Oh, graphic novels. Why don’t I read more of you? I know the studies that tell me that reading you stimulates both hemispheres of my brain. What’s more, I know from my own experience how rich and rewarding reading them can be, whether it’s a book that retroactively informs my own childhood (see: Roller Girl) or something that renders the unspeakable down to a distilled form so the reader can grasp at understanding the unimaginable (see: Maus). I can’t answer my own question, but every time I encounter a great graphic novel, I remind myself anew that I should read more of them, and the one that has done that most recently for me is Illegal. This is the same writing team that brought us the Artemis Fowl series, which I have not read, and if I should ever stop being a bookseller (god forbid!) and have more time to read books already published, their efforts here would certainly prompt me to pick up those books.
When I was in Memphis for Winter Institute in January earlier this year, I picked up an advance reading copy of this graphic novel in the galley room, that mystical, magical place where books are piled high on tables and booksellers walk through, helping themselves to all the free books they want. The cover was compelling, and what’s more, the advance reading copy was complete, not just a blad, and rendered in full color, so I tucked a copy away into my book bag for future reading.
Illegal is told by Ebo, a young boy from Ghana, who follows his older brother Kwame across the Sahara, who in turn has set off on a journey to find their older sister, who left Ghana years ago for Europe to try to make a better living for the family. Whether it’s the menacing human beings they encounter on their way, or the peril of survival at sea, Ibo and Kwame face danger after danger as they make their way to Tripoli across the desert, only to be launched onto a small boat little better than a life raft and set adrift in the Mediterranean.
The story is poignant and Rigano brings the story evocatively to life with his illustrations that are often bleak, but not without tenderness. Ebo intersperses his present day narrative, which begins on an overcrowded dinghy at sea, with stories of how he came to be floating on the open ocean with his brother and a group of desperate strangers. Rigano differentiates the stories to great effect using cooler tones for the present day and a neutral palette for the past:
Authors Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin don’t pull many punches with the narrative. Young Ebo’s life is defined by constant struggle and haunted by tremendous loss, and yet there is still something indomitable in his spirit that keeps him going. The ending is more bitter than bittersweet, but it’s also not without hope, and I would love to know more about Ebo’s story.
Jabberwocky, a division of Sourcebooks, will publish this book in August 2018. I can’t recommend this graphic novel enough. The book says that it’s rated for ages 10 and up, but I’d suggest for readers that young that an adult read in tandem to answer the inevitable questions this book raises. If you’re looking for a book that will build readerly empathy in your child, though, this can’t be beat.