identified.

One Kazakh mother, veiled and dressed in black, says: “Europe is tolerant. No-one asks me why I walk this way.”

A Kazakh father says: “We left because of dictatorship. We saw no future for our children. Europe has done 100 times more to help us.”

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Photo: © UNHCR/Michal Novotný

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Photo: © UNHCR/Michal Novotný

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Photo: © UNHCR/Michal Novotný

The desire to help refugees motivated Tereza when she was painting the watercolours for her book in her final year at Plzeň University, where she studied book binding and illustration.

“I saw the twisted debate (about migrants) in the media, how they were shown as a threat,” she says. “But the foreigners I met at university were smart. I was concerned about the refugees — how they must feel completely lost. I thought the book was the best thing I could do.”

Relying only on pictures, New Home works in two directions, introducing refugee children to aspects of European life and helping European kids to understand what it is like to be a refugee.

The characters are a father and daughter, who flee a war-torn country to seek safety. Tereza uses soft grey shades to show their journey from their native country and full colours to illustrate their arrival in their new home.

“I am not saying the Middle East is dreary and the Czech Republic is colourful,” says Tereza.

The book can be looked at from front to back, as a journey from war to safety, or from back to front, as a memory of war from a safe place. No countries are named but readers may guess the family is escaping from the Middle East and finding refuge in the Czech Republic.

“I am not saying the Middle East is dreary and the Czech Republic is colourful,” says Tereza. “Rather, the sepia colours are intended to show memories of a home country that is slipping away.”

The absence of words is also important. “There is no language barrier,” says Tereza. “The book can be used in any country, with people from many countries.”

UNHCR is financing a first edition in several hundred copies, which will be donated to schools and refugee centres. Tereza has also entered New Home for the international Silent Book Contest in Mulazzo, Italy. The results will be announced in August.

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Photo: © UNHCR/Michal Novotný

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Photo: © UNHCR/Michal Novotný

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Photo: © UNHCR/Michal Novotný

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Photo: © UNHCR/Michal Novotný

New Home is Tereza’s first book. Born in Ostrava, Tereza showed artistic talent at school, where she used to doodle on her essays. Of course, like every Czech child, she grew up with the famous stories by Zdeněk Miler of Krtek the Mole and his woodland friends.

“Sure I did, the Mole is a national symbol,” she says.

Her own delicate paintings are in this same magical, Czech fairy tale tradition. The refugee characters arrive in a land of blooming orchards, with castles on the horizon; of snow and angels at Christmas, of children choosing puppets at the Advent fair.

The last painting shows the father and daughter, having come from a dark place of bombs and graves, sunbathing among wild flowers in a summer field.

And now the time has come to test the book out on the Kazakh children at the zoo. They have reached the aquatic animals and are sitting in a row, watching the lithe movement of the seals.

The book is opened out like a concertina and placed across their knees. They see the sepia war pictures first, and then flip it over to look at the coloured pictures on the other side. Tereza smiles shyly.

Without words, the children quickly work out what the story is about. A house on fire, an ambulance, guns… “I know; I know what’s happening!” they call out.

“I like the style of the book,” says Halil, the oldest child at age 14.

“It’s so different, so unusual,” says Rachmat, 11. “The pictures are very neatly drawn. I think I would like to add something myself in the blank spaces.”

Tereza is relieved and delighted. “Yes, very happy,” she says. “I am surprised how they reacted; that they were so interested. And their Czech is so fluent. They express themselves so well. I did not expect that.”