Taking on a scary, big-world topic and writing it in a way that small readers can both relate to and find hope in is no easy task. That is exactly what Wendy Meddour set out to do in her latest picture book, Lubna and Pebble. While adults will immediately recognize the setting as a refugee camp, children will be captured by the triumphant creativity, resilience, and caring shown by one small child.
After arriving in a World of Tents, Lubna finds comfort and strength in a pebble she finds on the shore. When Amir arrives, the two become friends and through an act of giving, Lubna is able to help him find hope as well.
Despite the context of the book, Lubna and Pebble is relatable to children from a wide variety of backgrounds, due in part to the autobiographical nature of Pebble. As a child, Meddour had a pebble as a friend and the memories still fill her with fondness. The joy she found in such a simple object was the perfect inspiration for a story of two children who have nothing. “I wanted to celebrate children,” said Meddour, “However little they have; however fraught their political situation, children do not judge, they do not have borders, they are open, creative and stronger than many expect.” These characteristics give them resilience, joy, and hope. Meddour’s short but emotive sentences convey that truth in a way that has universal appeal.
The author also wanted to give a voice to refugee children. Meddour is a professor at Exeter University. Last year, she received a grant from Arts Council England to develop an academic project called “Vulnerable Children and the Power of the Picture Book.” Lubna and Pebble grew out of this project, as well as what she was seeing in the news. One particular broadsheet cartoon, drawn by children’s author and illustrator Chris Riddell, was featured in The Guardian, and showed a heartbreaking picture of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned while trying to immigrate to Europe with his family, and whose body washed up on the shore. This image stayed with Meddour and she knew she needed to write a story to give this experience some perspective. It was a challenge to write, but Lubna and Pebble conveys the reality that, as Meddour says, “a pebble shouldn’t be the only thing besides their parents that Lubna and Amir can trust” while also being relatable and full of hope.
Meddour is best known for her middle-grade books, but says her most poignant, emotional moments — like her reaction to the refugee crisis and the image of Alan Kurdi — are captured in her picture books. Through her picture-book process, she refines the writing over and over again until she distills it down to its most essential elements. “As my students would confirm, picture books are easy to write badly,’’ said Meddour, ‘but they are very, very difficult to write well. At least, it takes me endless edits and redrafts to get a version that I’m truly happy with.’’
Once the writing was done, the next stage of the process required trust. It is common in the picture book industry for writers to have little input on the illustrations once the editor has the story. Meddour is herself an illustrator and her popular series, Wendy Quill, was illustrated by her (then 11-year-old) daughter, Mina May, with whom she works closely. For Lubna and Pebble, Meddour had to trust Peter Marley, her editor at Oxford University Press, to bring the book to life. Marley chose Daniel Egnéus to do the illustrations. Egnéus is a celebrated artist who has worked with everyone from Chanel to Rod Stewart and Neil Gaiman. Meddour was ecstatic to have such a talented illustrator, and fortunate that Marley encouraged some early discussion between herself and Egnéus. After that, she waited, trusting in the talent of the team. The result astounded her. Egnéus’ sweeping illustrations, that move from raw to imaginative, perfectly paired with the text. “The first time I saw his pictures with my words I cried,” said Meddour.
Moving toward the launch date, the team questioned whether the book would be seen as too political for children. However, the response has been wonderfully positive. The reality is that no matter how parents try to shelter their children, they see the news, they overhear things and they ask questions. Books like Lubna and Pebble create a safe space for children and their parents to address current events with hope.
The process of working with Egnéus showed Meddour how much great illustrations can bring to a story and inspired her to write her next projects with that in mind. Meddour has two more picture books out this year. Due out in August is Tibble and Grandpa, a story about grief, with Daniel Egnéus’ illustrations and also inspired by her “Vulnerable Children and the Power of Picture Books” project. The second, Stefano the Squid: Hero of the Deep, features a wobbly, nervous anti-hero with a story that speaks to the power of introverts in a world geared for extroverts. Currently, on her writing desk, Meddour is working on a short story for adults and another picture book, Not in That Dress, Princess.
Dr. Wendy Meddour is a creative writing lecturer at Exeter University, UK. After gaining her Ph.D., she spent 8 years teaching English Literature at Oxford University. Her debut children's book was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, which recognizes an outstanding children's book or YA novel by a first-time author, and she has gone on to publish over 15 children's books with leading publishers, many of which have been translated into languages as diverse as Arabic, Hebrew, German, Korean, Turkish, Spanish, Japanese, Greek and Russian. She lives in Devon and does much of her writing while looking out at the sea.
Elizabeth is a writer, designer, professor and dedicated bookworm.