Books Early Readers Features Genre It's Monday What Are You Reading Lifespan of a Reader Picture Books Reading Themes Voices From The Fringe: Social Justice

[Monday Reading] Allegorical Picturebooks on Forced Migration and Displaced Creatures

"Migrants" by Issa Watanabe | "The Suitcase" by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros.


It's Monday! What Are You Reading

Myra here.

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community. 

These two picturebooks depict strange creatures who have been forced to leave their homes and start anew someplace else. Both are powerful allegorical tales that surface feelings of exile, displacement, and finding one’s bearings in a new environment.

The Suitcase [Amazon | Book Depository]

Written and Illustrated by Chris Naylor Ballesteros
Published by Nosy Crow (2019)
ISBN: 1788004477 (ISBN13: 9781788004473). Borrowed via Overdrive. Book photos taken by me.

The first lines of this story can serve as a mentor text in writing:

A “tired, sad, and frightened” creature who was “looking dusty” arrived in this place where the inhabitants found him peculiar. When the animals asked the creature what was inside the seemingly-heavy-looking suitcase, he answered in the strangest of manner as well. He explained that inside the suitcase was a teacup, but there was also a table, and a small house overlooking the sea:

The unexpected and incredible answer aroused even more curiosity and suspicion in some of the animals. When the creature slept out of sheer exhaustion, the animals were faced with a conundrum, with a stranger in their midst: was he trustworthy? How could an entire house fit in that suitcase? Should they open the suitcase?

I found the storytelling, its arcs and twists especially in the end, the gradual build-up, the sparse storytelling to be quite masterful. The images conveyed the sense of nostalgia and longing and how the creature seemed ill-fitting in his new environment. Yet, the ending gripped me and left me asking quite a few questions about the information we feel we are entitled to as residents of a certain place we call home, and the attitude in which we welcome or treat strangers or foreigners from a new place. This is one of those complex picturebooks that can be shared with both younger and older readers. In the hands of a skilful facilitator, this book can engender quite a lot of meaningful discussions.

Migrants [Amazon | Book Depository]

Written and Illustrated by Issa Watanabe
Published by Gecko Press (2020) Original Title: Migrantes (translated from Spanish)
ISBN: 1776573137 (ISBN13: 9781776573134) Bought a copy. Book photos taken by me.

Unlike the first picturebook with mostly white or cream-coloured pages, this one has a dark background throughout – like the eternal night of one’s soul; except that the displaced animals’ clothing provide texture, character, and vivid palettes. Similar to The Suitcase, it is unclear why this group of animals have packed their belongings and why they are also being followed by a Death-like figure represented by Mr. Skeleton and the brilliant-blue ibis, which according to this interview with author/artist Watanabe is referred to as one who “communicates between life and death, the past and the present.”

The fact that the narrative is wordless made the story work even more, providing spaces for the readers to insert themselves into the haunting, almost-theatrical stage of life being played out in the pages of this book.

The visual narrative portrays what it is like to build a makeshift home with only the clothes on one’s back, a small suitcase of scarred pots and pans, and a blanket to ward off the evening cold. The dejection, hopelessness, despair are evident in the stooped posture, unsmiling faces, hands forever busy doing something or another to help out another.

I also found the image above to be especially heartrending – not to mention the mad rush to get into this boat that will ostensibly take the creatures into some kind of refuge. In the interview with Watanabe, she noted how she was deeply moved by the photographs of Syrian children taken by Magnus Wennman. She said:

The looks on those children’s faces, some in an improvised camp in a forest, moved me deeply, and I did the only thing I could do: draw. This first drawing was followed by another one and, little by little, I started telling a story without planning to.

While the story may appear bleak to others, there is always that sliver of hope that was pervasive throughout the narrative, without appearing simplistic, or a casual pat-in-the-back to the reader. This is an honest depiction of actual struggles and credible emotions – allegorically portrayed in such an unforgettable wordless manner. Definitely one of my favourite reads this year.

#ReadIntl2020 Update: Peru (Issa Watanabe was born in Peru) | Language: Translated from Spanish (but mostly wordless)

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

8 comments on “[Monday Reading] Allegorical Picturebooks on Forced Migration and Displaced Creatures

  1. Thanks for sharing Migrants. I just put a hold on it.


  2. These sound like important books. They’re beautiful too! I can’t wait for my niece to be old enough to appreciate books like these. She doesn’t have much of an attention span right now.


  3. I have Migrants & am still waiting on The Suitcase, shared The Paper Boat today, Myra. What wonderful gifts authors & illustrators are giving us in telling these poignant stories. Thanks for sharing these two.


  4. I had read about The Suitcase, but somehow it never made it to my want to read list. Well, that is now fixed. Migrantes was on my list but unfortunately my local library doesn’t have it.


  5. Completely Full Bookshelf

    These books look beautiful! Migrants looks, as you said, heartrending, but also very powerful. Also, the art style is particularly interesting—it almost looks haunted, which seems appropriate for the sorrow of the story. The Suitcase sounds like an excellent story as well! Thanks for sharing these two great stories!


  6. Thanks for sharing two good books about refugees.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: [My 2020 in Books] Favourite Books Read in 2020 – Gathering Books

  8. Pingback: An Allegorical Tale Of Refuge, Integration, and Liberation – Gathering Books

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