Meidän piti lähteä and the Problematics of Voicing the Refugee Experience in a Wordless Picturebook

  • Jaana Pesonen
Keywords: empaty, refugee narratives, voice, wordless pictureboooks


Meidän piti lähteä (We Had to Leave, 2018) is a wordless picture-book by the Finnish author Sanna Pelliccioni. It is a work of 41 pages, most of which are formed from pairs of images with matching colours produced in acrylic. It starts with images of a family enjoying their life, but shifts to images of aeroplanes bombing a city, a journey over the sea to a place where people build snowmen: the implied narrative is that of a family caught up in the recent refugee crisis seeking asylum in Finland. In this article, I examine the literary strategies in narrating the refugee experience in this wordless picturebook. The approach is pedagogical as I ask: How can a picturebook, such as Meidän piti lähteä, give voice to the refugee experience? I also ask whether picturebooks about the refugee experience can teach about empathy, without essentializing the Other. Two not controversial, but differing views related to the notion of “giving voice” frame these questions. While empha­sising the pedagogical opportunities, Julia Hope (“One Day” 302), argues that the refugee experiences in children’s literature form “an ideal context for sharing the stories, feelings and fears” that children have experienced, but also expose stereotypes and media myths. On the other hand, Gayatri Spivak famously argued in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988) that, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak. This article situates Meidän piti lähteä in the midst of these dis­courses to present wordless picturebooks as an arena for diverse narratives about refugees, which have the potential to support empathy, but which may also reinforce stereotypical and tokenistic images of refugees. The analysis suggests that the visual discourse creates an effective narrative, with space for listening. In addition, the article suggests that refugee narratives can foster critical self-reflexivity.

How to Cite
Pesonen, J. (2020). Meidän piti lähteä and the Problematics of Voicing the Refugee Experience in a Wordless Picturebook. Barnboken, 43.
Theme: Diversity in Nordic Children’s & Young Adult Literature