Ziba Came on a Boat, written by Liz Lofthouse and illustrated by Robert Ingpen, is a very powerful picture book. It's about a young girl who is on a refugee boat, having apparently come from Afghanistan (this is left vague in the book, but is clear from the author bio on the jacket). As the boat drifts along, Ziba's thoughts drift backwards to her previous life, and the events that led Ziba and her mother to their current situation. Originally published in Australia (and recently brought to U.S. audiences by Kane/Miller), Ziba Came on a Boat is representative of actual events. It is a sad story, but ends on a note of hope.
Liz Lofthouse's writing is simple, descriptive, and poetic, and simply begs to be read aloud. Here is the first page:
"Ziba came on a boat. A soggy old fishing boat that creaked and moaned as it rose and fell, rose and fell, across an endless sea..."
Bringing things full circle, the last page reads:
"And the boat rose and fell, rose and fell, across an endless sea..."
In between we have "the gentle sound of sheep grazing on the hillside", "the cool mountain air on her cheeks", "the rich spices of the evening meal", and "the cool, smooth texture of the goat's milk yogurt." Very tactile descriptions. We see Ziba with her father, and then we see, in just a couple of page spreads, anger and gunshots, and Ziba and her mother running away. No details are given about her father or other relatives, but they are not on the boat. The story is told in few words, and the details are left for parents to explain when children are ready to hear them.
Robert Ingpen's illustrations are incredible. Rendered in full-page watercolors, each page looks like something that should be hanging in an art gallery. He uses color to match the tone of each setting, grayer colors for the pages set on the boat, tan for the pages set in and near Ziba's mud-brick home, golds for the warm memory of Ziba's father, and black, with red and orange embers, to convey Ziba and her mother's flight. Two of the pages have Ziba's face in the foreground, with smaller images in the background, representing what she's thinking about. Ziba's eyes in the first of these are haunting. Ingpen uses brush-strokes to suggest movement, especially with the boat on the sea. Most of the pictures fade around their edges, rather than being cut off sharply, just as the details of the story trail off. This is a book I just wanted to keep flipping through over and over again, to look at the pictures.
I really can't say enough in favor of this book. The more you read it, the more you appreciate things like the motif of the boat's movement, repeated through the flashback scenes, and the way that the text and illustrations enhance one another. The illustrations are truly stunning. No, it's not a particularly upbeat book. But Lofthouse's poetic yet straightforward language, combined with Ingpen's haunting illustrations, make this a non-threatening introduction to the difficult concept of refugees. I would recommend it for early elementary school children, though not so much for preschoolers. As for me, this one is going on my "keeping it for myself" shelf, so that I can read it again and again. Kudos to Kane/Miller for finding this book, and bringing it to U.S. audiences.
Publication Date: September 2007
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: A Readable Feast
Illustrator Interview: The Guardian interviewed Robert Ingpen in 2006.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.