By Maureen Tai, 21 September 2018
“The war began. Every day bad things started happening around us and soon there was nothing but chaos.”
The 21st of September has been designated the International Day of Peace. It is befitting that we read The Journey, a visually breathtaking picture book about the escape of a widow and her two young children from their war-torn home.
As they cross border after border, they don’t really know where they are going. All they know is that they are seeking peace. All they have are stories to keep them alive.
The text thoughtfully and honestly tells a sadly familiar tale of a family thrown into turmoil by war. However, it is the beautiful and strikingly coloured pictures that convey the full extent of the war’s emotional toll on the three main characters.
The first scene is of the family enjoying a day out at the beach. The mother has luxurious ebony hair that cascades over her shoulders as she reads her book. The little boy in goggles and flippers tries to talk to a fish. The little girl and her father sit on the beach, working on a sand structure. This elaborate sandcastle and many other buildings spread out around them. Is all this what the girl and her father have made? Or is this a representation of the city that they live in, and that they call home? Look closely, and you can see tiny cars and little figures among the sea stars and bits of driftwood.
But the sea is ominously dark. When the page is turned, the merciless black ocean has spilled over like ink from an upturned bottle, demolishing the city as easily as waves destroy sandcastles. The family flees. By the time the pages have become completely blackened, the father is dead.
The mother, the daughter and the son, his face streaked with tears, cling to each other desperately, cowering in the corner of their living room as they are surrounded by dark, shadowy arms and hands that eerily seep in through the closed windows. This heart- breaking sight is in stark contrast to the family photograph in the foreground, a picture taken in happier times when the family was whole. That is now the past, and gone.
The journey to a new land and a new life is fraught with danger as the understatedly courageous mother and her children leave and lose all that is dear to them. The hundreds of books lined up on bookshelves that stretch from floor to ceiling. The girl’s pet cat. All their material belonging. They are stripped of everything. But they have each other and they have stories.
What makes The Journey such a powerful picture book is the author’s ability to take a devastating reality and, without glossing over or omitting any of the horrific parts, retell it to a younger audience in an engaging, relatable and hopeful way. Therein lies the genius of this moving story. It is a work of art that will linger long in the memory.
For ages 7 and up.