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Illegal

Review

Illegal

written by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin with illustrations by Giovanni Rigano

It’s a journey no child should ever have to take, yet thousands do so every year. The treacherous journey from their home countries can take months or years before they are able to get on a boat and make a try for Europe, a place where so many hopes and dreams are placed.

Twelve-year-old Ebo is one of those children. ILLEGAL, a graphic novel written by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin and illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, tells his story. Migrants and the journeys they take have been in the news a lot recently over the last few years, often attached to the tragedy of a sinking ship and all the lives that are lost with it. Their plight is also played out in governments across Europe as politicians try to decide what to do and how to help --- or, in some cases, how to stop --- the people coming into their countries.

"ILLEGAL doesn’t...try to get across a strong political point of view. The authors instead take a closer view at one...experience. The result is a powerful story that will stay in minds long after it is finished."

ILLEGAL doesn’t explore those arguments, however, or try to get across a strong political point of view. The authors instead take a closer view at one family --- and one boy’s --- experience. The result is a powerful story that will stay in minds long after it is finished.

Ebo was born and raised in Ghana with his older brother Kwame and sister Sisi. After his mother dies, he and Kwame are left in the care of his alcoholic uncle. Sisi has already left for Europe and soon Kwame does too. But Ebo refuses to be left behind and immediately follows him. The plot centers on Ebo’s journey to find Kwame and the hours they spend in the sea trying to reach Europe.

The graphic novel opens with the brothers on an inflatable, rubber vessel that’s meant to hold only six people but is transporting 14 passengers instead. They are somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, en route from Libya to what they hope is Italy or Greece. It is night and the ocean swells around the group. None of the passengers, including Ebo and Kwame, know how to swim.

Chapter 2 takes readers 18 months into the past to Ghana, where Ebo has just discovered his brother has left. Each chapter after switches between the present --- the tiny boat in the big sea --- and what brought them there. The reader learns about how Ebo’s beautiful singing voice helps him navigate to Niger where he then begins the search for Kwame. Once reunited, more challenges await them including the dangerous Sahara Desert crossing. Along the way, others join them on their trek, each new person coming from similar circumstances intent on the same goal.

Color plays a huge role in setting the tone of the story and nowhere is this more evident than in the chapters that take place when Ebo is at sea. The scenes on the boat are done in darker shades of blue, gray and other dark colors. The fear and uncertainty the passengers feel is amplified.

It is hard not to fall in love with Ebo through his precarious nature, his ability to be optimistic and the devotion to his brother. Their relationship is central to the plotline and much of it revolves around Kwame’s desire to protect Ebo and Ebo’s desire to help Kwame. Witnessing this bond makes their characters real people, putting faces to migrants and the people they care about. The scene where they are reunited and the moments when Ebo is signing provide a brief reprieve from the intensity of their story.

The ending is, to put it bluntly, heartbreaking and it is sure to elicit many tears from younger and older readers alike. The authors succeed in humanizing the plight of the children who are migrants. The recommended age range is 10 and above, but adults would be wise to read ILLEGAL alongside the children in their lives to discuss the events as they unfold. The graphic novel can serve as a starting point for conversations about current events and the people throughout the world who attempt the crossing every single year despite the risks.

ILLEGAL is not an easy book to read. The experiences Ebo has are horrifying. The graphic novel begins with an epigraph by a Holocaust survivor that concludes “How can a human being be illegal?” The answer is on every page: They cannot.

Reviewed by Liz Sauchelli on August 20, 2018

Illegal
written by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin with illustrations by Giovanni Rigano