Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin

Values: Hope, Love, Courage, Resilience, Compassion, Community, Perseverance, Respect, Self-Belief...

Illegal is a graphic novel telling the plight of brothers, Ebo and Kwame, as they leave their home in Niger and head across Africa and the Mediterranean with the hope of reaching Europe, their sister and a better life. It mirrors the journey taken by millions of people every year. Some are refugees fleeing war and conflict; others are hoping to find work and family. For all of them, the journey is dangerous and the destination not always what was imagined. This book was lent to me by a friend after she borrowed When Stars Are Scattered from me and there are both similarities and differences between the two - both highly valuable texts for us to learn about other people's lived experiences. I would recommend both to teen and adult readers.

This is a book that is powerful, moving and graphic in both content and illustrations. There are important scenes that depict poverty, starvation, corruption, trauma and death on more than one occasion. I wouldn’t use this book until KS3 in school as it would require very careful thought about how to tackle these subjects and to ensure all children in the classroom were able to emotionally cope with the subject matter. If it was going to be used in primary schools, it could be used with UKS2 with careful guidance. For example, there may be opportunity to use an extract to illustrate the experiences of some refugees and asylum-seekers, but that would be using your professional judgement.

I also value the way that the authors have thoroughly done this research when creating this graphic novel to ensure the events are authentic as can be (when not written by someone who has experienced this journey themselves). Although it is not the reality of one individual (Ebo and Kwame are fictional), it hopes to amalgamate the experiences of lots of different people who have made this risky choice. Some of these stories and voices are referenced at the back of the book. I don’t believe you can finish this book without feeling moved by it.

Of course, there are so many Values that could be explored through this text. I have chosen just a few. Firstly, I believe you could discuss the Value of courage using Illegal. Ebo, Kwame, Sisi and all of the others shown in the book display immense courage. They travel on long journeys with little money, often in countries where they don’t speak the language and with little paperwork. On top of that, they are forced to place their trust in people who often do not value their safety. In this book alone, we see Ebo (a child) leaving home by himself; working to earn money to eat; travelling across the desert where it is known many people have died; enduring a treacherous night in an inflatable boat whilst knowing he cannot swim; and watching his brother drown. These experiences are those that so many of us are fortunate enough to never have to consider or imagine, but millions face these decisions every year and display immense courage in choosing to embark upon these journeys. It really does hammer home the point that sometimes life is so hard for people that the colossal risk is deemed worthwhile.

Secondly, the Value of hope shines through. Despite no way of communicating with his siblings, when Ebo leaves home, he is sure he will find his brother and sister. They may be anywhere in North Africa or Europe and despite the hardships, Ebo keeps this hope in his mind. He works hard, trades his powerful singing for food, battles hunger and illness. But he is determined, and never lets go of hope.

I would also use this book as a symbol for love. Love is an emotion that can be hard for some children to conceptualise and this book shows love shining through in even the darkest of times. In amongst all of the suffering and trauma that the characters ensure, there are lots of examples of this abstract emotion. Ebo and his siblings love each other so much they will put their lives in danger to find each other. The mother who passes Ebo (a stranger, and a child) her baby when she falls into the sea instantaneously puts her child’s safety before her own. The humanitarian workers who spend every day searching for fragile boats out at sea and pull cold, frightened and weak people on board or give them lifejackets to ensure their survival show love day after day. The portrayal of love for other humans – on a wider scale than children may have seen before – is outstanding.

Ebo is a young boy (12 years old) who has experienced so much. He is also funny, resilient, brave and compassionate. There are so many differences between his life and 12-year-olds’ lives in the UK. But perhaps, there are also similarities and this might be a good take on the book for KS3 pupils.

I think you could also incorporate the Values of resilience, community, perseverance, compassion, empathy, respect and self-belief. This is a stunning book and one that all adults should read. It is so sensitively told, and covers real issues that many of us have no idea of the reality for millions of others. The illustrations by Giovanni Rigano are accessible and poignant, adding so much to the story.

If you wanted to get hold of your copy, you can find it at many bookshops, but try and source it from an independent seller if you can! You can also find books with similar Values by clicking on these links: