Saludos todos, and welcome back to our weekly Mira, Look book reviews! I hope everyone had a relaxing and enjoyable winter holiday.
Our theme for this month is “unsung heroes,” including lesser-known biographies, as well as the cherished yet occasionally overlooked heroes of our personal lives—parents, siblings, teachers and other timeless inspirations. Our first book for the month, Two White Rabbits, written by Mexican author Jairo Buitrago and illustrated by Colombian artist Rafael Yockteng tells the story of a father who courageously brings his daughter across the U.S.-Mexico border. This week we are focusing on this book to honor and celebrate all of the moms and dads who’ve made sacrifices and taken risks for the sake of their children. However, while focusing on the unsung heroes in our personal lives, this book also broaches the topic of unnamed victims (within the context of immigration and refugee rights), providing a double-edged focal point for this story, as well as this month’s themes. As a result, we are kicking off 2017—a fresh start from what was, for many people, a tumultuous and anxiety-inducing year—with books that focus our attention on the people, icons, heroes large and small, and even victims that are often overlooked, unsung, unnamed, or forgotten.
This picture book’s narrative style uniquely reflects the characteristics of many graphic novels, allowing much of the story to be told through its images. This particularity nicely complements our featured book for the month and the subject of our January 9th book club, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, which is a compelling graphic novel focused on an Argentine family in the US (making it another story of crossing borders, though with quite a different take). Moreover, the illustrations in Two White Rabbits, created with thin, ink-drawn contours and textured, scratchy, digitized cross-hatching, immediately evoke the artistic style of graphic novel illustrations.
This simple yet compelling story narrates the immigrant journey of a young girl and her father as they cross through Central America to come to the United States. Although it is made clear through various context clues—the landscape and geography of the illustrations, big signs written in Spanish, and the phenotypes of the characters—that this is a Central American migration, the family’s country of origin is never specified, nor is their destination. In effect, the story produces a seemingly-generic, non-descript story of immigration, reflecting the all-too-common occurrence of this real-life narrative. As noted by Kirkus Reviews, “In leaving readers with much to wonder about, the book packs the most powerful of punches.” The story expertly captures the white-washing of immigrant narratives, both within literature and the media, as well as through legal and political responses (or lack thereof).
Two White Rabbits focuses on one family amongst the hundreds of thousands who make this perilous journey each year. This immigrant narrative is so common that it cannot be confined to any one family or any one individual; rather, it is lived and experienced by countless families and individuals. This story’s vagueness is one of its most sophisticated strengths, emerging as a poignant critique on human, immigrant and refugee rights. Although immigrants and refugees and, generally speaking, human beings, should never be reduced to mere numbers, identifiable only through saddening statistics, this compelling story reminds us that, lamentably, they often are.
The story begins with a two-page spread of a little girl riding on the shoulders of her father, their arms spread out like wings as they run down the street with warm grins on their faces. The background is completely white, negative space, and instead of seeing a presumed backdrop of a city or town, all we see is the road, the sidewalk, and the girl with her dad. The words read: “When we travel, I count what I see.” The narration is from the first-person perspective of the little girl. On the next page is another two-page spread with no words. The little girl and her father are bent down looking at the ground, where several hens and baby chicks scamper about. The words on the previous page, “I count what I see,” subtly invite readers to count what they see on this wordless spread of images. Young readers could count how many baby chicks they see, how many hens, how many brown hens, how many white hens. This style invites readers to take the time to “read” the illustrations, number what they see, and make detailed observations. The beginning pages immediately set the tone for the book as a whole, letting readers know that the images are crucial for understanding the story. Again, as mentioned in the preceding paragraph, this picture book has the hallmarks of a graphic novel, with sparse, vague words that rely heavily on the storytelling ability of the images.
The abundant white, negative space that we see on the first page continues throughout the story. Detailed images stop short, giving way to blank, white nothingness. This visual technique can be seen as a powerful reinforcement of the broader narrative, serving to symbolize the imminent erasure of this family’s experiences.
This pattern continues throughout the rest of the book: sparse words appear on one page, followed by a two-page spread of just images on the next. Not only does this approach contribute to the symbolism and literary poignancy of the story, but it also creates a wonderful exercise in counting, observation, and interpretation for young readers. The deliberate silences of the narrative, and the simplicity of the story line as a whole, grants teachers the opportunity to fill in these blanks with their students through a variety of potential lesson plans and activities: for example, a lesson on immigration narratives and refugee rights (for older students, perhaps); a lesson on the geographical landscapes of Central America (for intermediate students); or a lesson on counting and verbal description (for younger students).
Buitrago dedicates this book to “my dear Adriana/ and the invisible walkers through/ the countries.” The mistreatment of and negligence towards South American immigrants, who are often, in fact, refugees, has stripped them of even more human rights, and rendered them “invisible walkers through countries,” non-identifiable statistics, and, ultimately, a phenomenon in need of urgent attention.
This book is at once simple and complex, generic and diverse, sweet and chilling, all of which contributes to its success. As a whole, it expertly renders difficult topics accessible and enriching for young children, reminding us, through it all, of the amazing power of the unsung heroes in our personal lives.
For those of you interested in using this book in the classroom, or learning more about the author and illustrator, here are some additional resources:
- Educator’s guide for Two White Rabbits from Groundwood Books
- Blog for Jairo Buitrago, (Spanish language)
- Literatura en la Infancia, blog by Jairo Buitrago (Spanish language)