Issa Watanabe, Migrants, Gecko Press Wellington, September 2020, 32 pp., RRP $24.99 (hbk), ISBN 9782776573134
A large group of animals all have to leave the forest – a forest that has become bare-leafed and inhospitable. The animals refers to the current international concerns over large groups of people being displaced and trying to find new safe havens. The bare forest suggests the increasing concerns about the climate crisis facing the world, a crisis which might well mean that parts of the Earth will no longer be habitable.
This is not an amorphous group as the illustrations show the individuality of each animal and their care and companionship for each other. The group is accompanied by a small, skeletal figure symbolising Death, a figure that is ever-present during the journey, indicating the dangers of such a trip and one in which some of the animals die, most notably the smallest and weakest. Accompanying Death much of the way is a blue ibis. The ibis acts as an intermediary between death and life and signifies the ever-present danger and threat of death. It perhaps also references the bird’s significance in ancient Egyptian mythology where it was linked to the god Thoth, who judged the dead and maintained the universe.
The animals’ safe place is indicated by beautiful, pink-flowered trees but sometimes this can be deceptive. In one such place, a polar bear guards the place as his own and won’t allow the other animals to join him. Along the way, the animals try to establish some kind of ‘normality’. One double-page spread illustrates this with the animals spreading out their bedding, hanging out washing, cooking, and preparing the youngest for the night.
Finding no safe place in the first part of their journey, however, the animals embark on a sea voyage in a dangerous, over-crowded boat. The illustration of this is heartbreakingly familiar as we have all seen photographs of such scenes and the one preceding it when the animals make a desperate run for the boat, fearing they will be left behind. The boat capsizes, however, and they again lose some of their companions. The last page has a message of hope as the animals move towards a grove of pink-flowered trees, where no danger appears to be lurking.
Although this is a wordless picture book, it is not really one for very small children. They would no doubt enjoy the illustrations of animals, but the deeper allegorical meaning of the book might well be difficult for them to understand. There is, however, a great deal to discuss with older children and in classes. It is topical and moving exploring loss and hope as well as being a tribute to those who have to leave their homelands and have the courage to make this often hazardous journey to try to make a better life for them and their families.
Reviewed by Margot Hillel