Review of the Day: Borders by Thomas King, ill. Natasha Donovan
Sometimes I worry that comics for kids are starting to too often rest on their laurels. In the old days, a children’s librarian’s attitude towards having a comic in their collection would probably lead to them screaming, “Burn it with fire!!!” These days, the attitude has shifted to quite the opposite reaction. 20th century librarians were convinced comics would warp the mind and turn kids into juvenile delinquents. 21st century librarians are convinced that they’re the ultimate lure for reluctant readers and act as a gateway reading drug. The truth is, of course, in the middle. There’s no mind warping, but there’s also no golden solution to reader reluctance. What cannot be denied are sales, though. Comics for kids are selling better than ever. Logic would dictate that this would mean that we’d be seeing a wide swath of different kinds of styles and storytelling. But as we live in a capitalist society, what usually happens is that when something works well then a whole bunch of other people run to copy it. Here’s a fun game you can play: Go into a children’s room, go to the comic section, and find a contemporary, realistic story about a BIPOC boy. The New Kid by Jerry Craft is a good place to start. Now what else can you find? Go on. I’ll wait. And wait. And wait. Because while you might be able to rustle up one or two more (sans manga) the simple fact of the matter is that even with comic sales at an all time high, the stories being told are looking awfully similar to one another. Enter Borders. No one’s calling this the first Indigenous authored and illustrated comic, because I’m sure others have come out before. Even so, this is certainly the first one I’ve ever seen from a major publisher and it’s written by an author I’ve admired for more than a decade. Based on a short story, Borders doesn’t spell things out for young readers. Smart but serious, this is one book that’ll have them thinking long after they put it down.
Our narrator is a Blackfoot kid living with his mom in Alberta. His older sister, Laetitia, used to live with them, but after a lot of conflict with her mom she decided to move to Salt Lake City, Utah. At first her mom is angry about this move but one day she tells her son that they’re going to drive to visit Laetitia. Peppered with flashbacks to the relationship between the two women, we watch as the mom is asked at the border to state her citizenship. “Blackfoot”. No amount of pressure from either the Americans or the Canadians causes her to change this answer. As a result, mother and son find themselves stuck in a no man’s land between the two borders. And what ensues is a story of courage, resilience, and a great deal of pride.
My earliest encounter with the works of Thomas King came in the form of a Technicolored subversive picture book by the name of A Coyote Columbus Story. One of the rare books willing to not just poke fun at Christopher Columbus but depict him as an out-and-out clown (I always like to put it on display on Indigenous Peoples’ Day), it’s a clever amalgamation of the coyote myth and history. Mr. King primarily writes for adults, but since that discovery I was able to occasionally read some of his other coyote-related books for kids ( Coyote Sings to the Moon, Coyote’s New Suit, A Coyote Solstice Tale, and Coyote Tales). Had you asked me, I guess I’d say I was waiting for an ineffable something else to come out. I could not have predicted that it would be this. Borders began its life as a short story. I’ve heard it called “much-anthologized” even. That said, I don’t know if it was originally written for adults or children. Perhaps it’s one of those truly rare books that work for people of all ages, hitting them in different places. Could be.
Artist Natasha Donovan may be known to some for the art she created for the YA comic Surviving the City by Tasha Spillett. For my part, I know her best thanks to the Mothers of Xsan series she created with author Brett Huson. Mind you, the intricate and highly detailed style used in picture books like The Grizzy Mother is vastly different from the understated art of Borders. Here she presents the main characters with large brown eyes and serious faces. What’s going to strike readers the most, though, will be the mom and son’s expressions when they’re in the thick of the border interrogations. At no point does the mother look anything but completely in control of the situation. It makes for this really interesting dichotomy between what’s happening on the page and what your expectations are.
I’m not easily shocked, but clearly I’ve clearly grown complacent over the last few years. There were parts in Borders that initially baffled me, and I’m not afraid to admit it. The trend in children’s literature right now is to explain, explain, and over explain again. Any book with any kind of element that even slightly brushes up against the real world is required to include nonfiction backmatter. It’s standard practice and must make teachers’ lives easier, I’d wager. This book? Don’t even bother looking. There’s nothing in the back. Which wouldn’t be so surprising, were it not for the fact that this story doesn’t spell anything out for the reader. When the boy and his mom are interviewed repeatedly and she refuses to name either America or Canada as their land, you keep trying to anticipate what will happen. You expect the police to start yelling. For tempers to grow hot and for the mom to at some point deliver a monologue that explains her position perfectly. While we’re at it, you also expect that since she and her kids are Blackfoot, there will be some section in the book that outlines information about the Blackfoot, either historically or today. Maybe the mom will tell stories from the past that her grandmother told her. Again, nothing doing. Thomas King isn’t here to educate you. You want to know more about the Blackfeet? Go look it up. This book works on the assumption that you’re a mature enough reader to be able to feel frustration. Kids who read this book are going to be asking why the mom doesn’t just give up and say she’s Canadian. It would be easier, right? But it’s that frustration that fuels the story along. If you’re white like me, you might find yourself mentally begging the mom to give in and give up. And when she doesn’t, you realize (even if you hadn’t before) that what she did was completely right. But, again, the book’s not gonna spell that out for you. You need to discover it on your own.
Maybe the key to this book comes when the narrator says, “Pride is a good thing to have, you know. Laetitia had a lot of pride, and so did my mother.” The conflict between the daughter that leaves and the mother that wants her to stay sits in the background when the border issues arise. Even so, they’re interconnected. Funny that “Pride” is seen as a good thing but to “be proud” is considered a problem. You can be a proud person, but you shouldn’t be proud. Between the mom and Laetitia, pride is both their best quality and the quality that tears them apart. You could read this book and see Laetitia as being in the right and the mom’s pride being in the wrong. That said, when she has to stand up to the authorities on the border, it’s that same pride that carries the story to its happy end.
Graphic novel book clubs are quite the thing in libraries these days. A lot of the time they pick titles can be very girl-protagonist-heavy with plots worth discussing but not especially challenging. Borders challenges. It’s bound to inspire heated conversations between readers over why the mom did what she did, the greater implications, and whether or not YOU would have the guts to do the same thing. Kids could talk about what was accomplished by the end of the story, and what it meant for everyone involved. The sheer amount of topics you could discuss in tandem with this book boggles the mind. This is a story that stands out and apart from all those other comics being published right now. It assumes a certain level of intelligence on the part of the child reader. It’ll frustrate some, baffle others, and completely fascinate the lot of them. A complete original, and that’s a rare thing in this business. A rare thing indeed.
On shelves September 7th.
Source: PDF sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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