The first thing that strikes you about this stunning picture book is its Cimmerian appearance. The dark starkness of the cover, end papers, title page and a quick flick through the rest of the book indicates the likely tone of what is to unfold within its pages. It’s not surprising, then, on the first page opening to see a young couple with their babe in arms cowering in the shadows of night and to read, ‘Tonight is the night./The family has to flee./They’ve been tipped off that the authorities are after their blood.’ We follow this middle eastern family as they make their way across hostile landscapes, battling the elements amid the ravages of war. Throughout the text, the reader, along with the characters, is subjected to the relentless tension of whether one of the significant obstacles and dangers along the way will eventually cause the family’s demise. All the while, at each crisis point the father entreats, ‘Inshallah’ – ‘God be willing’, the mother soothes the baby, ‘Lulla lulla … lulla bye bye …’
This is a powerful story about the plight of the refugee. The visual and verbal texts work to produce a rich alchemy of multi-layered significance of meaning. The work invokes the power of its obvious intertextual biblical references to add weight and depth, with the little family following a star for guidance in the desert and, until it bolts, the use of a donkey for transport. The employment of omniscient point of view, where we learn each of the characters’ thoughts conveyed to us by an external narrator creates a distance which feeds into the starkness and mood of the text. Armin Greder has created a lush landscape of sombreness and despondency. His evocative illustrations are bold, haunting, and disquieting. His broad brushstrokes in every shade of black, the strong movement of line and the spare unframed double-spreads work together to produce an expansiveness that is in clever juxtaposition to the unfreedom of the refugee protagonists. A thought-provoking picture book for primary school children with appeal to teenagers and adults, this work of art is a timely addition to the global world of literature; it does not presume to answer the hard questions but neither does it deny a filigree of hope, however tenuous in today’s climate that hope may seem.
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 30, Issue 3, 2015)