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Book Reviews

Surviving the City

by Tasha Spillett and Natasha Donovan (ill.)

Manuelito: A Graphic Novel

by Elisa Amado and Abraham Urias (ill.)

The Courage of Elfina

by André Jacob and Christine Delezenne (iil.)


Three new
graphic novels tell difficult stories of survival, highlighting the struggles many teens face in battling discrimination, racism, and political violence. In each book, home is shown to be of critical importance, while at the same time being fraught and dangerous.

In Elisa Amado’s Manuelito, a 12-year-old’s life with his family in Guatemala is disrupted when gangs move into the area. Afraid for his safety, his parents send Manuelito to live with his aunt in the U.S. After a harrowing journey through Mexico, facing threats from “coyote” – the man paid to take him across the border – Manuelito finally reaches his New York destination. He starts school and begins to settle into his new life, but ICE officers arrive at the door and deport both him and his aunt.

Guatemala-born Amado’s text is spare, direct, and emotional – communicating the anxiety and desperation that the characters feel, especially once their hopes for safety in the U.S. are dashed. For the most part, text and pictures work well together, although at certain points they fail to align completely and the sequence of events is rendered unclear. Nevertheless, Abraham Urias’s strong black-and-white illustrations, with an emphasis on faces in close-up, vividly capture the shifting countenances of these characters in crisis. Some readers may wish for a glimmer of hope in the ending, but Amado opts for a bleak, albeit realistic, outcome.

The Courage of Elfina also follows a young  protagonist from Latin America, this time from Paraguay. Her mother has died, and her father works in Brazil, so Elfina lives with her brother and grandmother. When her aunt in the capital city invites Elfina to come and live with her – promising access to good schooling – the teenager reluctantly goes. Upon arrival, she is not sent to school at all, but is forced into domestic servitude. Worse, the family then moves to Montreal, where Elfina is even more isolated and her uncle makes improper advances. Eventually, Elfina finds the courage to take refuge in a church, where a Spanish-speaking priest reports her forced labour to police and ensures she returns home.

Quebec author André Jacob’s text keeps the story moving and captures Elfina’s resilient nature. The words and pictures interlace seamlessly: a variety of large and small panels highlight both the spatial limitations of Elfina’s world and her fantasies of escape (as when an imaginary stallion emerges from the washing machine). Christine Delezenne’s two-colour illustrations are filled with movement and information, as well as glimpses of Elfina’s humour and cheeky resistance. Section breaks indicating the seasons chart Elfina’s emotional journey visually, as does the recurring map of the park that she must walk through to buy groceries, thus gaining rare moments of freedom. This story does end happily, with Elfina back home and in school.

Surviving the City, the story of Miikwan and her best friend Dez, highlights the dangers Indigenous teens face in Canada. Miikwan is Anishinaabe and Dez is Inninew; they are very close and even shared their berry fast – a rite of passage for young women. But when Dez’s grandmother becomes ill, Dez fears the prospect of living in a group home and runs away. Miikwan, whose mother was murdered, is frantic to find her. Tasha Spillett, who is Nehiyaw and Trinidadian, tells the story through the girls’ dialogue and text messages – featuring Indigenous words and references to traditional practices – allowing readers to be continually immersed in their world.

Métis artist Natasha Donovan’s full-colour illustrations stand out in this field of graphic novels, with pale-blue ghostly figures representing missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, as well as darker, hollow-eyed male figures who symbolize the constant threats to women. In these haunting images, the girls personal drama plays out within the larger struggle of Canadas Indigenous women.

Each of these graphic novels invites young readers to engage with contemporary social justice issues and to empathize with the teens who face such challenges.