Undocumented

Undocumented: A Worker’s Fight by Duncan Tonatiuh follows a fictional man named Juan who emigrates from Mexico to the United States. As an undocumented restaurant worker, he is terribly exploited; a waitress, herself an immigrant from China, recruits Juan to help organize their colleagues, and they courageously file a legal complaint. The story ends with a victory for these workers, but while injustice remains, they continue to march: “Equal Rights for ALL Workers!”

Tonatiuh frequently publishes with Abrams, but this is his first book with Abrams Comic Arts, an imprint that focuses on graphic novels and illustrated books for both young people and adults. One of the first questions the committee is likely to face is: Is this a children’s book? The Caldecott criteria defines “children” as being up to age fourteen (and cannily enough, the book’s pub slip indicates “Ages 14 and up”). When This One Summer was named a 2015 Honor Book, some eyebrows were raised at the “thematic” material (some teenage sexy stuff in the illustrations and off-color language in the text). Undocumented has violence in the pictures — Juan is badly beaten at the border, and a police officer points a gun at a character. The only child in the book is Juan’s new baby at the end. There’s smoking. And beer. And cleavage. (The colloquial direct-address text, too, implies a grownup-to-grownup exchange: “We called our apartment the bachelors’ pad, man”).

There’s also the format, or, in Caldecott criteria parlance, “the overall design of the book,” which can be considered if it makes a title “less effective as a children’s picture book.” A sturdy slipcase houses this tall, vertical volume, which, when removed, opens out into an accordion-fold sequence that’s about six feet long — and double-sided. This is beautiful bookmaking, but not the easiest to manipulate, especially for a library read-aloud, say. In addition, there’s the whole illustrated-book-versus-picture-book argument that could easily apply to this title in the way that graphic novels often do.

And yet. Valid though these points may be, when viewed as a picture book for fourteen-year-olds reading on their own, Undocumented is pretty spectacular. Tonatiuh’s trademark illustration style, influenced by pre-Columbian Mixtec codex art; his understated use of color; his subtle incorporation of texture and mixed-media; his play with vertical and horizontal and of panel art, spots, and full pages; the sheer amount of visual storytelling he cleanly incorporates on each spread and the ways the spreads work together as you unfold the pages; the pause you must take to flip the book over and continue the story; the background characters, with faces in varying shades of brown, whom you see in passing but whose stories you’d love to hear; the rallying cry for justice, the small victories and the need to fight on — if those aren’t vital (and appealing and resonant) to young people in today’s world, I don’t know what is.

Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University and a BA from Oberlin College.

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Allison Grover Khoury

Thanks for your thoughtful review and analysis. I am looking forward to seeing this book as I have loved all his other books (as have our students) We have used them in our library to support classroom curriculum as well as celebrate an amazing artist. I feel a big knot develop in my thinking every time I start thinking about graphic novels, particularly with more mature content, and the Caldecott. And I found This One Summer a bit of a shocker of an award.

Posted : Jan 02, 2019 07:45


Jonathan Hunt

I do think the format is anathema to public librarians, but I'm not sure that I would use the criteria as a justification for lessening its value at the table. On the other hand, I love extending the Mixtec influence on his art to the very format of the book itself. I think this one could be a sleeper!

Posted : Dec 20, 2018 05:14


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