Children’s picture book artists tell migrants’ stories through postcards

Digital Journal of Illustration

Children’s picture book artists tell migrants’ stories through postcards

Kate Kellaway

It was Piet Grobler and Tobias Hickey, founders of the International Centre for the Picture Book in Society at the University of Worcester, who first came up with the idea: they invited illustrators, through social media and word of mouth, to contribute a bird postcard, as a metaphor for human migration, with a message attached. It could be whatever the illustrators liked: a poem, a quote, a personal greeting and had to carry a postage stamp from their country. The result was overwhelming and moving: 300 postcards flew in and were exhibited at the Bratislava Biennale (and later in South Africa and Nami Island in South Korea). Postcards were hung on vertical wires, the organisers’ intention to “replicate the precarious nature of flight”. If you touched a card, the others would swivel and move, the entire structure would tremble – a silent communications network.

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This immersive show was inspired by what it is to flee on a wing and a prayer. And now there is a stunning postcard-size book, Migrations: Open Hearts, Open Borders (published by Otter-Barry Books), which includes a selection of 50 of these images and other, more recently received illustrations. Publisher Janetta Otter-Barry says making the selection was difficult, but the result is invigoratingly various with big names (Petr HoráčekNicola DaviesJon Klassen) alongside many unknowns. As a children’s books publisher (she was once director of Frances Lincoln), she sees it as essential “to have hope”. It is the defining quality of Migrations.

Mohammad Barrangi was born in Rasht, northern Iran, and now lives in the UK. Once a refugee himself, he contributes an illustration as intricate as any Persian carpet. He invents a “legendary” bird that will transport people safely to the lands of their dreams. I admired his work and only afterwards learned he has a disability in his left hand and makes his prints partly through using his leg, his illustration itself a triumph over circumstance.

‘Passenger Pigeon’ by Diek Grobler from South Africa.
 ‘Passenger Pigeon’ by Diek Grobler from South Africa.

Norwegian illustrator Stian Hole plants roses and rainbows in his bird’s flight path and accompanies his illustration with a beautiful poem by Olav Hauge, translated by Robert Bly, which sees flight as opportunity: “It’s that dream that we carry with us/ that something wonderful will happen,/ that it has to happen,/ that time will open,/ that doors will open…” Japanese illustrator Kana Okita keeps his work strikingly minimalist with sparing white lines against a blue sky and a single word: “Hope!”

Illustrators’ hearts may beat as one but each bird’s eye view is pleasingly different. Otter-Barry was particularly surprised to receive Jackie Morris’s contribution because her superb beaky peregrines, with their hooded eyes against a gold background, had been cut in two. The accompanying poem, a beguiling acrostic by Robert Macfarlane, had also therefore been snipped down the middle. “You had to put it together to read it,” says Otter-Barry. But they quickly realised they could use the divided card as endpapers and now she rejoices in what she assumes Morris intended: “It was audacious. She wanted to show separation, displacement.”

Shaun Tan, the Australian illustrator, asks in his introduction: “Can small gestures – a picture, a friendly message – make a difference?” He believes they can “by creating, looking, asking questions, confronting despair, we invest back into an economy far greater than any stock exchange, far nobler than any political system…” Not that Tan’s exuberant idealism blinds him to the challenges migrants face: “Like the Arctic tern, setting out for a new nest some 20,000km away, flying through darkness with only the thinnest of magnetic songs for bearings, the migrant moves into the unknown, which holds both promises and fears.”

Amir Shabanipour from Iran’s postcard
 Amir Shabanipour from Iran’s postcard said: ‘Simurgh is a Persian mythical bird, the symbol of wisdom and unity. It decided to collect 30 kids from all over the world [and teach] them to build a better world.’

It is Otter-Barry’s intention to distribute the book as widely as possible in libraries, schools and, where feasible, refugee camps. She mentions a library run by Ibby (the International Board on Books for Young People) on the Italian island of Lampedusa used by local and migrant children, and also workshops with the book run by the illustrator Jane Ray, who works with refugees in Islington, north London. Royalties will go to Amnesty and to Ibby. It is impossible not to wish that this book should fly, specifically into the hands of migrants because of its powerful and uplifting lack of sentimentality. Sometimes, it is the simplest ideas that move us most.

The Irish illustrator PJ Lynch draws a bird winging across dark rocks and an uncertain sea. It is a lovely but also a literal image. Its uncomplicated greeting goes straight to the heart: “Wishing that everyone who crosses a vast and furious ocean with hope for a better future will be met with a warm welcome by the generous hearted. Safe journey.”