Book Review: The Journey By Francesca Sanna

It has been too long since a review here, and my review pile is dangerously tall as always. This book has been calling my attention for months and today feels like the perfect day to remind us about empathy. To read books that are challenging and, most likely, a window about something we may hopefully never experience ourselves. This book is beautiful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and necessary. Join me in admiring and pondering The Journey by Francesca Sanna, 2016.


The story begins by talking about the normal life of a family living by the sea. It looks lovely and idyllic, but the water feels incredibly heavy and ominous. And indeed, a wave of war comes and destroys everything the child narrator knows. And then the war takes the child’s father.


Worry sets in for the child’s mother and she seeks out advice from friends. Many people are leaving and dreaming of a country far away with mountains, cities, forests, and animals – all different from what they know. The family packs up and decides to follow.


The trip is long, dark, and secret. The farther they go, the more of their precious and beautiful belongings they leave behind. When they finally arrive at the border, they are turned away.


With nowhere to go, they sleep in the dark forest, fearful, but trusting of their mother’s wisdom and strength. Finally, someone offers to slip them over the border in exchange of money. They go. The journey is not over. There is still a sea to cross, land to travel, and worry to endure.


But the child spies the birds in the sky above migrating just as they are. The child hopes that one day both the birds and their family will find a new, safe home where the journey will end and “begin our story again.”


I was in tears the first time I read this book. We hear the words “refugee” and “migrant” tossed around constantly these days, and often they fade into things we don’t have to care about and are not people with concerns and stories. This book, beautiful and powerful, gives some of that story back to the people who are beginning, enduring, and ending this kind of journey every day.


I love the way this is written, and most deeply, how it is illustrated! The words are simple, and from the child’s perspective. The child trusts their mother to move them, to protect them, to find a solution to their needs. But the illustrations, very graphically (not violently), show more of the picture. It is dark. It is scary. The mother cries while the children sleep. The guard feels bigger than life in keeping them out. The “helper” feels evil and secretive. The water is terrifying and full of mysterious creatures. There is so much black.


But there is also hope. As an artist, I know that black is often a color you do not use. It is too dark, too dominant, too devoid of color, too unimaginative. But Sanna does an amazing thing with all the dark, often completely black colors. It is moving and emotional. And the black is pushed back out, as hope moves in.


The journey will end. The story will begin again, at least for this family.


The author’s note at the end tells of the many stories she has heard in refugee centres and how this book is a culmination of many of the details from those stories. Her illustrations are spectacular. They are truly stunning art, and packed with emotion. Buy this book, for yourself and for others. Think about all the stories we are not able to hear. We need empathy. We need kindness. We need more books like this to see what we are not seeing in the faces of others.


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