Why Marie-Louise Gay created a picture book about the life of a child refugee

Mustafa, which is for readers aged 4-8, is shortlisted for the 2019 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.
Marie-Louise Gay is the author of Mustafa. (Groundwood Books)

Montreal's Marie-Louise Gay is a prolific author and illustrator of children's literature. Her latest is Mustafa, a picture book which tells the story of an imaginative child refugee whose new country is very far away from his old home.

Mustafa is on the shortlist for the 2019 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award. The $50,000 prize is the biggest in Canadian children's literature. The winner will be announced on Oct. 15, 2019.

Gay has previously been nominated for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award twice — in 2015 for Any Questions? and in 2008 for Please, Louise! written by Frieda Wishinsky.

Gay spoke to CBC Books about how she created Mustafa.

The resilience of refugees

"This book is special because it is based on something real. Four years ago, I was travelling in Europe and I was hearing a lot about the migrants or refugees that were crossing Croatia and Serbia by bus, truck or train. While in Belgrade to see a friend, I could see that some parts of the city were filled with refugees waiting for the next leg of their journey. Large groups of families were staying in parks in makeshift tents and camps. I could see that they were weary and clearly had travelled far. 

This book is special because it is based on something real.- Marie-Louise Gay

"What stayed with me seeing this situation was the resilience of the kids that were there. There were all these young kids playing around in the grass. I was thinking of these kids, who were on the cusp of a new life. Unlike their parents, they didn't have the same notion of what it means to leave a place for a new one. But what they do have is their curiosity and their ability to thrive in a new environment. And so the idea for Mustafa sprang from this."

Through a child's eyes

"When I was five years old, I was moved with my parents from Quebec to Ontario. I had never spoken a word of English up to that point. I was put into kindergarten with English speaking kids, as there wasn't an immersion program at the time.

"I remember this vividly, not being able to communicate or understand the other children. This experience helped me better understand what children like Mustafa might experience."

Excerpted from Mustafa, copyright © 2018 by Marie-Louise Gay. Reproduced with permission from Groundwood Books Ltd., Toronto. (Groundwood Books)

The little things

"I tried to see the world as a child would. The vision that a child has includes all the details of their environment. Even as they don't necessarily understand the bigger picture, kids understand the small things. 

I tried to see the world as a child would. The vision that a child has includes all the details of their environment.- Marie-Louise Gay

"Mustafa looks at the world around him, the flowers and the insects and the people that he doesn't understand. His imagination is working all the time and I tried to capture that feeling of childhood where everything is different. As children, you're trying to crack the code in the world around you and they don't have the hangups or biases that we adults we often have."

Starting small

"I work in a home studio. From that initial idea, I started taking notes and creating little sketches of what Mustafa and his world might look like. I created a storyboard and used a paper and pencil to create the text. As a picture book there isn't a large word count but every sentence counts.

"In the case of Mustafa, I used a lot of watercolours and line work for the art. Typically, it's only when I have a solid storyboard and a polished draft of the manuscript when I present it to a publisher."

Excerpted from Mustafa, copyright © 2018 by Marie-Louise Gay. Reproduced with permission from Groundwood Books Ltd., Toronto. (Groundwood Books)

Hope and friendship

"I didn't want Mustafa to be identified as a certain type of refugee or migrant from a specific country. But I did want to reflect that he would be coming from a place that was experiencing a terrible ordeal. The only outward sign you would see is that his mother is wearing a headscarf. I recently got some feedback on the book from a librarian who was Muslim and who loved the book because she could see Mustafa being from a place like Syria.

Mustafa is a real character to me. I wanted him to to be able to communicate without words.- Marie-Louise Gay

"I get involved with my characters. Mustafa is a real character from me. I wanted him to be able to communicate without words. It was about trying to get that little boy to communicate his loneliness and isolation to the reader.

"After reading the book, maybe if they meet a child in their class who can't speak their language, they could possibly address that child in another way."

Marie-Louise Gay's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews from the How I Wrote It series here.


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