The Brothers Zzli – Alex Cousseau and Anne-Lise Boutin

The Brothers Zzli by Alex Cousseau, Anne-Lise Boutin, Vineet Lal
Also by this author: A Head Full of Birds
Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers on October 24, 2023
Genres: Children's
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A moving allegory of immigration and hospitality.

One day, the brothers Zzli come to the doorstep of a little girl named Welcome. Welcome has plenty of room in her big, empty house, and the travelers—who have come from far away—make good pancakes and even better company. But others in the forest find this new family strange, even dangerous. When the bears invite their neighbors to a big party, only
Welcome’s friend the bat shows up. Soon after that, a policeman knocks on their door, threatening to destroy the brothers’ beloved beehives. Maybe Welcome and her friends need to find someplace that might accept three bears, a bat, and a girl like her: somewhere to call home at last.

With charming, delightful illustrations reminiscent of vintage children’s classics, The Brothers Zzli invites readers to join a bear family’s search for belonging in a world that views them with suspicion. This poignant story will spark lasting conversations about the impact of prejudice, the struggles of refugees, and the responsibility we have to our neighbors—especially the new ones.

The Brothers Zzli have come to town and have no place to stay. Where will they go? There’s one house that’s offered them safe haven, and that’s where the story begins. The three brothers are bears who have been driven out of their home. They’ve wandered for a long time and have been hungry, scared, and lost. But now, they’ve come to live here in the home of the girl who is narrating this story.

She names the brothers Yes, Maybe, and No—because that’s how each of them tended to answer things. The bears are excited about their new home and eager to make friends. They plan a party to celebrate their arrival and send invitations to everyone…but nobody shows up. It turns out that not everyone likes the new arrivals—“The more talkative ones tell us that the brothers Zzli are dangerous. That they’re not wanted here. That if this carries on, this place will become their playground. That all the bears in the world will overrun our beautiful forest.”

And at once, what has been a whimsical story about a group of bears living with a young girl (a reverse Goldilocks of sorts?) is revealed to be a story about the realities of being a refugee. The Brothers Zzli was originally written in French, where hundreds of thousands of refugees—mostly from Afghanistan, Turkey, and Bangladesh have settled in recent years. France in particular has seen a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment connected to the increase in refugees from Muslim-majority countries. There’s also been governmental fighting with the UK (where I live) over France’s poor treatment of refugees resulting in people dangerously attempting to cross the English Channel to seek asylum in the UK instead.

The translation of The Brothers Zzli into English (done by Vincent Lal) loses some of the humor and wordplay of the original, but the theme is just as clear and just as relevant for the UK, US, and other English-speaking countries. There is a need to welcome others. But helping the marginalized means running the risk of becoming marginalized oneself. I won’t spoil the story for you, but Alex Cousseau manages to give an ending that is both cynically realistic and optimistically hopeful. It’s one that will inspire discussion about the plight of refugees, the impact of xenophobia and prejudice, and the what it means to be hospitable and welcoming.

The refugee crisis isn’t something that can be solved in a children’s book. But looking at it through the eyes of child will help remove some of the political and prejudicial complexities that discolor a fairly clear issue: We can help, and so we should. I would say this book is best aimed at middle to late elementary (Key Stage 2 age for the UK) and serves to be exceptionally relevant, making something kids might see on the news—or experiencing in their schools given the influx of Ukrainian refugees—and helping them make sense of it in an age-appropriate way.