"You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms,” wrote Elie Wiesel, Nobel prize winning author and Holocaust survivor. The quote was the inspiration for the book’s title.
“Children are not represented, their stories are not told, nobody knows how they feel,” said Colfer. The book tries to bring those stories to life, to show the moments which are not, and often cannot, be depicted by photography or media coverage.
Throughout 2014, small news articles repeatedly emerged describing ships sinking in the Mediterranean, but never with any follow-up. “There were so many children on these ships, but every interview we ever saw was with an adult – the children didn’t have the communication skills, so we had to go find them”, said Donkin.
“We chose an economic migrant. That was important”, he continued - the team wanted to tell the story of a child crossing the Sahara. The media have often focussed refugees from war-torn countries crossing the Mediterranean – Illegal wanted to show another narrative: “We don’t know how many are lost in the desert – there are no authorities – they are lost forever”, said Donkin.
The writers worked closely with charities to create what is effectively a true story, though the elements did not all happen to one person. The research was substantial: “We did more research than for any book I’ve ever written, including a biography of Shakespeare”, said Donkin.
Colfer, Donkin and Rigano share a love of comic books and visual storytelling, and believe in its transformative potential. “It’s like being a film director with no budget” said Donkin, talking of the possibilities of scale and impressionism which can depict isolation, scale, speed, and danger more powerfully than photography or prose: “Our philosophy is show – don’t tell: Giovanni can do in two pages what would take me ten in a novel,” said Colfer.
The process has numerous of stages, from the conception of the idea and development meetings, to page outlines from the writers, followed by a rough black and white draft, then a detailed line drawing known as an ‘ink’, and a final full-colour version, which might take Rigano a matter of weeks.
They didn’t expect to create immediate change in policy, but they do know their readership – young people of 10-15 years old: ‘The adults of the future’. The book was a way to liberate young people from the politics of their parents, and to create empathy for the unknown.
“What we can do, is get this story to kids. If kids read a book like this, it’s hard to turn them against these characters when they become real, in their classroom. I met one child who couldn’t speak English, and was using the book to show his classmates what had happened to him on the journey. That’s more than we ever dreamed”, said Colfer.
Will they create something similar about another immigration phenomenon? Colfer said, “There are an awful lot of parallels with Mexico – but it would be presumptuous for us to write it: there are great writers here!” They do, however, have another issue based graphic novel in the pipeline – this one with female protagonist.
Hay Festival Querétaro is running Hay Ilustrado (‘Illustrated Hay’) all weekend, with renowned artists and illustrators presenting and discussing their work and ideas, including PowerPaola, Bef, Maria Hesse, Peter Kuper, Olga de Dios, and Liniers – presenting his adaptation of Mario Bellatin’s story ‘The Black Ball’.