Migrants – illustrated by Issa Watanabe

    Migrants – illustrated by Issa Watanabe, Gecko Press, 9781776573134, 2021 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3

Format: Hardcover picture book

What did you like about the book?  In this wordless picture book, Watanabe introduces us to a dark and somber world. Black endpapers covered with ghostly gray trees segue to a small image of Death, with a bone white skull and flowered robe astride a giant blue ibis. Death spots a small suitcase and follows it to a group of migrants, represented by brightly colored animals, walking upright and wearing street clothes or wrapped in blankets. The migrants trudge through the desolate landscape, eventually approaching a river. The rickety boat they board disintegrates and one of their company, a beautiful brown rabbit, dies. Death embraces her and the survivors move on to a grove of living trees, dotted with pomegranates.  

This is a conceptual book, loaded with symbolism. Every page is somber and dark, which reinforces the seriousness of the animals’ predicament, but also throws their colorful feathers and fur into sharp relief. The illustrations are a mash-up of Rousseau’s wildlife paintings and Bruegel the Elder’s peasant genre scenes and seem to have been done with an array of incredibly sharp colored pencils. The amount of detail is astounding and the quality of the artwork is very high. The eeriness of the setting and the sadness of the animals’ predicament is profound.

Anything you didn’t like about it? I’m not sure who the intended audience for this book is. If it’s meant to be a picture book for young children, it lacks clarity. What would a 4, 5, or 6 year-old make of the death’s head character and the pomegranate trees? Even I had a tough time decoding some scenes, such as when Death hands the polar bear a gray, leafless branch; I guess it’s a reference to climate change? Does the boat symbolize Noah’s Ark, refugees crossing the Mediterranean? The loss, open-endedness, and fine art make this better suited for adult readers.

To whom would you recommend this book?  The Suitcase  by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros (2020) is more suited to beginning a discussion on trauma or refugees. If a child wants answers on climate change, I’d recommend Our House Is on Fire: Greta Thunberg’s Call to Save the Planet by Jeanette Winter (2019.) I can imagine using this as a visual motivator for older ELL or high/low readers, especially as a visual activator.

Who should buy this book? Public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Picture books

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: October 15, 2020

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