Jorge Argueta’s illustrated book about refugees, Somos como las nubes / We are like the clouds, published in Spanish and English and with illustrations by Alfonso Ruano, has been selected by the Pennsylvania Center for the Book for the 2017 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. The award is given every year for poetry for children published by American poets or anthologists.

Argueta, himself a refugee from El Salvador who fled war in the 1980s, has been visiting El Salvador often for the past 10 years, visiting children at various schools and founding a “library of dreams.” Recently he organized with other community members on San Francisco and visited children refugees in San Diego.

“It was really poignant, really beautiful and really sad to see these kids and what they were going through…It reminded me of my own experience,” Argueta said.

The experience prompted him to write a poem that turned into the book, comparing refugees to the clouds.

“Clouds is a metaphor to say we are free, we change, we have beautiful dreams. It’s a metaphor to say the world has no borders. It’s a metaphor to say that we are many different colors, we are brown, white, we are blue, we are yellow. Clouds don’t have colors and have all the colors. Clouds are messengers of peace and hope and beautiful dreams,” he said. “We should all be free to move anywhere we please, but unfortunately we have created all these borders. What we want is not walls, what we need in this world is bridges, hands reaching for one another.”

From the book by Jorge Argueta, illustration by Alfonso Ruano

Refugees and migrants face difficult circumstances, and capturing them in a format that is accessible to children is no small feat, judges for the award noted.

“In few words and brief poems, Argueta is able to capture the safety of home and the mundane with the pain of not knowing what awaits on the other side. A refugee’s journey is a difficult topic to present in poetry, but Argueta’s words are able to balance the struggles, happiness, uncertainty, sadness, fears, and the mixture of feelings that the child narrator experience,” one judge commented according to a written statement.

Added another judge, “In Somos como las nubes /We are Like the Clouds, the reader is pulled into the story visually from the beautiful illustrations, and rhythmically, from the poetic language. The bilingual aspect adds authenticity to the story and connectivity for more children.”

The award, as well as the $1,000 prize, is to be collected at Pennsylvania State University this fall.

Argueta is the author of more than 20 children’s books, some of them also award-winning. He runs Luna’s Press Bookstore at 3790 Mission Street near Richland with his wife Holly Ayala.

From the book by Jorge Argueta, illustration by Alfonso Ruano