Written and Illustrated by Armin Greder
Allen & Unwin, 2008, N.P.
Some forced journeys follow a pathway of fear and ignorance that leads to racism toward those viewed as “different.” This large format picture book engages readers in the haunting story of a man who is washed up on the beach of an island, provoking tremendous fear from the residents because “he wasn’t like them.” The villagers reluctantly allow him to stay but lock him up in a goat pen. His presence troubles the people and they project their prejudices and hatred upon him. A small sketch of children re-enacting a scene of hatred by their elders is particularly disturbing. Only one person, the fisherman, offers any compassion, arguing that the man is their responsibility, even though “he is not one of us.” Eventually the hatred and fear grow into a mob and the villagers push him out into the sea on a burning raft. They also set fire to the fisherman’s boat, declaring they will never again eat fish from the sea that brought them this stranger. The final pages show the island surrounded by a great wall with watchtowers, barricaded so that the people will never expose themselves again to a stranger. The text is powerful and evocative with only a few words. Details such as the specific time and place and what makes the man “different” are left unsaid, leaving space for readers to bring their own contexts and situations into their interpretations of the book.
The compelling stark illustrations in charcoal and pastels establish a dark ominous tone to the book that works powerfully with the sparse text. The illustrations amplify the menacing mood of the book, showing a bleak landscape and large contorted bodies that ooze with revulsion and fear. The book is longer and wider than most picture books and the illustrations often fill the page, making them large, bold, and confronting. The expressions on the faces of people convey a strong sense of emotion, ranging from surprise and curiosity to fear, anger, and hatred. The stranger is always depicted as naked and vulnerable. The text and illustrations combine to show how and why racism takes over a community as people build barriers to exclude others in order to “protect” themselves.
First published in Germany in 2002 as Die Insel, this visually striking book can be read as a fable, reflecting a message that is timely given the many places in the world in which refugees face detention and discrimination and the ways in which those in power use fear and myths to control thought. Greder is from Switzerland and published the book first in Germany, perhaps as a commentary on the pogroms and ethnic cleansings of Europe. The dark illustrations are reminiscent of the charcoal artwork created by Jews in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. Greder migrated to Australia in 1971, and so the book also could reflect a critique of the actions of the Australian government in imprisoning refugees in detention camps on islands off the coast of Australia as well as paying Indonesia to detain refugees before their boats reach Australian shores.
This picture book for older readers provokes discussion and discomfort for readers and would work well within explorations of prejudice and racism as well as inquiries into refugees and human rights. The Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin, provides a useful set of teachers’ notes on their site, /http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=94&book=9781741752663. In addition, Lorraine Wilson, an educator from Melbourne, published a vignette of the ways in which she engaged students in drama and writing around this book as part of a unit on refugees (see http://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/stories/storiesiii2/4/).
Greder has written and illustrated other picture books with difficult emotions and themes, such as The City (2010), I am Thomas (2011), and The Great Bear (written by Libby Gleeson, 1999). He has received a number of international awards, such as the Bologna Ragazzi Award, and has been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. His illustrations reflect his European background with his use of charcoal. He has lived in Australia since 1971 and has been shortlisted for the CBCA Picture Book of the Year a number of times, including for this book. He worked as a graphic designer and taught design and illustration in an art institute. This book could be read alongside books about the Holocaust, such as The Children We Remember (C. B. Abells, 1983) and Let the Celebrations Begin (Margaret Wild, 1991), and books about racism, including picture books such as Whitewash (Ntozake Shange, 1998), Freedom Summer (Deborah Wiles, 2005) and The Other Side (Jacqueline Woodson, 2005), or novels such as Witness (Hesse, 2003), The Goats (Brock Cole, 1999), Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (Gary Schmidt, 2006). Another possibility is a unit on refugees where it could be paired with The Arrival (Shaun Tan, 2006), The Lost Thing (Shaun Tan, 2000), Refugees (David Miller, 2004), The Color Home (Mary Hoffman, 2002), The Long Road (Luis Garay, 1997), and My Freedom Trip (Frances Park, 1998). Another possibility are books reflecting different types of refugee, detention, and concentration camps such as My Secret Camera (Frank Dabba Smith and Mendel Grossman, 2008), Baseball Saved Us (Ken Mochizuki, 1995), Dia’s Story Cloth (Dia Cha, 1998) and Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of the Sudan (Mary Williams, 2005). Another powerful pairing is with the famous painting, “The Scream,” by Edvard Munch.
This picture book is evocative and disquieting, inviting readers into reflection and dialogue on the ways in which we create fear and hatred toward the unknown, the different, and the consequences of that hatred.
Kathy G. Short, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ