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Migrants by Issa Watanabe

As I write this post it is hard not to tear my mind away from the current events rocking the world. The specter of global military conflict rises again. With it, the unspoken acknowledgement that for every bomb dropped, people with no tangible stake in its ends are displaced from homes, workplaces, communities, and memories. The imagery of vehicles streaming from Kiev and other urban centers of Ukraine are heart-breaking. Tragically it is only a matter of time until the world bears witness to growing suffering and desperation of its citizens as they stream toward its western borders.

Lost in these pictures and soundbites is the reality that in the first half of 2021 more than 84 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations around the world – an increase of 1.6 million people from 2020. Migration, whether chosen, coerced, or forced, is a cornerstone of social studies curriculum. Exploring the very real dangers enmeshed in these stories is fraught with challenges, particularly at the elementary level. Peruvian illustrator and poet, Issa Wantanabe aims to thread this needle through her wordless picture book, Migrants published by Gecko Press.

Author and illustrator, Issa Wantanabe’s instagram post on February 24th as the press and social media began to share scenes of Ukrainians fleeing Kiev and other urban centers across their country.

To be clear, this is not your average children’s picture book. The storyline evokes very real emotions of fear, suffering, denial, anger, dismay, and hope. It does so through an anthropomorphic migrant community traveling with nothing but the possessions on their backs. Their path forward is hastened by the ever-present company of death, a cloaked skeleton who both strikes fear in the migrants but also offers comfort to a perished member. Its this detail, and several others that makes this book worthy of exploration and conversation with readers in a space that offers time and space to ask uncomfortable questions.

The choice to use animals strips the story’s use as an allegory to a specific time and space. It also softens the message ever so slightly to allow us to lean in instead of looking away. The first time I picked this book up I read it over several times, following the specific characters, examining their expressions, belongings, reactions and interactions with the other characters. There were several stories within the story, and backstories to conjure for each character.

Anthropomorphic migrants resting unsheltered softens the grim realities of forced displacement, while allowing adults to explore the emotions and thoughts that percolate in younger minds around their plight.

I ultimately chose not to read Migrants to my five and three year old when I first encountered this book at my local library in the summer of 2021. That said, I would be open to exploring this book with upper-elementary students as a classroom teacher, and possibly my Kindergartener at home should he start asking more poignant questions about, war, its refugees, and our world. To foster empathy for those displaced by violence, environmental-crises, and more (of which we often indirectly contribute to) is an important part of growth for any 21st century citizen. To engage in conversation around consequences of conflict and global/societal change is not something we can afford to insulate our children from as such events become an ever growing part of their lives.

Though a wordless picture book, Migrants has been published in a wide range of languages, demonstrating its international appeal and need for a global embrace of migrants, particularly refugees, and response toward the crises that drive them.

Find Migrants by Issa Wantanabe at your local bookstore or by shopping direct from Gecko Press.

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