Exploring immigrant children’s experiences in Britain through comparing two fictional stories.

The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan 12+ years
Nadine Dreams of Home by Bernard Ashley 8+ years (reading age 7)


This is the fourth and final post of my global empathy posts focusing on stories that could help to build an understanding of immigrants, immigration and our global connections. I consider two stories of children’s experiences shortly after they arrived in Britain. Kasienka is a 13 year old from Poland. Nadine (primary school age) has fled from Goma. It struck me that the setting in Britain may make it easier for children to identify with them.

The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan is a story written as a set of poems. I found this very powerful, particularly at communicating feelings and emotion. Nadine Dreams of Home by Bernard Ashley is one of Barrington Stokes shorter reads for 8 to 12 year olds. I love Barrington Stokes commitment to producing ‘super readable’ books with tinted page, clear readable fonts, and text levels set to certain reading ages. But, stories like Nadine Dreams of Home are so great that they should be shared. Both, stories deserve a place in every library (including in the adult section!). I nearly compared another book with Sarah Cossan’s story. But, when I read Bernard Ashley’s story I realized that the two books would be great together. It fascinated me how I immediately started looking for similarities between the two girls lives and how by doing so I felt I understood each one better. Each girl’s story enhanced the other. I will now highlight some of the similarities.

Firstly, both girls arrive in Britain, with their mum, but without their fathers, which as they express in their own words meant ‘their families were incomplete’. Kasienka came to England with her mum from Poland, looking for her missing father. Nadine, her mum and brother left war torn Goma (in the Congo) leaving her father behind in the hands of the rebels. Both authors have managed to convey  well the emotions and feelings of each child as they grapple with a new school, new life and new country.

Secondly, both children struggle at first with understanding their new language of English. I love how this is captured in the poem of Kasienka’s First Day:

“So what’s your name dear? Mrs Warren asks,

And I’m glad because I was afraid she had mistaken

Me for someone called Dear,

And that I would have to

Respond to that name

For ever. “

p10 The Weight of Water Sarah Crossan

Thirdly, it is interesting how technology is brought into each story, and used to resolve some of their issues. Kasienka’s mum uses a computer to search for her missing husband. Nadine’s classmate helps her to find a picture of her beloved Goma on a computer in the library. Then memories come flooding back of what she has left and her concerns for her father’s safety.

“In front of Nadine was a page of unreadable writing, but what grabbed her eye was a picture. A picture she knew.

A picture of Goma! There was no mistaking it – a scene of banana trees by Lake Kiviu and, in the background, the great Cow Herd mountain. “

p17-18 Nadine Dreams of Home: Bernard Ashley

Fourthly, both girls find ways to deal with their unfamiliar worlds and the emotions and uncertainties in their lives. For Nadine it is the safe haven of the weekly trip to the library, where she can view a picture of Goma, which helps her to feel connected to what she has lost. For Kasienka through swimming, she’s connected to her past (her daddy taught her to Swim) and it also gives her hope. Through swimming she makes a new friend, who becomes her boyfriend, and it’s also a way for her to release her emotions.

It is really powerful how many of Kaienka’s and Nadine’s experiences are similar to other children. In fact some British children will identify much in common. Themes include: finding your way around a new school, being misunderstood, bullies and bullying, absent or distracted parents, and that realisation that no matter how bad things get there are ways forward and people to help.

There is plenty for discussion in looking at what is the same and what is different. A key difference is Kasienka and her family are immigrants and Nadine is a refugee. In Brexit Britain, where children are receiving a lot of mixed messages both stories could be really valuable in building empathy and understanding.

Whilst writing this I noticed a blog post  by That Boy Can Teach @thatboycanteach  In which he and the book he referred to Reading Reconsidered (1) talked about the value of paired text’s. In this context they were talking about the concept of ‘embedding non-fiction’ by paring a non fiction book with a fiction book (2) Benefits of doing this include: helping to provide context and build understanding, and that what you absorb from both texts goes up. In conclusion to his post he points out:

“Pairing two fiction texts can be powerful in many ways as mentioned above, particularly if both stories are based on true events.” (2)

Which I found was very much the case in reading these two stories, which are fictional but based on real children’s experiences.

* (1)  Reading Reconsidered: A practical guide to rigorous reading instruction by Lemov, Driggs, Woolway: 2016.

*(2) ‘Teaching Reading: Pairing Non-Fiction with Fiction’ on the http://thatboycanteach.blogspot.co.uk

Please note: Sarah Crossan’s book is a young adult title and therefore may not be appropriate to use in a primary classroom. However, I think children aged 10 year and above would really appreciate much of the story and the language too. One way round this would be to use some of the poems, which could work provided they were kept in sequential order.

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