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Creating “them” and “us”: The educational framing of picture books to teach about forced displacement and today’s “refugee crisis”

Mary Tomsic (School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia)
Claire Marika Deery (School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 16 May 2019

Issue publication date: 10 June 2019




The purpose of this paper is to examine how the contemporary “refugee crisis” is being presented to children through picture books and teaching materials. It uses the concept of refugeedom as an approach that takes into account the multiple facets involved in the forced movement of people in the past and present and seeks to show the value of historical understandings in educational contexts when framing resources for teachers and students.


The paper examines a sample of high-profile English language picture books about children’s stories of forced displacement and the most prominent freely available teaching materials connected to the books. A critical discursive analysis of the books and educative guides considers the ways in which ideas and information about forced displacement is framed for child readers and children in primary school classrooms. The context for the authors’ interest in exploring these books and educational resources is that in response to the numbers of children who are part of the current “refugee crisis” alongside a public call for the “crisis” to be explained to children.


The paper argues that picture books open up spaces for children to explore refugeedom through experiences of forced movement and various factors involved in the contemporary “refugee crisis”. In contrast, in the teaching resources and some peritextual materials, the child in the classroom is addressed as entirely disconnected from children who are forcibly displaced, students in classrooms are positioned to learn from the refugee “other”. When links are made between students in classroom and children who have been forcibly displaced it is through activities that position students in classrooms to imagine themselves as forcibly displaced, or to suggest they act within a humanitarian framework of welcoming or helping refugees. The authors believe that if teaching resources were more directly informed by discipline specific tools of historical concepts, more nuanced approaches to past and present histories of forced movement could be considered and from that more fruitful learning opportunities created for all students.

Practical implications

This research provides ideas about how materials to support the use of picture books in educational settings could be developed to promote historical thinking and contextualisation around key social and political issues in the world today. It also makes the case for historians to be involved in the creation of teaching materials in a collaborative way so that academic insights can be brought to teachers and students at all levels of education.


The value of this research is to understand how children are positioned in reading and learning about forced displacement and query the impact of decontextualised approaches to learning. It argues for the critical interpretative value that historical understanding can bring to present day issues which are history in the making.



The authors would like to thank Helen Proctor and the anonymous referees for their generous and insightful feedback in preparing this research for publication.


Tomsic, M. and Deery, C.M. (2019), "Creating “them” and “us”: The educational framing of picture books to teach about forced displacement and today’s “refugee crisis”", History of Education Review, Vol. 48 No. 1, pp. 46-60.



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