I love children’s books with a message. Messages that grapple with weighty subjects. Subjects that are dealt with in ways that promote discussion and convey perspective. Even amongst young children. Two picture books shortlisted for this year’s Kate Greenaway medal do just that. They are Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson, and Drawn Across Borders by George Butler. Both books feature pictures that are formed either around the words, or as part of the words. That is, not separated by blank space or whole pages. I find this makes for more natural ‘reading’ of both words and pictures.
In Milo Imagines the World we meet a little boy travelling on a train with his sister. Milo feels like a ‘shook-up soda’ because of his mixed emotions of love, worry, excitement and confusion. We realise only at the end of the journey why Milo has these emotions: he is going to visit his mother who is in prison. Milo deals with these emotions by drawing the people he sees on the train, imagining them in their private worlds. On a couple of pages we even see Milo’s hand as it clutches the pencil while drawing in the notebook. But, after some time, Milo stops drawing and looks at his own reflection in the train window, wondering what people think when they look at his face. It is this perspective that prepares Milo to see that we simply cannot judge people by their appearance. Milo, and the reader by extension, learns compassion.
Drawn Across Borders is unique, certainly in my experience of children’s books. Its author, George Butler, is a reportage illustrator who covers stories of migration. In the book Butler explains some of his pictures and his experience of drawing them. His words are aimed at children or young adults, and his subjects often feature children: boys sifting through the rubble of their home, a girl smiling at him while she stands in a long queue for food, a boy lying on a hospital bed after having lost one leg in an explosion. It is these children, and otherwise ordinary people, upon whom Butler focuses, revealing what it is like to live as a refugee. The drawings in fine ink with splashes of water colour have an unfinished look about them, perhaps reflecting the impermanence of their subject matter. The people in the pictures come from 11 different countries, Syria, Kenya, Serbia, Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan among them. The people migrate for various reasons: work, war, urbanisation. Drawn Across Borders made me realise just how many people live shifting, insecure lives. I see afresh how very secure and stable is my own home life. The drawings, as opposed to photos, are appropriate for children to see. But I think a book like this is, is best read in collaboration with adults. It is worth exposing children to Drawn Across Borders because, like Milo in Milo Imagines the World, children may gain both compassion and perspective. I certainly did.