Into a Strange Land: Unaccompanied Refugee Youth in America by Brent Ashabranner and Melissa Ashabranner (Dodd, Mead: $12.95, hardcover; 120 pages, photographs)
Tell people you write nonfiction for young adults and they imagine something textbookish and dull. Too often they're right. Nonfiction for kids often suffers from flat-footed writing and lackluster design. Too often the authors are fact-peddlers rather than storytellers. Too often publishers don't really care about young adult nonfiction.
There may be a reason that some publishers are unwilling to invest in good layout, fine photographs and strong jacket art for this book category, and that some authors deliver just the facts, ma'am, stopping somewhere short of elegant prose. The reason is economics: kids rarely spend their allowances on nonfiction; buyers are mostly school librarians, who stock the shelves with informative books to aid homework assignments and seldom apply the same criteria they would for a novel. It doesn't matter if it's good as long as it covers the subject.
Brent Ashabranner, who has written a number of books on immigrants and minorities, has now collaborated with his daughter, Melissa Ashabranner, on "Into a Strange Land: Unaccompanied Refugee Youth in America." The subtitle is bureaucratic jargon for children and teen-agers who fled persecution in their native lands, alone and without their parents, and were brought to the United States as refugees. It's an important subject with high potential for making the reader care.
One chapter describes the plight of "throwaway children," the abandoned offspring of American servicemen and Vietnamese mothers. These children were the object of ridicule in Vietnam and are now in the United States, searching for an answer to the question, "Who am I?" That topic could have served as the focus of a book of its own.
But the problem is that the Ashabranners' book can't seem to find a focus. Part of the book gives the background of some of the young refugees, tells how and why they left their homeland, and describes their foster families and the difficulties of adjustment to American life. That part gets a B--good, but it doesn't grab the reader.
Strays From Topic
Another part reads like a pamphlet addressed to potential foster families, explaining the requirements and the economics of taking in a refugee child. Give it a C, because that wasn't the assignment. In addition, the book describes various refugee organizations, interviews case workers and provides information that few would want to wade through--a low D.
The photographs are as uneven as the text, ranging from good (a double spread of an overloaded refugee boat bobbing on a vast sea) to poor (repetitive candid shots of foster families smiling for the camera). The jacket is just plain unimaginative.
There are about 10 million refugees in the world, many of them young people who fled alone, many of them existing in squalid refugee camps. But the individuals described here, now struggling to find a way to live in a new culture, fail to involve the reader. They and the reader deserve something better than a C-minus book.