Monday, December 1, 2014

Art with a story

Migrant by Jose Manuel Mateo and Javier Martinez Pedro is an intriguing bilingual (English/Spanish) accordion-style folding book that looks to generate awareness about children who take huge risks in trying to enter the United States illegally, either alone or with their families.

In this story, short narratives from a child’s perspective accompany specific sections of the unfolding mural-like codex.  In the beginning life is good, with people in the village leading hard but fruitful, peaceful lives growing crops for a landowner.  But things change when some of the men leave to find work.  Eventually, the father of the boy telling the story also leaves the village, sending money back home occasionally.  But when the money stops coming and the mother finds it too difficult to survive in the village without work, she makes the decision to leave as well.

The main part of the story is the journey to reunite with the father. The family travels long distances and takes great risks jumping on trains, scaling walls, and evading police, capture and ‘disappearing’, all along way until they arrive outside Los Angeles.  Here they will find jobs cleaning houses and search for the father.

The art work is what predominates here.  Nine panels ‘unfold’ this story in black and white illustrations with exacting detail that fills up every panel.  For example, the village scene is packed with people, vegetation, animals, houses, mountains, a starry sky and a beaming sun.  We can see the watermelons, maize, and papayas being grown and harvested from the fields, while the bordering sea provides fish and fun.  It’s a bustling place.

In the artist’s note he tells us that he is following in the artistic tradition of the Mexican state of Guerrero and the work does have a folk art feel. However, I was also reminded of Peter Sis’s illustrations, as well, with tiny details conveying a multitude of life’s minutiae.  Our main character is discernible by the distinctive cap that he wears so the reader is able to keep track of him in each section (though I did have to hunt a couple of times).

The book is gorgeous, striking and provocative.  It conveys a child’s sense of home, fear, excitement, hopefulness and home-sickness.  The illustrations express the movement of people and the tension that such a situation naturally produces.  One review I read suggested looking at this book panel-by-panel and I would agree with this for the first reading.  But do open up the whole book, otherwise you’ll miss seeing the patterns of ‘lines’ that convey the sense of movement.  You have to spend time with this book.  It’s not a ‘quick read’.

Reviews are suggesting that young children are the target audience for Migrant but I would disagree.  The amount of detail, the black and white illustrations and the content of the story would be too much for the primary grades, in my opinion.  You could have young children track the protagonist throughout the story but then the point of the story would be misdirected.  If a child has been through a similar journey, then they would have some context for the story and this might work. The actual written story would be easily understood but I think the illustrations wouldn't hold young readers attention.

I’m recommending this book for older students, grades 9 and up, who would derive more from the whole book and would likely have the staying power required to work through and revisit the story. However, a co-worker thought that grades 5/6 could use it to model their own work on.

For extra interest, try pairing this with Tsunami  by Joydeb Chitrakar another accordion-style narrative about the 2004 tsunami that devastated vast areas of coastline in Southeast Asia.  I blogged about this one back in 2010.


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