Book Review: Migrants (2020) by Issa Watanabe

A silent picture book that speaks volumes on the painful realities of migration and the power of hope.



Silent books create the opportunity for us to become actively engaged in the story as they design the space for our children and us to process ideas at our own pace. Most importantly, they motivate us to reflect upon our own experiences. By casting aside the support of the written word, readers are encouraged to summarize, make deductions or interpret and evaluate visual information in a way that becomes meaningful to them, to their own story.


Through her story Migrants, Peruvian artist Issa Watanabe replaces words with powerful, strikingly colourful graphics that shed light on the painful realities of migration and the force that is hope.


The visual narrative unfolds through a group of anthropomorphic animals moving across haunting, nocturnal backgrounds. We witness the animals leaving behind a barren, leafless forest, crossing unknown territories and waters to eventually arrive at their destination – a fertile, colourful land. Watanabe lays out a complex landscape of themes and emotions - diversity, rejection, sorrow, grief and pain, compassion and kindness – as you accompany the animals on their way. Nevertheless, it is a strong sense of ‘hope’ that keeps the community together in the face of adversity and acts as their inner compass. As the book ends, are they about to live their happy ending? In reality, their journey towards inclusion and adaptation is just about to begin.


Migrants opens up the reader to navigating a myriad of emotions, encouraging us to relate to situations and explore, not brush over, difficult topics.


In an interview for Geko Press, the author explains:

Sometimes, we overprotect our children and we try to avoid sad stories and difficult themes. This tale is graphic: it is a sad story because forced migration is a sad theme, and it is important that it is told this way.

- Issa Watanabe


But expect each theme, no matter how deep, to be addressed with sensitivity and respect. The author captures the group's diversity through the careful detailing of more than thirty different animals, each belonging to a variety of species and ecosystems. This approach of universalizing their image rather than falling into stereotypes allows children (and adults alike) to empathize with the core story. Each beautifully illustrated character has his own identity, personality and individuality. Still, during the trip they function as one single unit: they share tasks and food, they rest and dream, nurture the younger members of the community, support each other and finally, and most importantly, they unite in the face of loss.



It is the frail, looming presence of the cloak-dressed skeleton, riding its blue ibis, which truly gives the narrative dimension. Once again, the author lays out in the open the most painful reality of a migrant's journey: the potential of death. It is she, ‘Death’, who faithfully accompanies these animals on their tortuous journey, without pretending to be threatening but instead warning them of possible dangers and cradling them when there is no longer a solution. While the interactions with death are palpable, both in the physical or oneiric dream environment, she is never truly accepted as part of the narrative. Instead, death always walks a few steps behind the group, both misfit and witness, friend and enemy. And yet, her presence cannot be negated - she is part of the whole, part of life, part of their journey.


As we zoom in and out of each page, we find ourselves unlocking each metaphor making use of our own inner codes, asking more profound questions and becoming more open to discussing difficult themes. Without casting a single letter on the paper's surface, the book itself has become a safe space, for adult and children alike to raise and discuss sensitive topics without sugar-coating reality.

As we close the book, the animals on the back cover invite us to open the book once again. It is a story without end, one that deserves to gain a voice loud enough to be heard by all to facilitate change.


Age recommendation: 5-8

About the author

Issa Watanabe was born in Peru in 1980, the daughter of an illustrator and a poet. She studied Literature and Fine Arts and Illustration. Watanabe has led and developed several projects to promote social integration through art. She has published a number of books and was selected for the Illustrators Exhibition at the Bologna Book Fair 2018.


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