When I first learned the title of today’s Perfect Picture Book and discovered the name of the author/illustrator, I knew this was a “must read and review” for me. So, I reached out to the publisher, and in exchange for an unbiased review, received an advance copy. I hope you find it as insightful and inspiring as I did, and that you’ll look for it in early August!
Title: Undocumented: A Worker’s Fight
Written & Illustrated By: Duncan Tonatiuh
Publisher/Date: Abrams ComicArts (an imprint of Abrams Books)/7 August 2018
Suitable for Ages: 14-18 (per one book seller website, or, in my opinion, as young as 8)
Themes/Topics: immigrants; workers’ rights; undocumented workers; Codex; #WeNeedDiverseBooks
You don’t know our names but you’ve seen us. In this country we build houses, we harvest crops, we cook, we clean, and we raise children. Some people want to kick us out and some act like we don’t exist, but we are here, compañeros. We may not have documents, but we all have a story and we all have a name. This is my story. I am Juan.
Juan, an undocumented worker who relocates from Mexico to a city in the United States, recounts his experiences being underpaid and his fight for better pay and working conditions in the restaurant industry.
Links to Resources:
- The illustrations in Undocumented form a Codex, a long sheet of paper gathered into an “accordion” fold; try writing your own Codex book;
- Tonatiuh mentions several types of work that Juan considers, including one dream position. What kind of work would you like to do? Describe it in words or pictures;
- In an Author’s Note, Tonatiuh provides background and context for the story. There’s also a short bibliography.
Why I Like this Book:
Combining his classic illustration style with a compelling story of one representative undocumented worker, Tonatiuh tackles a timely, controversial topic in a way that will resonate with tween and teen readers. Unlike his earlier works, several of which are listed below, the target age is older than the typical picture book age range. But I think the combination of pictures and text is a powerful way to approach this complicated topic, especially for reluctant readers and those for whom English is not a first language.
In Undocumented, we meet Juan, the narrator, and learn that he worked in the fields of Mexico to support his mother and siblings after the death of his father, when Juan “was a niño.” We follow young Juan across the border with a coyote, a smuggler, to reach his uncle who lives in a poor neighborhood of an unknown city. Using short text and pictures, Tonatiuh depicts Juan considering several low-paying, low-skilled jobs, plus “[f]amous músico” with a parenthetical below, indicating that “we all have dreams…” I love the inclusion of this picture and phrase, as I think it alleviates some of the tension of the story and provides a touchpoint for young readers, many of whom may dream of being a famous musician.
The bulk of Undocumented concerns Juan’s attempts to organize fellow restaurant workers to procure better wages and working conditions, a fight, Tonatiuh makes clear in the text, that benefits all workers – not just those from Mexico or who may be undocumented. Tonatiuh also includes instances of workers of different ethnicities working together, and learning from each other.
Tonatiuh illustrates Undocumented in his signature style that combines imagery from the Mixtec Codices with digitally-collaged artwork. I especially appreciated the inclusion of newspapers serving as a background as Juan contemplated various job possibilities and the use of woven fabrics to depict blankets. Finally, Tonatiuh and/or his editors at Abrams produced Undocumented as a codex, with the story unfolding poster-like across the front and back of the accordion-folded paper.
A Note about Craft:
As mentioned above, Tonatiuh tackles a tough, contemporary issue in Undocumented. How does he draw the reader into the story and achieve his goals of building empathy for, and understanding of, undocumented workers, and according them dignity?
To begin, he addresses the reader directly, “You” and “compañeros,” companions. He then recounts the group experience, before reminding the reader that “we” have names and stories.
After he sets the stage, Tonatiuh introduces the narrator, Juan, who proceeds to tell his story. To further encourage reader empathy, Tonatiuh adds compelling details: Juan’s father died when Juan was young; Juan is beaten by border guards and hassled by police officers; Juan dreams of being a musician; Juan’s wife is pregnant; Juan rejects an easy payout and instead seeks compensation for all of the workers; and Juan volunteers to help others.
To wrap things up, Tonatiuh returns to the group narrative, reminding the reader that “we” work hard, pay bills, and pay taxes. Tonatiuh packages his text and images into Codex form, a pre-Columbian style of writing utilized by Mixtec, Aztec and Mayan people, and thereby ties Juan’s story to the rich cultural history of his ancestors.
To view more of multi-award winning Tonatiuh’s work, visit his website, and see the following:
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!