Understanding Immigration and the Refugee Experience through Graphic Novels

Lynn: Like the picture books in our earlier post, several graphic novels published this year also offer the opportunity to walk in the shoes of refugees and immigrants. Aimed at middle-school and teen readers, these books combine outstanding text and dramatic visual images to provide reading experiences that make a deep emotional impact.

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don BrownThe Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees (2018), by award-winning author Don Brown, provides a succinct and understandable summary of the history behind the Syrian civil war that has driven millions from their homes. Using a series of vignettes gleaned from real-life situations, Brown’s straightforward text and minimalist illustrations starkly emphasize the depth of this ongoing tragedy. Brown clearly reveals not only the horrific conditions the refugees are fleeing but also the appalling dangers of their journeys, as well as the rejection and discrimination they encounter as they seek safe haven. Outstanding back matter provides additional information, including an extensive bibliography and photographs from Brown’s refugee-camp interviews. Brown makes the statistics understandable and deeply real, challenging us to step up.

Illegal by Eoin ColferIn Illegal (2018), popular author Eoin Colfer teams with Andrew Donkin and illustrator Giovanni Rigano to chronicle the experiences faced by scores of children who seek refuge from poverty and war, either alone or with only a young sibling. A young boy, Ebo, is left with his drunken uncle when his two older siblings separately leave the village to emigrate to Europe. Deciding to search for them, he begins a hazardous journey from his Ghanaian village, going first to Agadez, Nigeria, then across the Sahara to Tripoli, where, homeless, he works at every job he can find to raise money for a sea passage to Greece. Each step of Ebo’s perilous journey represents those taken by millions of youngsters suffering similar hardships.

Rigano’s illustrations are so expressive, bringing each character to life. Beautiful one- and two-page spreads remind readers there is much more than war and poverty in the countries refugees leave behind.

Undocumented: a Worker's Fight by Duncan TonatiuhIn 2016, the Pew Research Institute reported that 1 out of every 20 workers in America is undocumented. In his striking new graphic work, Undocumented: A Worker’s Fight (2018), Duncan Tonatiuh represents the plight of the many workers right here in this land of opportunity who work hard, long hours at low-paying, often demeaning jobs.

Tonatiuh personalizes the statistics through Juan’s story. A young man desperate to make money to support his widowed mother and siblings, Juan sneaks into the U.S., where he takes a job as a busboy working 12-hour days, 7 days a week. Coming from a Mixtec village, Juan speaks neither Spanish nor English and has to work constantly to adjust to this new place while living in fear of being deported. Even after Juan gets married and has a child on the way, his employer is still taking advantage of him and paying him far under the minimum wage. The boss tells Juan he is lucky to have a job and that he could report him if he chose. Juan bravely joins a movement with other workers of many nationalities to get fair treatment.

Experimenting with form, Tonatiuh honors Juan’s heritage by presenting this story in the style of a Mixtec accordion-fold codex. The intriguing format and Tonatiuh’s signature illustrations create a stunning impact, making Juan’s story even more memorable. The book gives eloquent voice to the millions of undocumented people who come here with dreams of helping their families and work hard, contributing so much to this country. As Tonatiuh’s Juan states:

“You don’t know our names but you’ve seen us. In this country we build houses, we harvest crops, we cook, we clean, we raise children. Some people want to kick us out and some act like we don’t exist, but we are here, compañeros. We may not have documents but we all have a story and we all have a name.”




About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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