Nestled between endpapers that open with barbed-wire fencing overcast by heavy clouds and close with the same fencing framed by a sky clear and a butterfly ascending, Cooper and Smith’s collaboration tells the story of two refugee siblings who adapt and grow together as they come to terms with the trauma of loss and change.
Past the title page, we find both children arriving upon foreign shores having been ‘lost in the dark sea’. Save for those items and people in their immediacy, their world is grey and colourless. We never hear of what they have lost or left behind only that they have some meagre possessions and one another. Soon, the boy – too young to remember the past – acclimatises to life in the barbed-wire-bound refugee camp and makes friends with other children. The older sister, though, remembers much of who and what has been lost and becomes distant, physically and emotionally closed, choosing to never leave their ‘broken house’..
It is the weight of the past, and perhaps her responsibilities as the sole carer for her little brother, that stops the girl from leaving. Instead, she wraps herself in a patterned quilt that she had with her when disembarking from the boat: its rich, colourful patterning a reminder, perhaps, of her home and short history. Yet as colourful as it is, it remains in shadow throughout the narrative until her brother, wanting to tempt his sister outside, brings something similarly colourful and beautiful in: a butterfly trapped within a jar..
Together they release the creature yet it also remains trapped within the home, unable to fly towards the exit. With patience and love, the young boy encourages the butterfly and his sister to settle and relax. Yet when the insect furiously turns and flutters against the shadows, he runs out leaving the butterfly to descend and settle upon his exhausted sister. She finds the time and space to study it, take in its colours and beauty – so similar to those in her quilt – and eventually finds the strength within to usher it outside. When she does, she is startled by the butterfly’s radiance and the brightness of the world and life around her. Before she has time to retreat inside, her little brother embraces her and guides her toward other children and families just like them. Perhaps now she can allow herself to heal.
Cooper’s work has been translated in many languages and sold across the globe and this collaboration with Smith, who graduated from The Cambridge School of Art in 2019, is excellent. Both value the power of allowing the pictures and written narrative to invite layers of meaning. It is a hopeful story but, like Sanna’s The Journey, does not steer away from the reality and trauma of being displaced from your home into a foreign land. Smith’s excellent use of colour and positioning does much to affect the mood of the reader and the rich interplay between words and pictures means that there is plenty to discuss and revisit here; it is a story that invites discussion. I particularly enjoyed the concept of two siblings caring and healing each other; this is a bond built upon tragedy yet blooming with hope and growth.