A family of four in an unnamed country share the pleasures of days at the beach together: reading, building sandcastles, and watching fish. But immediately we learn that they never go there anymore, "because last year, our lives changed forever." War, depicted as clawed hands tearing down the sandcastles (and by deduction, also the homes and buildings of the city), chases away the people, "and soon," we are told, "there was nothing but chaos."
Then we receive the heart-rending news that war took the family's father. A double spread of black pages shows only his glasses and few other scattered remains of who he was. This single spread, so searing yet in its own way gently sparing of readers' feelings, says more about the cost of war than a years' worth of news coverage can.
Now the mother becomes increasingly worried, yet you see her tenderly enfolding her arms around the children, a theme which repeats many times in these pages. The mother discovers through a friend that people are fleeing to "a country far away with high mountains." She reads up about this place and reassures the children that even though it will be strange, they will be safe there. The astonishing multi-layered wisdom of this book becomes even clearer at this point. A child listening to the tale read aloud may even get excited as the mother tells her children that this journey will be a great adventure. An adult reader, on the other hand, will recognize the mother's profound heroism, fighting through her grief to take her children into unknown perils.
They travel in various vehicles and drain all their energy trying to reach the border. The children are frightened when the guards there turn them away. The text tells us that even amid the scary forest noises, "mother is with us and she is never scared." The children fall asleep in her arms; we get to witness the copious tears that she weeps as she remains watchfully wide awake.
These harsh details are always balanced with an element of reassurance. Francesca Sanna, who both wrote and illustrated the book, never fails to demonstrate the mother's unbreakable courage. And as the journey continues beyond the border (because, thank goodness, in this story it does go beyond), a larger narrative of migration, pictured as "birds that seem to be following us," brings a wider perspective to one family's grief and resilience.
Francesca Sanna is an Italian illustrator and graphic designer based in Switzerland. In her first book, she demonstrates a gift for storytelling that touches the emotions of young and old alike. Her bold illustrations have already been lauded with an award of the Gold Medal in the book category by the prestigious Society of Illustrators.
We cannot imagine a better way to introduce children ages 5 - 7 to the piercing realities of becoming a refugee. We wish that this book was required reading for every single official making decisions that affect migrants.