This summer, a basic picture book inspired sixth-grader Molly Amerling to write about refugee families. Now, she’s the first Sussex Countian to represent Delaware in the “A Book That Shaped Me” essay contest.
Sponsored by the Library of Congress and National Book Festival, the idea behind the contest is simple: fifth- and sixth-graders write about a book that has impacted their life.
Amerling was inspired by “The Journey,” a picture book by Francesca Sanna about a family escaping a deadly war in their home country.
“They try to escape, and they have to hide during the night because there’s many guards that are guarding the country limits. So they have to try and sneak by them … and then they just hide on trains and cars and trucks to get where they’re trying to go,” Amerling said. “They had to do that just to get to freedom in another country.”
The mother and her two children who are portrayed in the book don’t talk much about the father, who fought and died in the war.
“They talk about their feelings and their dreams. … They are scared and excited and nervous for what will happen,” Amerling said. “They’re excited to finally get out of where they’re living in the past and try to find a better place to live.”
It’s a big topic for a picture book. But it’s real life, and plenty of children have made similar journeys, now and throughout history.
This 48-page book spoke novels to Amerling, who is now attending Selbyville Middle School.
“I knew a child who moved from Syria to the United States for a better life, and he had many scary encounters in his country … and they just didn’t want to risk their lives there, so they moved to the United States. At first, he didn’t know any English, and he learned it.”
When she read “The Journey,” she said, she understood what he was going through. Now it resonates for her “that many people have had leave their home to come to America and … had to lose many of their family members.”
“I think that it was drawn and written very well, and it explains the topic to many young people very well,” Amerling said. “It’s not too violent or anything like that. It just shows the child’s perspective of how their journey was.”
Author Francesca Sanna poured color into illustrations that pop off the page. The language is simple. “We leave at night to avoid being seen … and keep moving for many days,” the narrator says.
The author was inspired by two girls she had met at an Italian refugee center. She began collecting other peoples’ stories of migration. Some were similar, but each was felt very poignantly by the person who walked, drove or sailed the many miles away from their home and sense of normalcy. “The Journey” became a “collage of all those personal stories and the incredible strength of the people within them.”
The book doesn’t show the family reaching their ultimate destination. Readers can only hope that they make it to the end.
In September, Amerling’s own family traveled to the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., where essay winners received their medals and gift certificates on stage. Amerling beat four other state finalists to represent Delaware.
Although she wasn’t a national winner in the Letters About Literature Summer Writing Contest, Amerling’s parents said they were proud of her initiative and independence in writing her essay.
“We know she writes well, but it was really nice to see the thoughtfulness of it,” said Erin Amerling. “We were impressed with her and proud of her.”
Locally, Amerling represented the Frankford Public Library in the contest, which covers Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and D.C. It wasn’t her first time entering the contest, nor her first success. In 2016, Amerling was a state finalist for her essay on “The Lemonade Stand” by Jacqueline Davies.