Review: The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros
A stranger arrives one day with nothing but a suitcase. When the animals ask what is inside, the stranger gives an impossible list. He says there is a broken teacup, a table and chair, and a hut on the mountainside. Tired from his journey, he falls asleep. The animals are so keen to find out the truth that they break open the suitcase. When they see what is inside, they question their behaviour and ask what they should do to make the exhausted stranger welcome.
The Suitcase is, without question, my new favourite picture book about empathy and compassion.
With the world in crisis and the number of displaced people rising, there have been a number of stories which explain the situation to very young children. There are some fantastic ones. The trouble is, below a certain age, how much can children understand about war? How much information is too much?
The Suitcase pitches the story perfectly for children who are not yet ready to talk about war. It talks about a suitcase, a journey, and the reception at the other end. Should we greet exhausted people with hostility and suspicion, or should we greet them with a cup of tea and friendship? Even readers who don’t understand where ‘the stranger’ came from or why he is tired can understand the question posed by the text.
It is also a fabulous story for older readers. Clues in the text hint tell some of the backstory and the reader can use their own knowledge to question where the stranger came from.
The way the animals behave, combing over the items in the suitcase, could be metaphorical of the way people’s life stories are questioned and examined upon their arrival in a new country. It opens some gentle conversation about whether this is fair. How much information should people be forced to share and what might they want to keep private? Why might the few belongings they have left be precious? The story helps the reader to empathise by introducing different questions about how somebody might feel in this situation.
The other interesting point is how the lizard [I think the new arrival is a lizard] is called ‘the stranger’ by the narrator. Stranger is a word we use to mean person we don’t know but at the same time it automatically implies suspicion and hesitation on our part. Is the new arrival a stranger? How else could he be seen? By questioning their own behaviour, the animals in the story discover a whole new way to think about the new arrival.
With different coloured fonts for every animal in the story, this would be a lovely book to act out. The illustrations are wonderful too, with the animals’ facial expressions changing over the course of the story as they question their own reactions and become better friends to the new arrival.
A wonderful story which encourages empathy and compassion to displaced people. This apparently simple tale about a suitcase, a journey and a group of friends deserves to become a classic.
Thanks to Nosy Crow for my gifted copy of The Suitcase. Opinions my own.