“Sea Prayer” by Khaled Hosseini

Sea Prayer

A father cradles his son and says:


My dear Marwan,
in the long summers of childhood,
when I was a boy the age you are now,
your uncles and I
spread our mattress on the roof
of your grandfather’s farmhouse
outside of Homs.


Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer is a poetic and deeply moving letter from a father to his son, a response to the death of three year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, who drowned during his family’s attempt to reach Europe in 2015. In his first illustrated book, the best-selling author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns has written a sparse yet powerful story.

Hosseini begins by contrasting the narrator-father’s peaceful childhood in Homs, with the war zone that his son now experiences:


You know a bomb crater
can be made into a swimming hole.
You have learned
dark blood is better news
than bright.


Sea Prayer Khaled Hosseini (Bloomsbury, August 2018; Riverhead, September 2018)
Sea Prayer Khaled Hosseini (Bloomsbury, August 2018; Riverhead, September 2018)

Hosseini’s words are confronting and devastating; the contrast is made all the more moving by Dan Williams vivid watercolor illustrations. A lush palette of greens and warm reds and yellows show trees, flowers, a busy market. Pages later, this is transformed into deep slate grays, browns and black. Against a stark white background, Williams then helps to transition the book from its opening passage to the sea prayer itself, showing a long line of refugees walking.

The father and his family are now preparing for a passage and Hosseini writes of the emotions the night before the dangerous journey. He writes not just of Syrians but of


Afghans and Somalis and Iraqis and
Eritreans and Syrians.
All of us impatient for sunrise,
all of us in dread of it.
All of us in search of a safe home.


seaprayer02The father reassures his scared family, but on the next page the narrator admits that what he says are only words—“a father’s tricks”. All he—all anyone—can do is pray. In this section, Williams turns to a palette of blues and paints the dark night and the vast expanse of the sea.

A book aimed at both children and adults, it is impossible not to be deeply moved by Hosseini’s writing. Hosseini’s lyrical prose forces the reader to pause and ponder; Williams’s illustrations paired with Hosseini’s poignant words add a further layer of depth.

While children’s books may not often discuss themes as serious as the refugee crisis in this much depth, Sea Prayer demonstrates why they might and perhaps, more importantly, when the words are as evocative as Hosseini’s, why they should.

Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.