Children often take in everything around them, even if they don’t appear to be listening. I am frequently astounded by the depth, insight and unique angles children find in the books we share, especially when we ask questions that extend the narrative. Children can understand complicated concepts, especially if ideas are stripped back to their essential details and supportively analysed.
One picture book that always stays with me long after I read it is Suri’s Wall, authored by Lucy Estela, illustrated by Matt Ottley and shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia awards in 2016.
Suri’s Wall is set in an orphanage, behind the confines of a wall. At first the reason for the wall’s existence is subtly obscured, but through making connections to the world around us, readers can understand the dangers that lie beyond its boundaries. Through Suri’s journey, we see her evolve to make friends with her fellow orphans and rise up to a role of protector of the children’s innocence. Once Suri can see over the wall and understands the danger and destruction that lies beyond it, her choice to protect the children from this truth by telling them stories of bright, magical lands, raises an ethical dilemma.
Suri’s Wall explores loneliness, friendship, feeling othered, and the power of stories to comfort and help us make sense of our experiences. Sharing this book with children will no doubt encourage rich discussions about the themes explored in the book.
A central theme throughout this book is how stories shape our experiences. When sharing this book with children, you could discuss your and their favourite stories, and how we see ourselves in them. Suri’s stories mask the truth, while other stories reveal it – do they both serve valid purposes? The most important role of Suri’s stories is in providing her listeners with a landscape where they can feel safe. The escapist stories subsequently lead Suri to the friendships she craves, revealing the natural human yearning for meaningful connection.
After reading together, you could talk about the role of the stories in the book, and the boundaries that define a story from a lie. How do Suri’s stories comfort and protect the children? Should Suri have told them the truth, or did she do the right thing? This is a discussion that is not clear-cut, unlike many prescriptive and didactic tales children are exposed to.
Another central metaphor in the book Suri’s Wall, is that of the Wall. This is an opportunity to spend time with children exploring what a wall means, starting with where we see them and what their purpose is.
The wall is Suri’s ‘only friend’ and before she grows tall enough to see over it, the ‘touch of the stones g[i]ve her warmth.’ The idea of not knowing what is beyond or inside walls is a discussion that could be explored. How can a wall make us feel? Perhaps protected, left out, safe, isolated.
Children are fascinated by places around the world that are beyond their known experience. In addition to talking about the walls we see everyday, you could investigate walls while out on adventures, including walls that are decorated with art. This could naturally lead into an investigation of significant walls around the world: The Walls of Ston in Croatia, the Berlin Wall, the Walls of Babylon in Iraq, and many others.
A discussion could arise around the similarities and differences of the purpose of these walls, including the ‘Trump wall’, which will be built, brick-by-brick, on a fundamental intolerance for difference. The Great Wall of China has been repurposed many times, now attracting thousands of international tourists daily. Perhaps it served its purpose in immortalising the people who built the wall, though at the time the expensive armour did not count for much from a military perspective. Meanwhile in Germany, what’s left of the Berlin Wall serves as a memorial to this period of history.
Through investigating walls together, you will uncover that throughout history and across cultures, many walls have been built for the purpose of division – but have they succeeded? A little digging around will reveal that giant political walls have always been porous. Perhaps building a wall does not create real security, rather it is an inadvertent admission of vulnerability.
Older children might enjoy exploring Robyn Bavati’s, Within These Walls , which was also shortlisted for the 2016 CBCA award. This is a well-researched and heartbreaking novel about a young girl who survives the Warsaw Ghetto and its liquidation during the Holocaust. Again, these walls were not only permeable but ultimately demolished. Bavati shows us that while utterly devastating and inhumane inside the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto, the inhabitants fought to retain their humanity.
With Suri’s Wall in hand, you can extrapolate the meaning of walls globally in art and literature and in our own experiences. Children may draw invaluable conclusions from making connections between the ways that walls construct (or deconstruct) our identities.
Siana Einfeld is a mum, visual arts teacher, emerging writer, masters student and part of the editing team for this year’s Antithesis journal. She is passionate about bringing quality literature into the hands of children.