I absolutely had to pick up Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin's Illegal: One Boy's Epic Journey of Hope and Survival for our family bookshelf.
When I first brought this home, my husband raised his eyebrows at the title. I explained to him that it was supposed to be provacative in its exploration of what it means to be “legal” or not. Colfer and Donkin have put together a powerful story of a boy, Ebo, the youngest in his family, who alights off to join his older brother as he leaves their home in Africa to seek out both their sister and a better life than they grew up with. Ebo and his brother find themselves at the mercy of their handlers, handing off every dime they gave in search of Italy, where they plan to end up. Things go off the rails when they have to hop on a dinghy as quickly as possible with a dozen other migrants. The vessel is only slated to hold 8, and the engine dies, leaving they boys and men stranded in the sea. They are not sure who, if anyone, will make it to those golden shores of hope.
I’m still processing my emotions after finishing this graphic novel, as it was both stunning and devastating. I used to question the role of graphic novels since I love the written word so much, but as I’ve gotten deeper into them I have found that the pictorial representation along with carefully selected text can punch me in the gut harder than a longer passage of the most beautiful prose. This was the perfect medium for this story, and it had me sniffling in the living room while my son watched TV. Ebo’s story is one of a boy who is audacious in his hope and his belief that he is making the right decision for himself and his family. What’s heart-wrenching about it from the point of view of my safe and warm home in adulthood is that it is so split-second, so without thought that I wanted to reach into the book, grab that boy by the ear, and drag him back home.
However, he is an impulsive young boy who made the decision he did, so we choose to continue following him along on his journey. I will leave the rest of the narrative here so that nothing will be spoiled when you pick up the book. The story itself is heart-wrenching, but I do think it’s an important one to read and to understand. This book has so many talking points with young people — why Ebo made the decision that he did, what the conditions of his life were that would lead to his leaving so suddenly, why going to Europe was such a dream for so many, what would happen when they got there, etc. A piece of me wants to shield my son from the kind of pain contained in this book, but that’s realistic and it takes away the possibility of hope. Ultimately, I feel that’s what the book left us with, even if it did break my heart.