Interview with children's book author Thomas Mac Pfeifer

Long ago and far away

Children's book author Thomas Mac Pfeifer spent close to a year interviewing migrant children in Germany and writing up stories from their homelands. The tales in his book take the audience on a bittersweet journey to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Burkina Faso and other conflict zones. Interview by Sertan Sanderson

How would you describe the book in your own words?

Thomas Mac Pfeifer: This is first and foremost a children's book for and by children who have come here from war zones and conflict areas. It includes stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Africa. The stories told in the book are all written in the native language of the refugee children who shared them, but also featured in German and in English. I invested a great deal of effort in looking for these stories, then I collated them and had them translated into German and English. This way, the children reading the book can also pick up some German and some English as well.

What inspired you to write this book?

Mac Pfeifer: I tried to imagine how these children must feel once they arrive in Germany. They are bound to lie in bed at night and still see those terrible images of war and destruction when they close their eyes. That's what led to my writing of the opening story.

Cover of Mac Pfeifer's "Ein Stern, der in dein Fenster schaut" (A star that peers through your window)
With illustrations and multilingual narratives, MacPfeifer says he hopes to reach an audience that goes beyond refugees, and believes that everyone can learn something from the tales recounted in the book, titled "Ein Stern, der in dein Fenster schaut" (A star that peers through your window)

In it, there are two refugee children in bed who can't sleep. They get up and look out the window together and pick out a star – the brightest of them all. That star becomes their friend and they name it "Lu-La-Lu-La-Lu."

Then they go back to bed and close their eyes, knowing that a star is keeping watch over them while they sleep. And that is "A Star that peers through your window".

How long did it take you to write the book?

It took about three-quarters of a year. I had set myself some deadlines along the way. I wanted to have 10 stories in the book, but first I had to find them. It was a lot of work to find suitable stories. A lot of the details had to be double-checked and translations needed to be done. There's a lot that can go wrong in a project like this. For instance, I received one transcript in Arabic, which my computer jumbled up.

The script wasn't written from right to left, as is normally the case with Arabic, but from left to right. That's of no use to any Arabic speaker.

In the end, I managed to get enough narratives together, including several stories from Syria and Afghanistan.

Is there one story featured in your book that you found particularly touching?

Yes, there's a story from Iraq, which a 13-year-old girl shared with me. It's called "The secret of the boy who only had one eye."  It's a tale that this girl's mother used to tell her as a goodnight story. I worked closely with the girl and with a translator for this. It's a sad story that really touched my heart. But you should've seen how this girl told it with her eyes beaming. That was a very special moment.

The stories in your book are aimed at an audience of refugee children. What can non-refugee children – and perhaps even adults – learn from it?

German children can read the stories in German and experience them this way. Also, my children's books are most certainly not just for children. This is now my 10th children's book.

Illustration from "Ein Stern, der in dein Fenster schaut" (A star that peers through your window), published by Medu
A children's book for and by children from war and conflict zones: "I tried to imagine how these children must feel once they arrive in Germany. They are bound to lie in bed at night and still see those terrible images of war and destruction when they close their eyes," says Mac Pfeifer

I once sent the late German President Richard von Weizsacker two of my books, so he could read them to his grandchildren. He wrote back – in his own handwriting: "Your children's books are so lovely. They're lovely for grown-ups as well." I must admit, that was a huge compliment.

In what ways do you hope your work will have an impact?

There's a lot of interest in this book. We have planned a number of public readings in refugee homes. This way the stories will truly reach their intended audience. We're also planning to record a multilingual audiobook featuring all the respective native languages from the stories. I think that will also be very interesting.

Interview conducted by Sertan Sanderson

© Deutsche Welle 2016

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