In Duncan Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale, a determined rabbit sets out with a basket of treats a la Little Red to find his lost father, enlisting the assistance of a suspiciously helpful coyote. When it’s apparent that missing Dad symbolizes the plight of migrant workers and señor coyote is essentially a human trafficker, Pancho quickly becomes both picture book and controversial statement piece.

“I didn’t want to make a book that felt too didactic or that was too melodramatic,” says Tonatiuh. “So I felt that having that fable aspect to it, and switching from Little Red Riding Hood to actually make an allegory with animals in a way kind of simplifies a subject that is so complicated, that hopefully gets at the essence of it.”

This bold approach to a sensitive topic is paired with Tonatiuh’s equally bold signature style of illustration rooted in Mixtec codex. A vibrant palette and graphic shapes layered with images of textures like fur, snakeskin and denim garner more than just a first glance. Memorable illustrations or not, a commentary on trafficking migrant workers over Mexico-U.S. borders isn’t generally the stuff picture books are made of.

Tonatiuh says he is delighted that his publisher took a chance on the book. It’s “obviously a controversial topic that people have strong feelings about,” says Tonatiuh. “They knew that there might be a little backlash or that some people might not be into it because they think it’s too controversial. But they were very supportive throughout and they didn’t ask me to tone down anything.”

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tonatiuh cover

It certainly helps to have an audience who is supportive, too. At his recent Texas Book Festival appearance, Tonatiuh was introduced by a class of fourth graders who wrote and performed a multi-voice poem about their own immigrant experiences. “That’s what’s been rewarding with this book—that it lets people talk about the issue and I think it’s a good way to bring the subject up in the classroom or in libraries,” he says.“I feel like a little bit more than just an author-illustrator with this book because it can serve a further purpose.” 

Broaching sensitive topics might just be a recurring theme for Tonatiuh; his next book, Separate Is Never Equal, due in the spring of 2014, explores a discrimination suit that predates Brown v. Board of Education.  

Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn, New York. He is admittedly addicted to horror films and French macarons.