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Paul Tom & Mélanie Baillairgé

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For Paul Tom, Alone: The Journey of Three Young Refugees touches on universal truths

This May, Montreal-based filmmaker, animator, and digital storytelling instructor Paul Tom releases his first book, Alone: The Journey of Three Young Refugees (Groundwood Books), published in French as Seuls by La Courte Echelle. Adapted from the 2021 film of the same name, and illustrated by Mélanie Baillairgé (with translation by Arielle Aaronson), the graphic novel for ages 8–12 chronicles the journey of Afshin, Alain, and Patricia as they make their way to Canada by themselves

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Tom is the winner of two Gémeaux awards, which honour achievements in Canadian television and digital media broadcast in French, for his 2017 documentary film Baggage.

Tom spoke to Q&Q about how Alone came to be, what the experience meant to him, and what he hopes readers will take away from the graphic novel.

This is your first book for young readers. Why did you feel this was the right time to speak directly to the younger generation?

Alone is actually my first book, ever. I didn’t plan to aim it at young readers in particular. In fact, I didn’t expect to write the book at all. When the film – from which it was adapted – was released, my role as director was already done. However, Mélanie Baillairgé, who illustrated the film’s animation sequences, found a way to bring our work to the page – to my biggest surprise and delight! 

For the past 10 years, I’ve been in contact with the younger generation through my filmmaking work in classes for immigrants and my work as a digital story instructor with the NFB Media School, among other things. These experiences have convinced me that young hearts are fertile ground to plant seeds of openness and curiosity. And those hearts are more easily drawn to the sensory memories of childhood, which I use a lot to make connections with the protagonists of my book and film. 

Alone touches on a number of heavy issues. How did you navigate the sensitivities of these issues for a younger audience?

I use human experiences that kids can convey through emotions: joy and laughter, fulfillment, security, pain, sadness, abandonment, hope, rebuilding. 

There are facts and actions. There are emotions tied to that.

I tried to stick as close as possible to the emotions I myself felt when I was suffering, overjoyed, or confident during my own childhood. I believe my sensitivity translates into something real that kids can understand. 

Illustration: Mélanie Baillairgé

The main characters of Alone – Afshin, Alain, and Patricia – are real people. How did you come to learn of their stories? 

I always joke that it took me only two weeks to write the book because it came after almost four years of work and a great team dedicated to the documentary. 

At the head of the team: Julie Boisvert and Mylène Péthel. These two worked wonders to find and research the three characters. They discovered Afshin from his book (Passeport pour ailleurs) – an amazing journey narrated like a spy novel. Then they met Alain because a member of Julie’s family heard about unaccompanied minors being housed in a Burundian association in Ottawa. Patricia was referred to us by (Quebec agency) PRAIDA (Regional Program for the Settlement and Integration of Asylum Seekers).

What did it mean for you to bring their story to the page?

This process comes full circle for me.

When I started my film studies, I wanted to make gigantic rom-coms with people kissing in the rain. Instead, my teachers encouraged me to look into my own experience as a son of refugees. Maybe stories I could find in my own baggage had the potential to bring something new to the audience. And if they didn’t, the process might at least be therapeutic.

I made films about my family and myself and then realized that pointing to the intimate has the power to touch the universal.

Since then, I’ve wanted to shed a light on people who don’t have a platform for their own stories and bring a new perspective to abstract topics such as immigration and displacement. 

What do you hope young readers take away from Alone?

Over the past few years, I have done many school presentations and received these kinds of unexpected testimonies from the students: 

“I will never judge a person based on his appearance. Not now, not ever.”

“I think I have a glimpse of what empathy is.”

“I will thank my parents. I know how lucky I am to be here and not there.”

The stories of Patricia, Alain, and Afshin are not only refugee stories. They are stories of human beings. I want young readers to understand that people who come from elsewhere all want the same thing: to live in peace, to have shelter over their heads, and shelter over their hearts. To dream without limits.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Paul Tom (Credit: Chantale Lecours) and Mélanie Baillairgé (Credit: Chantale Lecours).