Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Learning about my Somali neighbors via a new children’s book December 7, 2022

LIVING IN A MINNESOTA community with a sizable Somali population, I was excited to read the recently-published children’s picture book Fire and Ashes—A Boy and an African Proverb co-authored by Minnesotans Ahmed Hassan and Wes Erwin. Why? It’s important for me to learn about my new neighbors, their homeland, their culture, their experiences before resettling in Faribault. Reading books is one way to gain insights.

Fire and Ashes, even though a book geared toward children, is an enlightening read for adults, too. I found myself fully-engaged in the story of young Warfa, a refugee from Somalia who experienced unimaginable trauma. His trauma flares when he works on a school assignment—creating a poster about himself. I can almost feel my tummy hurting, my head spinning, my heart racing right along with Warfa as he relives terrifying moments in Africa. That includes witnessing the violent death of a neighbor. (Because of that, children should read this story with an adult.)

Award-winning children’s book illustrator Meryl Treatner reinforces the story line with art so realistic that I felt like I stepped into Africa and then into Warfa’s American classroom. I could almost smell the flowery scent of the acacia tree, feel the threat in a shadowy figure, hear Warfa’s uneven breathing.

It is Warfa’s grandma who helps her “little lion” deal with his anxiety via an African proverb and practical visualization and breathing techniques. Proverbs are used in many cultures to effectively teach, to pass along wisdom. The co-authors of Fire and Ashes, both licensed counselors, wrote this book not only to share a proverb, to tell Warfa’s story, but also to shine a light on mental health and self-care. The book includes authors’ notes and a link to additional supportive resources.

There are so many reasons to appreciate Fire and Ashes. The book gives readers like me a glimpse into atrocities experienced by my new neighbors. This book gives insights into culture. And for those who have endured any type of trauma, whether young like Warfa or two generations older, this book opens the door to discussion and then to healing, to an understanding that memories are ashes, not fire.

FYI: Fire and Ashes—A Boy and an African Proverb is available for check-out at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault and the Lanesboro Public Library, local requests only. I hope other libraries in the 11-county Southeastern Libraries Cooperating system add this book to their collections. This book, published by The Little Fig, is the first in a series focusing on African proverbs. I’d recommend purchasing Fire and Ashes for your personal library or as a gift.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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12 Responses to “Learning about my Somali neighbors via a new children’s book”

  1. beth Says:

    What a kind and loving act on your part, and this is what true community is all about. This book is a beautiful way to learn more about your neighbors and will help them to feel understood and more welcome.

  2. Susan Ready Says:

    Very nice review Audrey and I sent it to the author. You captured a many layered meaningful story and yes the illustrations are just outstanding.

    • Thank you, Sue. Am I remembering correctly that you also reviewed this book, which is probably where I learned about it. I asked my library to purchase a copy and they did. Thank you for passing my review along to the author (s).

  3. Bernadette Hondl Thomasy Says:

    Sounds like a wonderful book on so many levels. Thanks for a thoughtful review. When I worked for a few years as an advertising copywriter, my writer colleague/boss said if he wanted to get to the heart of subject, he would look for a children’s book. Your review reminded me of that advice.

  4. Wes Erwin Says:

    Thank you for getting the word out about Fire and Ashes! I really enjoyed your review. Thanks also for asking your local library to purchase a copy! I have really enjoyed working with Ahmed Hassan, my co-author, and have learned a great deal through our partnership. We really hope that we can help people learn about another culture and some coping techniques to address common mental health issues.

    • Wes, thank you for co-authoring this important book with Ahmed. I especially appreciate the mental health aspect. I write on that topic often. I hope you and Ahmed will consider coming to Faribault for an author visit. I will email you privately.

  5. Valerie Says:

    Sounds like a must read. Thanks for the recommendation.

  6. What a great book (and review). We always need to be learning and aware of how other cultures live, don’t we?


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