Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Book Review: 'Illegal' by Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin & Giovanni Rigano

Every now and then a graphic novel appears which pushes itself into the consciousness of the mainstream. Readers unaccustomed to reading pictures and text together suddenly find themselves exercising a muscle that has been resting since their childhood. It would seem though that it takes something pretty special to break this boundary. And 'Illegal' is special.

The death of Alan Kurdi in 2015, and the heart-rending photo of him that shocked the world, brought a crisis to light: those escaping war and poverty were being trafficked in unseaworthy vessels resulting in many lives lost. The media began to report further stories of similar tragedies, but as is the way, these stories soon became old news. But it is still happening. Google 'migrant boat sinks' and you'll see much more recent instances of these horrific events.

Rather than seeking to cash in, as the media did for a while, Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano seek to humanise the stories from the news reports. Human beings respond well to narratives and by telling the story of Ebo and Kwame, two brothers attempting to make it from Africa to Europe, the creators of 'Illegal' succeed in making real two of the nameless, faceless victims of whom we read in our newspapers.

As is the way with graphic novels, readers need to exert some effort into imagining the characters' feelings - with an economy of words comes more work for the reader. However, Rigano's bold illustrations, simultaneously classically-styled yet original and contemporary, do an exceptional job of conveying meaning - a picture really is worth a thousand words when its as carefully drawn as this. The storytelling of the combined text and pictures is accessible even to those who might normal find graphic novels too visually stimulating and busy - the illustrations are clean, detailed yet uncluttered, and colour palettes for each sequence are carefully chosen to evoke a sense of place, atmosphere and mood. Here, engaging with the images is crucial if the reader is to empathise with the plight of the world's humans in flight.

Although the demands of the text are low, the subject matter is emotionally involving making this book a certificate PG. Teachers, librarians and parents should consider how they present this book to their child - it is one that should be framed by good conversation with trusted adults. For anyone desensitised by the news, or for one who has a hard time knowing how to respond to terrible events in the world, this book will provide an alternative way into grappling with the issues.

In 'Illegal' horror and hope sit side by side, necessary bedfellows in a book which portrays the world we live in as it really is. Essential reading.

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