It has been years, probably, since I picked up a children’s book, complete with illustrations. I didn’t know what to expect. People are always talking about how kids these days consume books differently and need different stories than kids needed in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And maybe that’s true.
But The Banana-Leaf Ball, written by Katie Smith Milway and illustrated by Shane W. Evans, feels familiar. It reminds me of stories I read as a kid, or heard about on the radio or from well-meaning missionaries giving speeches on their way back from Africa and South America. Milway’s story brings me back to sitting cross legged on scratchy, industrial church carpet imagining countries that seemed impossibly far away, about children whose lives didn’t seem real. They were tales of fear, and hope, all wrapped up in simple stories, meant for children’s ears.
As I read The Banana-Leaf Ball, I was struck by the similar cadence to the half remembered stories and slideshows. It’s quite a skill, to create something fresh for new readers that transports an adult back to the complicated feelings they had as a child hearing stories about wars and refugee camps.
It’s terrifying that we still need to tell these stories of hardship and survival to generate empathy and kinship for our far away neighbours. Or for the people around us. The world hasn’t changed that much. These stories are still relevant and necessary.
Milway’s story is informed by Benjamin Nzobonankira’s. In 1993, at age 10, he fled Burundi and ended up in an UN refugee camp in Tanzania, where playing soccer helped create a sense of community and trust in a difficult place. We’re the same age. Our experiences as children could not have been more different. And I’m grateful for the reminder that even as (especially as) adults, we can relearn empathy and compassion by finding common ground.
Katie Smith Milway participated in Event 3 (Citizen Kid) and Event 26 (A Big Difference) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Fest.