’We Had to Leave’, a wordless picturebook about one family’s journey to safety from war

Sanna Pelliccioni

Some five years ago, when I was visiting Italy, I noticed interesting little leaflets at train stations with ’Destination Lampedusa’ written on them. The leaflet was about the first library on the Mediterranean island Lampedusa and about a collection of wordless picturebooks aimed at the immigrants who seeked rescue at Lampedusa. The project was contrived and carried out by IBBY Italy. It sounded incredibly beautiful, like something you dream about but is too great to come true. Today, there is a wordless picturebook collection in Lampedusa as well as a book exhibition based on the collection, currently touring around the world. I was so impressed by the project that I immediately started to plan my own wordless picturebook.


At the time, there was a wave of immigrants also in Finland, and I saw more shocking images of children and adults who had to leave their homes behind and go on life-threatening journeys every day. I found it hard to concentrate on my work and the world situation felt pressing. It left me speechless and but also gave me a topic for my own silent book. We Had to Leave (Meidän piti lähteä) is a story about one family’s journey to safety.

Taike, Arts Promotion Centre Finland, supported the creation of the book. I was still worried about finding a publisher for a wordless picturebook that dealt with such a serious topic but Schildts & Söderströms were excited from the start.

Writing, or rather, picturing, a wordless picturebook is different from a traditional children’s book because all transitions and storylines need to be expressed through only pictures. I read everything I could find on wordless picturebooks and how to approach them with various groups of people. I added some of this information into the book. I tested the my picture manuscript on several children and adult readers and gained some excellent feedback and suggestions.

Peace Education Institute was of assistance in the creative process. The institute publishes pedagogical peace education material for schools and educates teachers. The core of their material is literature aimed for children and young adults. Thanks to their feedback the story has a different ending than originally planned: the blonde-haired child does not ”rescue” the immigrant child by waving at her. Instead, they are playing together as equals. Based on my book Peace Education Institute has produced a DVD, lesson plans and other materials for teachers to order for their school. They also encouraged me to finish the book even though I sometimes felt the theme is too heavy for a children’s book.


In my work, I find it important to write and illustrate stories that represent the world as a whole, the negative sides included. Children know, hear and sense so much more than adults give them credit for, and not speaking about difficult things has caused a lot of evil in the past. I have noticed I often choose topics that are somehow taboos, relate to minorities, or are not spoken about publically. Children’s literature can deal with difficult topics, as long as it takes the age of the child into consideration. A book should never leave the child in anxiety.

For me, personally, creating We had to Leave was therapeutic, it was a way to cope with everything that is going on in this crazy world. There is so much beauty and goodness in the world, and there is also much evil. I want to talk about both sides throurgh my work.

We Had to Leave is a book for children and adults alike. I have received a great deal of feedback especially from adults who have experienced immense sadness and cried while reading the book. For them, the book brings to mind the real and heartbreaking news clips and pictures. The book helps the reader to grieve. Unbelievably, many children have seen the story as an exciting adventure about boat trips and visits to the market. I think the children might try to distance themselves from the sad story and relate it to their own experiences.


We Had to Leave has been used in literary art classes. The children have attached some words to the story and then written their own story to go with the illustrations. They have also drawn more pictures and imagined, how the story might continue.

What I find appealing in a wordless picturebook is that it is understandable for everyone, regardless of language background. The child can also take the leading role when reading the book. Listening to a child read, may also open up new outlooks to the child’s inner world. I hope that adults will also learn to embrace wordless picturebooks. In many other countries adults read more picturebooks in general, and for example in Italy wordless picturebooks attract a lot of interest within adults. In Finland, wordless picturebooks are a relatively new concept and they might feel a bit difficult to come to terms with a first. Hopefully, people will take time to get to know them better.

It is my wish that people who have come to Finland from other corners of the world will make books about this topic (and of course of all the other topics as well). Since no one else has not done a book like this, I felt like I had to do it.


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