Fictionalized picture books for young readers about the plight of refugees aren’t exactly crowding the shelves. Last year, readers saw the candid Two White Rabbits from Mexican author Jairo Buitrago and Colombian illustrator Rafael Yockteng. In October of this year, Lee & Low Books will release LaTisha Redding’s Calling the Water Drum, illustrated by Aaron Boyd – a book (I have yet to see) about a boy, as the Kirkus review notes, whose parents have died in an effort to cross the ocean via rowboat from Haiti to Florida. There’s Shaun Tan’s classic, The Arrival (2007), which blends the real with the fantastical. And there are more, to be sure, but since they are few and far between, it’s rather noteworthy when a new one hits shelves.
This month, there’s The Journey, the debut picture book from Italian illustrator and graphic designer Francesca Sanna (for which the Society of Illustrators has already given her a Gold Medal). It possesses, as the publisher likes to put it, “haunting echoes of current affairs.” And by that they mean the migrant crises we read about so often today in the news – the migrants and refugees, over a million of them, who crossed into Europe last year (and some to North America) as countries work to cope with the influx. Many of the stories of these refugees involve harrowing, even heartbreaking, journeys via boat.
The story, told from a child’s point of view, begins with a tight-knit family – mother, father, son, and daughter. They live happily by the sea, but war comes, they lose their father, and their mother lives in fear. After she decides to move them to a new country, they move through the night in order to avoid being seen. “The further we go,” Sanna writes, “the more we leave behind.” When they reach the border with its “enormous wall,” a menacing guard orders them to leave. They hide. They run. They run some more until they receive some help from a stranger, who helps them over the wall. The sea stretches ahead of them, but they board a ferry with many others and make their way across. They carry on, fearfully yet doggedly, and readers never quite see them reach their destination. Sanna avoids wrapping the book up with a tidy bow of an ending.
Playing dramatically and quite beautifully with light and shadow here to accentuate the family’s struggles, Sanna kicks it all off with a warm palette dominated by shades of rose, as the family lives happily, peacefully. But look to the right: A dark, finger-like mass encroaches upon them and the land. It takes the form of the ocean but soon runs the family off and destroys everything in its wake. It is the war. Sanna’s palette remains dark, especially as the family flees in the night, but in the end, as they allow themselves to begin to hope again, the sky brightens and the rose returns.
Sanna gives the mother and her children very pale skin; the mother looks like a refugee Snow White, especially with her long, flowing black locks. Possessing a style that looks like she was snagged from the animators that brought us The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Sanna works in that type of high-contrast artistic style. Think: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Her illustrations are patterned, textured, and deeply stylized with much communicated in the language of line: Any time, for instance, the mother is attempting to reassure and calm the children, she is all round, comforting curves.
There are some striking moments here, visually. For one, readers learn early on (the third spread) that the war has taken the children’s father. This full-bleed spread is all darkness, save a few items readers could see on the previous spread that belonged to him (his glasses, for example). It’s a moment that nearly took my breath away. But the one that actually took my breath away (“heart-rending,” the Kirkus reviewer calls it) is a spread in which the mother hides in the dark forest, holding her children close to her breast as they try to sleep. “In the darkness,” it reads, “the noises of the forest scare me.” Here, everyone’s eyes are wide open. On the right, we read: “But mother is with us and she is never scared. We close our eyes and finally fall asleep.” Here, readers see the children have, indeed, successfully closed their eyes, still in mother’s arms, but now that they are not looking, a flood of tears fall from her eyes. Talk about extending the text, huh? Also, I’ve never had to flee from one country and risk my life to enter another, but I think that moment expertly captures the struggles and even quiet dignity of parenting. Be still, my heart.
In the end, the children note that the birds flying above them are migrating “just like us. And their journey is very long too, but they don’t have to cross any borders. I hope, one day, like these birds, we will find a new home.” It’s one of several startling, poignant moments in this story that pays tribute to the tenacity of those misplaced. It’s a story that has lingered in my mind since I first read it, and I think it will be there a long while.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
THE JOURNEY. All characters, illustrations and text © Francesca Sanna 2016. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Flying Eye Books.