Ebo’s story is told in flashbacks, beginning with his later journey across the Mediterranean and then alternating with his earlier trek across Africa. Structural flashbacks like these are often used as a shortcut to plunge the reader into narrative action, and apart from that, there’s no obvious reason “Illegal” couldn’t be told in chronological order. But the contrast between the warm golds and browns of Africa make a stunning visual pattern as they alternate with the blues, greens, grays and purples of the sea voyage, and it works. The visual aspect of “Illegal” is both manageable and richly complex; there is a gorgeous and glorious level of detail and attention to hue in Rigano’s illustrations, which lift a relatively straightforward story to a higher plane. The graphic novel format, and Rigano’s inspired illustrations, drive and enhance Colfer and Donkin’s written dialogue. The complete package is a highly accessible introduction to the plight of all refugees.
The surprising reunions at the end of “Nowhere Boy” and “Illegal” give us the taste of hope. But hope is relative. Like Holocaust victims, our main characters lose entire families during their journeys: a situation so desperately grim, and so unthinkable, that one single other survivor constitutes a happy miracle. When a story doesn’t end in the worst-case scenario, the death of the main character, it fools us into thinking that losing your home and most of your family can have a happy ending.
There is no such miracle in the graphic novel ZENOBIA (Seven Stories, 94 pp., $19.95; ages 11 and up), written by Morten Dürr and illustrated by Lars Horneman. “Zenobia” is not so much a novel as a fable, a vignette in a lost life. The title character, Zenobia, is a Syrian child whose parents vanish (presumably killed in the war that we see shattering her city) and who attempts to leave her devastated and war-torn home with her uncle. The fragile ship Zenobia boards for the Mediterranean crossing to Europe, like that of Ahmed and Ebo, is lost at sea.
Zenobia’s namesake is a warrior queen who united Syria and conquered surrounding civilizations in ancient times. Our young Zenobia uses her national hero’s name as an inspiration for strength and courage, even in the moment of her death. The legacy of her name is Zenobia’s only comfort on her pointless journey; but is it pointless if we learn from it? “Zenobia” highlights, with simple clarity, Syria’s noble historical legacy as well as the plight of its modern people. Zenobia’s short and tragic story, inspired no doubt by 2015’s searing media image of the drowned Syrian child Alan Kurdi, is harrowing and instructive.
If there is a single moment from these books that will prove impossible to forget, it is the full-page spread in “Illegal” in which Ebo’s drowned brother drifts lifeless beneath the sea, surrounded by the other lifeless bodies of friends and strangers, fish nibbling at their exposed skin. This image, shocking and moving, represents the theme of wasted life that runs through all three books — a memorial to the dead and, to the unstoppable living, a call to action.