The Garden of Inside-Outside by Chiara Mezzalama & illustrated by Régis Lejonc, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

By Maureen Tai, 2 November 2020

Inside-outside, inside-outside … These words were going round and round inside my head, until they gave me a headache.

Chiara Mezzalama

It is the end of 1980. Iraq is under the power of Saddam Hussein and a bitter enemy of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme Leader. A war breaks out between the two nations that will end, unresolved, eight years later.

It is during this time of turmoil that Chiara, her younger brother, and her parents move to Tehran. Chiara’s father is the Italian ambassador to Iran, and the family take up residence in an opulent house surrounded by a vast, verdant and glorious garden, bordered by a wall that keeps the “city-monster” of war at bay. Or does it?

In their new garden, Chiara and her brother spend hours exploring and playing among the “fountains the colour of the sky, pomegranate trees, tall grasses… [and] plane trees, with leaves as big as giants’ hands.” Chiara christens this green sanctuary, their “Inside”, a safe haven for little children, insects, birds, even a hundred year old carp. It is not the Outside, that lies beyond the encircling walls, a dark and violent place filled with billowing smoke from burning buildings, crowded fists raised in angry determination, and bearded men with heavy boots and menacing rifles. In the Inside, Chiara and her brother, and later their pet dog, are safe and happy.

But the walls can’t keep out the sounds of conflict that emanate from the Outside. These sounds, and Chiara’s unanswerable questions about war, cause an anxiety that makes Chiara’s mother churlish, and she shoos away the crows that visit the garden, even though it is a safe place for them to be. One day, Chiara discovers that the walls can’t keep out trespassers from the Outside either. Shabby, dark-eyed and curious, a young boy climbs over the wall. They touch hands, exchange names and Massoud becomes Chiara’s secret friend. Despite their differences, they become playmates, creating a world called Inside-Outside. In this new world, the children are royalty and have fantastical powers. They contradict and successfully challenge the forces of evil by freely embracing music and beauty. It’s a wonderful existence, but it doesn’t last forever. Or does it?

A poignant story about the trauma of war and the healing power of friendship, The Garden of Inside-Outside is an unusual, yet effective and appealing hybrid: a picture book done in a graphic novel style. The story, based on real events that happened in a real place during a period in the author’s childhood, is honestly recounted by the young girl. The boldly rendered illustrations look deceptively simple, yet upon closer inspection, the mastery and depth of thought that went into each of the drawings is breath-taking. I would recommend the article at the link below to those who are interested in finding out more about Régis Lejonc and his work.

In the end, Chiara learns that while she may never understand why humans build walls, and create spaces of frightening Outsides, she has the power and the bravery to climb over them. That is a lesson that remains as relevant today for us, as it did for Chiara so many years ago in her land of Inside-Outside.

For ages 8 and above.

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