‘There was a country at war, and that is where this story begins. It is the story of Azzi.’ Thus begins this picture book graphic novel which immediately capturing the reader’s attention with a framed illustration in blacks and greys depicting bombs dropping onto a ruined city alongside a brightly coloured picture of Azzi, cuddling her teddy bear in the adjacent frame. The plume of grey smoke arising from the ruins is, however, drifting across the corner of Azzi’s frame and indeed it is not long before her family have to flee for their lives, leaving Azzi’s grandmother behind.
After many adventures the family arrive in new country (perhaps New Zealand or Australia) where they face hardships of a different kind. Will they be allowed to stay? Will father and mother be allowed to work? Azzi yearns for her Grandma but meanwhile she must settle into her new school and learn to speak English. How relieved the reader feels that she is welcomed and helped! And eventually Grandma also manages to escape and join her family.
Sarah Garland weaves other refugee stories (Grandma’s and that of Sabeen, the school helper) into the narrative so that young readers can understand more how war and persecution displace people. This is a story full of powerful emotions about fear, separation and loss but it is also a story about hope and new beginnings. Azzi’s father had brought a bag of beans with him to plant in their new country but the family have no garden. Eventually Azzi plants some of the beans as part of a class gardening project – and of course they grow well. Garland’s love of gardening was evident in her one of previous picture books, Eddie’s Garden and in these garden scenes she again engages her readers in this wonderful creativity.
Visually this picture book is a tour de force. Garland’s expressive line quivers with tension and her subtle use of dark colours and shadow conveys the moments of fear and drama as the family escapes. The movement of the narrative is punctuated by her skilful use of cartoon strips with fast sequences of small frames followed by larger ones that help to convey moments of exhaustion, depression and despair as the family struggle to find their feet in a new country. And yet this is not a sad book – it is also full of warmth and love both within Azzi’s family and from those who help them. It could also be read to younger children.