The Island isn’t like most picture books you'll come across. There's nothing even remotely cute or fluffy about it. In fact, it is the kind of book that will leave readers, both adults and children, with chills. So do you want to expose your children to this? My answer is an emphatic yes. This is an important book, and no less important for being pitched at young children as well as adults. The way it reveals the prejudice inherent in humanity is superb.
For most children it will read as a kind of anti-fairy tale. An outsider arrives on the island — no tropical paradise — by raft. Although the islanders fear the outsider and want to send him back into the ocean, the fisherman, who isn't quite as xenophobic as the others, convinces them that they have a responsibility to save him from death by taking him in. What follows is a slow progression from fear towards hatred and finally crime, ending the story in a way that is salutary and unhappy. Children, aware that almost all of the books and films they watch do have a happy ending, will notice!
But as a parent, it's not hard to turn the sadness into an ending which is much more positive than it appears. I told my daughter that it was actually a happy ending because the story isn't real (though it's all too real), and we don't have to let it become real – we can learn the idea of difference and to accept and help others in need without being afraid.
There are many aspects of The Island which make it wonderful. First, it never preaches or tries to tell us what is and isn’t right. The moral is implicit in the plot, the characterisation, and the beautifully understated narration:
They took him to the uninhabited part of the island, to a goat pen that had been empty for a long time. They made him understand that he was to stay there and showed him where he could sleep on some straw.
And then they locked the gate and went back to their business, and life on the island returned to what it had always been. (9)
The images of what “it had always been” include drunken camaraderie and bullying. The images throughout the book are also exceptional. Simple charcoal and ink drawings with hints of teal and red convey dramatic character in the heavy, angry villagers, and the slim, fearful outsider. The two expansive ocean shots fill the double pages and also convey the ocean of fear and hatred that surrounds the island.
I can think of no country, no person, and no situation where this book wouldn’t be relevant and important, both in terms of the broad sweep of current affairs (it should be required reading for all those in government positions, leaders especially), and in terms of the very real sense of fear and self-protectiveness that is part of being a human being. Most very young children will accept the villager’s fear and also think that the outsider might eat their bones, so following-up the book with discussion is critical.
But that said, with the possible exception of the very familiar looking schoolteacher, it won’t be too frightening for young children. The darkness is inherent, and isn’t overt for anyone under about eight. Adults, though, may have nightmares. So they should. The Island is a book which will cross both age and cultural boundaries and belongs on bookshelves everywhere. Originally published in Germany in 2002 with the title of Die Insel, the book has won a swag of awards, and hopefully will now become widely read with its release in English.Powered by Sidelines