Page 45 Review by Stephen
"The further we go...
"The more we leave behind."
Much has been made recently about teaching empathy in the classroom - promoting kindness and compassion through understanding. Quite right too, and to further that goal, this has just shot to the top of my list.
A carefully weighted cross between Shaun Tan's THE ARRIVAL and Tove Jansson's THE MOOMINS AND THE GREAT FLOOD, the images do so much of the heavy lifting that you can certainly consider it comics.
It begins on the pristine sands of an enormous, open beach, mother in her modest swimsuit reading away, son exploring the shore and a tiny, tentative fish nearby, father and daughter building sandcastles so ornate that they are indistinguishable from the exotic city close to the sea. Then on the very next page war breaks out, the ocean becoming an enormous black leviathan of chaos and cruelty sweeping lives and all those castles so carefully constructed aside.
"And one day the war took my father." It is a very stark page.
"Since that day everything has become darker and my mother has become more and more worried."
The mother envelopes her children, one of whom is weeping, protecting them from the multiple, encroaching, black hands of danger and despair. Drawing a book from their extensive bookcase, the mother shows her children pictures of "strange cities, strange forests and strange animals", reassuring them that is a safe place, that they will go there and not be frightened anymore.
"We don't want to leave but our mother tells us it will be a great adventure. We put everything we have in suitcases and say goodbye to everyone we know."
Everything. Everyone. Devastating enough but there is much worse to come.
At first they journey under their own steam in the family car, suitcases strapped on top. They still have a certain degree of control over their lives. Almost immediately, however, they find themselves in the back of a man's van, squeezed between urns of olive oil, then amongst the produce of a fruit seller, with no room for the possessions they have had to jettison along the way. Then, with nothing left, they arrive at the border, its enormous wall, and an angry guard who demands they turn back.
Where? They have nowhere to go.
And it's here that we come to the pages which most put me in mind of Tove Jansson's THE MOOMINS AND THE GREAT FLOOD in which Moominmamma is the ultimate mother, reassuring Moomintroll in their journey through the dark forest even when worried herself. The mother has already done plenty of this, of course, proclaiming that their migration will be "a great adventure" and protecting them from the shadowy hands of her own dark fears. It is here, however, at their most vulnerable that the mother surpasses herself and the art comes into its own, entirely at odds with the narrator's knowledge.
"In the darkness the noises of the forest scare me."
Once again the mother embraces her children, nestling them in her thick, black hair amongst the forest's foliage.
"But mother is with us and she is never scared. We close our eyes and finally fall asleep."
"Never scared..."? She is petrified. While they're awake she meets her children' wide-eyed gazes; once they're asleep she cries her eyes out. And there is a long, long way to go yet.
That this is told in the present tense keeps the future uncertain - as it is for this family every step of the way - right up to and beyond the conclusion. This is vital to keep readers walking every exhausting mile in their shoes, and to avoid the falsehood that endings are easily attained. This doesn't have a "happily ever after", but it does have the aspiration for one.
It is perfectly pitched.
Equally I wondered for a while whether this book with all its warm colours wasn't too beautiful, but then I slapped myself for being so silly. Terrifying children out of their tiny minds is no use to anyone, and the beauty and fantasy of this book acts as the mother within, turning it into an adventure which will keep their shiny eyes utterly engrossed while they learn how the other half lives.
Which is obviously where Shaun Tan comes in, and so very often.
Also recommended when teaching empathy to young ones: LITTLE ROBOT by Ben Hatke, the creator of ZITA SPACEGIRL. Friendship, basically.