To say that introducing young children to complex social justice issues – such as those involving LGBTQ+ refugees – is a challenge would be an understatement. But Robin Stevenson’s new picture book manages to present this complicated subject in an accessible and moving way.
Stevenson tells the true story of a gay couple’s journey from Indonesia to Canada through the eyes of their cat, Ghost. Using the perspective of a beloved pet, Stevenson conveys the emotions, practicalities, and social and cultural context of the situation simply and empathetically.
After establishing the close bond between Ghost and her human dads, Rainer and Eka, the book moves on to convey the fear and uncertainty of living in a place where LGBTQ+ people are in a near constant state of danger. “People don’t like us, Ghost,” Rainer whispers to the cat, “just because Eka and I love each other.”
A child will be able to relate to Ghost’s attempts to help her dads (bringing favourite toys) and to the cat’s reaction to tense situations (hiding in order to feel safe). By encouraging the young reader to identify with an animal rather than a fellow child, a reassuring distance is created.
The artwork in the book consists of photos of Ghost – taken by Rainer – that have been turned into illustrations with Photoshop. While the real-life images of Ghost add authenticity, the visuals are at times out of focus and oddly framed.
Rainer, Eka, and Ghost were forced to relocate seven times while at home in Indonesia. They were dogged by threats for speaking out publicly for LGBTQ+ rights, and found no help from the country’s hostile and abusive police force. This tale nevertheless has a happy ending with the trio finding safety and comfort in Vancouver. “Rainer and Eka had to leave almost everything behind when they left Indonesia [in the mid-2010s],” writes Stevenson, “but they couldn’t bear to leave Ghost. … In 2018, they became permanent residents of Canada.”
Stevenson has been involved with refugee sponsorship since 2015 and is an active voice in Canada’s LGBTQ+ writers’ community. Her passion for and knowledge of the topic of LGBTQ+ refugees shine in Ghost’s Journey, making for a charming and informative picture book.