I bought the book Stepping Stones as a gift for my grandchildren recently. Their mother is a physician in Saskatoon and part of her job is working in a clinic for refugees. I thought Stepping Stones, which tells the story of the immigration journey of a Syrian refugee girl named Rama, would help my grandchildren gain a greater understanding of the importance of the work their mother does. My oldest grandson is very artistic and I knew he would be intrigued by the beautiful illustrations in Stepping Stones that were made with rocks.
I am almost embarrassed to admit that at the time I bought Stepping Stones I didn’t even look at who the author of the book was or learn anything about its story.
Then last weekend I attended the Prairie Horizons conference for children’s authors. Normally it is held in Saskatoon but this year it was online. The keynote speaker was none other than Margriet Ruurs the author of Stepping Stones and she told us the story of the book.
Margriet has written and published some forty books for children. She lives on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia but has travelled the world. Margriet was on Facebook one day and came across the work of a Syrian artist named Nizar Ali Badr. She was fascinated with his beautiful creations that were made from rocks he collected from a beach near his home. As he finished each piece of art he took a photo of it with his camera.
Margriet wondered if she could use his art to illustrate a story about a refugee family. You can imagine the energy and persistence it took for Margriet to connect with an artist who lived across the world and didn’t speak the same language, make arrangements to use his artwork, write a story that dovetailed with his pictures, and convince a publisher to take on the book. At the conference, she explained it all in fascinating detail and you can get an idea of the process from this CBC video or from this page on the Orca Publishers site.
What is even more fascinating is what has happened with the book since it was published in 2016. Stepping Stones has won a bevvy of awards and has been translated into many different languages. Margriet decided to donate her share of the royalties from the book to organizations that help refugees, and that as well as other efforts initiated as a result of the publication of Stepping Stones has raised more than $100,000 so far. The book has solicited countless accolades including an endorsement from the Pope.
At the conference, Margriet also told the story of two of her other books The Elephant Keeper and My Librarian Is A Camel. The publication of both has been instrumental in raising support and awareness for important environmental and literacy endeavours. Her stories about these books were riveting and by the time Margriet was finished her keynote address at the conference I was in tears.
Margriet told us that a book is a dream we hold in our hand. An author never knows when they write a book what can happen with it, what the book can do to make people’s dreams come true, how a children’s book we write might play an important role in changing the world.
Now I can hardly wait till the pandemic is over and I can visit my grandchildren in Saskatoon again so we can read Stepping Stones together and I can tell them all about the story of Margriet’s book. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more of Margriet’s stories didn’t find their way into the Grandma bag of books that always comes along on my visits.