The Salt Spring Library Program Room was packed on Saturday afternoon as people came in dripping from the torrential rain to hear Margriet Ruurs talk about how her latest book.
Ruurs, a Salt Spring Island resident, has written a few dozen children’s picture books — many of them award winners — and can probably recount the “birth story” for all of them.
But it would be hard to top the tale surrounding the origins of Stepping Stones — A Refugee Family’s Journey.
About a year ago Ruurs was on Facebook when she saw an arresting image of a mother carrying a baby, followed by a man, his head bent over from the weight of carrying their belongings on his back. It took her a moment to realize that the picture was made simply from the arrangement of stones.
“As a writer of picture books you usually have nothing to do with the illustrations,” she told me during a recent interview, “but a couple of my latest books were done in paper collage and one was in 3D collage . . . so I am always looking for unique art.”
The image was signed by “Nizar Ali Badr.”
Ruurs found his Facebook page easily enough and could see several examples of his artwork. Many were of refugees leaving Syria, where he lives. Ruurs was immediately inspired to write a book about the refugee experience and to have it illustrated by these remarkable stone images.
But connecting with the Syrian artist would prove challenging.
Ruurs sent a few messages to him via Facebook, before suspecting he might not read English. She then asked an Arabic-speaking friend in Australia to translate her message and she sent it again. There was still no response, even though he was still posting on Facebook, so was obviously alive and in the same place.
Another Arabic-speaking friend in Pakistan, whose son is well-versed with technology, then determined that Badr had the maximum number of Facebook friends his account could accommodate, so he was not receiving any messages from people outside that roster.
But the friend did connect with Badr, who advised Ruurs to email a friend who speaks English. Saji Qorqmaz responded right away and arranged for the three of them to have tea over Facebook.
Ruurs learned that Badr lives near the beach in Latakia, and comes from a strong background of artists and carvers. He said he could very much like to provide the artwork for her book. She stressed how he needed to protect the images from being used by other people.
“Now I had to find a publisher quickly,” said Ruurs.
She knew that would also be a challenge, as the terms “book publishing” and “quickly” do not normally go together.
As well, she wanted the publisher to donate some of the book sale profits to refugee causes, so the company needed to be inclined towards charitable projects. (Ruurs is donating all royalties from sales of the book.)
“I phoned him up and I said ‘I have this amazing artist. I have photos of his artwork and written a story to go with them.’ I emailed him a photo while we were on the phone and he said ‘yes’ right away.”
Stepping Stones recounts the experience of a Syrian family whose life in their village is happy and peaceful until war comes to their country. “Life in our village changed. Nothing was as it had been.”
Written through the eyes of a young girl, it describes how her family joins the “river of people in search of peace,” with the story beautifully illustrated by Badr’s stone pictures.
Tyrrell not only agreed to publish the book, but Orca is offering the book to schools as a fundraiser. They can purchase copies of Stepping Stones for half price and then sell them with the profit to be donated to refugee causes of the classes’ choice.
Well-known author Eric Walters used the book in a Sept. 17 Welcome Neighbours event he organized in Guelph, Ont., where he was joined by that city’s refugee families, other authors such as Robert Munsch, and government officials.
Reviews for Stepping Stones have so far been terrific.
“But my biggest review came when [Syrian Salt Spring resident] Sam Khaldi read it and he got all teary-eyed and said, ‘This is exactly how it was.’”
At Saturday’s event at the library, Ruurs also got choked up when reading from one of the pages.
And indeed, the gorgeous stone art, story and design combine to make it a truly moving book for people of all ages.
Ruurs said she undertook the project to bring awareness to the refugee cause and to Badr’s artwork, and to help young people understand the refugee situation.
“I wanted to explain to my grandchildren what is happening and how people can help each other.”
Ruurs said her parents had a similar experience in the Netherlands during World War II.
“It is what war does anywhere, anytime.”