Review of the Day – Alone: The Journeys of Three Young Refugees by Paul Tom, ill. Mélanie Baillairgé, translated by Arielle Aaronson
Alone: The Journeys of Three Young Refugees
By Paul Tom
Illustrated by Mélanie Baillairgé
Translated by Arielle Aaronson
Groundwood Books (House of Anansi Press)
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now
I can’t get my children’s librarians to read this book. This is no ding against the book itself. It’s top notch. Stellar. Like no other book out there. And I’ve pondered what it is exactly about this book that I cannot sell to my compatriots. Is it the fact that the predominant color on the book jacket is a sepia-esque brown? As any librarian will tell you, readers avoid sepia on covers like the plague. Or, is the problem that I’m trying to get children’s librarians to read the book and the girl on the cover looks like a teenager? Maybe it’s the fact that this is a work of nonfiction and some folks just don’t like to read nonfiction in their spare time. Whatever the case, eventually I realized that if this book is ever going to make a name for itself, then those of us who have read it are going to have to pronounce loudly and long why it is that it’s so good. Its audience, after all, isn’t adults with library science degrees. The true audience of this book is kids and middle schoolers (and teens too, if they want to). And in spite of its brown cover, it’s not dull in the least. It’s a gripping triple autobiography of three young people sent by their parents off into a very difficult world to make a better life for themselves. Read as easily as a graphic novel it sucks in its readers. This is a book that makes the refugee crisis real and pertinent in a way I’ve never seen before. You just need to know how to sell it to kids.
“You have a family, friends, a home. You go to school, and like all children, you like to play. One day, a threat appears and changes everything.” Three kids find themselves in this position. The first is Afshin who lives in Iran. When war comes to his country he can’t wait to be old enough to join the army. His parents, however, are convinced that he’ll die if he volunteers. To avoid that fate, they send him away to Canada. Meanwhile, in Burundi 13-year-old Alain’s father has been arrested. Convinced that they’re in danger, Alain’s mother takes him and his three brothers out of the country. But when she dies en route, they find themselves utterly alone in the world. Finally there is Patricia in Uganda. When her parents find out that she’s attracted to other girls, they know that she could potentially be arrested or killed for this fact. It’s best if she ends up in Canada too. Interwoven together, these three stories tell very different tales, but all with the same underlying thread. Backmatter includes a Glossary and an explanation of what happened to each of the kids after their stories here were done.
There is an aspect to this book that I didn’t really realize until I sat down and started writing this review. Mainly, that this title is technically an adaptation of a documentary. I never read the descriptions or bookflaps on the titles I read because I like to go into a book for kids without any prior knowledge about it. Usually that isn’t a problem but in the case of today’s title, by skipping the bookflap meant I also skipped the following statement: “Alone is a fully illustrated adaptation of the critically acclaimed documentary, Seuls.” If there was any indication of this inside the book, I certainly missed it. Maybe I would have been a little more clued in if the adaptation had showed its hand. But with the art of Mélanie Baillairgé combined with such an integrated storyline, I honestly hadn’t any reason to suspect. There may be a smart reason for that, though. Documentaries, like nonfiction memoirs, must take large chunks of pure information and weave a cohesive, coherent storyline out of the mere act of living. Even if the three kids in this book led exciting lives, to make their choices work in a film or a book you must ascribe meaning to them. It’s a difficult process. Now add on the extra layer of adapting from film to the page, and you begin to see how impressive this story is overall.
And it IS impressive! I don’t know who the art director or designer was on this book but they just knocked it out of the park. I mentioned earlier that the book reads like a graphic novel, and a lot of that has to do with the way in which each narrative acts alongside the art. Illustrator Baillairgé utilizes a three-color scheme of just black, green, and red which works exceedingly well. The ways in which she might use negative space or use the colors to flicker across characters’ faces like reflected lights is amazing. I’ve read so many nonfiction chapter books for kids where the design was dull and stilted and bored me on contact. With this book, every time I turn to a new page I get sucked in by the art first and foremost and end up reading page after page again.
Then there’s the writing itself. Since each storyline is told in the first person I was a bit worried that I’d get confused about who was speaking at what time. I needn’t have worried. Paul Tom may be the one adapting these kids’ stories but there’s something about their individual personalities that shines through. Each one has left their home country for a different reason. All of them have traveled to Canada. Paul Tom will then occasionally speak directly to the young reader, putting them in the shoes of these characters. “You’ve finally managed to reach Canada after risking your life. You wish you could rest, but your journey is far from over. Your path is still littered with obstacles.”
So! The million dollar question: How do you sell this book to a young readership? Because like I say, just telling them it’s three refugee memoirs of kids making their way alone in the world is not necessarily going to cut it. Now you certainly could hand this to a kid with an autobiography assignment, but let’s look outside the school homework box a bit. This is book is seriously gripping and 100% true, yet it’s so exciting that you completely forget that it’s even nonfiction. I experienced a HUGE shock when I got to the backmatter and found myself confronted with three photographs of the story’s subjects with additional information about where they are today. My suggestion then is to do a good old-fashioned booktalk when selling this to kid readers. Play up the danger. The emotion of separating from the family that loves you. You could begin by saying, “What would it take for your parents to send you off on a hugely dangerous journey to another country where you do NOT speak the language and you’re all alone . . . AND you’re the age you are right now? Can you imagine that? And can you imagine, years later, being happy that they did?” Then show them the insides. The visual details. The readability. The fact that it isn’t a million pages long. I bet you could get them clamoring for it. You just need to sell it correctly.
One question folks may have about this book is whether or not it’s truly for kids are better for teens. The protagonists do start out at 13 and 16, after all. Even so, I noticed that in terms of the content there isn’t much violence and certainly no sexual trafficking or abuse. The kids suffer, but it’s of loneliness for their homes and families. The story is gripping and sometimes a parent might die but overall it has happy endings at the end. The reason to read it, though, is that as a kid you can’t help but read this book and put yourself in Afshin, Alain, and Patricia’s shoes. Alone goes out of its way to make you feel, growing empathy in the process. You won’t lack for refugee stories in your children’s libraries and bookstores these days, but if you truly want to help kids to understand what other people are going through, Alone is a wonderful place to start. A visual stunner, gripping storyline, and heartbreaker of a title. Nothing else like it out there. Nothing at all.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley 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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