What is it to be a refugee? How does someone become a refugee? Anisa’s Alphabet, a picture book structure around the English alphabet, explores the notion of home and the theme of resilience in the face of war and adversity as it highlights the refugee experience of a young girl and her family fleeing an undisclosed country enveloped in war. With the opening line and introduction, “A is for Anisa Alidurahn”, a personal connection is made between the reader and title character, as the accompanying framed illustration depicts the young girl playing cards with her father, mother and grandmother around the kitchen table. This domestic scene is shattered with a page turn, “B is for bombs, when the fighting began”, as bombs rain down on Anisa’s home and town, a series of vignettes document the family’s frantic packing of precious possessions and essentials. Eventually arriving at a refugee camp, Anisa and her mother are forced to leave her father and ailing grandmother behind to board a refugee boat and escape the war.
Written in the first-person narrative, the spare but affecting rhyming text succinctly captures Anisa’s uncertainty and fear as she makes the harrowing boat trip, endures appalling conditions and storms, is eventually rescued and interned in a refugee camp in another land. The muted, dark tones of the realistic watercolour, gouache and pencil illustrations underscore the drama and poignancy of the story, with the only respite being Anisa’s hopeful, naïve coloured pencil drawings, “P is for picturing life when I’m free.” The effective stylistic use of close-ups of Anisa’s face reinforces the reader’s connection to the narrator’s experience throughout. The sea rescue scene where she stares up at her rescuers and searchingly out from the page at the reader is a particularly powerful example. The final page offers a sense of hope and optimism as Anisa uses her precious pencils as tools of empowerment to imagine a future life with her reunited family.
Anisa’s Alphabet was a CBCA 2020 Book of the Year Awards notable book and was also included in The White Ravens Catalogue 2021 selection by the International Youth Library (Internationale Jugendbibliothek), based in Munich, Germany.