Wishes by Muon Thi Van, illustrated by Victo Ngai (9781338305890)
This picture book achingly captures the refugee experience in simple words. Throughout the book, the entire world wishes that it could do more to support the fleeing people. The night wishes it was quieter. When the family says goodbye to grandparents, the clock wishes it were slower. As they board the small boat, the boat wishes it were bigger. The storm rages over them and wishes it were calmer. The sun beats down, wishing it were cooler. Eventually, their small boat is met by rescuers in a large vessel and they are taken on board. So the little girl doesn’t have to wish any more.
It’s incredible what Van has managed to do in so few words in this book. One can feel, reading each page, the ache of loss even while there is a potential of a better life just beyond all of the dangers. The emotions are raw on the pages, the profound sadness felt deeply and the entire world trying to give these people a new chance. The author is a refugee whose family fled Vietnam and spent a month at sea. That experience resonates in the simple words that are imbued with a deep empathy and understanding.
Ngai’s illustrations are haunting and beautiful. They show the humanness of refugees, the little girl regularly making eye contact with the reader, her face filled in turn with sadness, dread and relief. The illustrations create moving moments, when the sun fills the page with its searing heat or the first glimpse of rescue is in sight.
An incredible feat of storytelling and art. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Liana and Amado are trying to survive Cuba’s el período especial en tiempos de paz—the special period in times of peace, in the 1990s. The time period when the Cuban government’s strict rules after the collapse of the Soviet Union threw the population into famine. Liana avoids the summer labor she has been assigned to, even though she opens her family to retribution. She spends her days instead with a dog she met, a special singing dog who helps bring her together with Amado. Amado is the brother of a prisoner, which already puts his family under additional scrutiny. He wants to follow in his brother’s pacifist footsteps as the mandatory military service looms in his future. As Liana and Amado come together, they must find a way to help one another survive starvation while seeing if they can have any future together at all.
Engle is the master of the verse novel, weaving her incredible poetry into tales of Cuba. This time, her focus on a period of starvation in Cuba is particularly exceptional. She creates a beautiful romance between two people (and a special dog) in the midst of such political upheaval and danger. The romance is captivating but it is the state of Cuba itself that creates the energy and horror in the story. From people dying of starvation to political imprisonment to casting yourself on the water to try to reach America. There are no easy decisions here, all ways lead to death or prison.
As always, Engle’s books are captivating. Her writing is marvelous, building the romance from tentative first meetings to real love and connection in an organic and honest way. The characters themselves are beautifully drawn. Similar in their situation, they find themselves reacting in very different ways that drive them apart. Their plans for the future seem disparate but could just be the way they can survive and be together after all.
Tense and horrifying, this poetic look at starvation in Cuba is riveting. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.