Amina is a young Syrian girl who is flung from an overcrowded boat that is carrying refugees. In the water she recalls sepia-toned memories of her family and what prompted her journey without the accompaniment of her family. Her meditations on playing hide-and seek and cooking with her mother are interspersed with scenes of her falling deeper through the water. She recalls her parents going into town and her mother’s last words to her, “Remember Zenobia!” Zenobia was an ancient Syrian queen and a symbol of strength, power, and independence. But Amina’s parents do not return, and her uncle comes to try to take her to safety. They journey through desolate towns destroyed by war, to a fisherman’s boat, where her uncle gives all his money so that Amina may know soon peace. In the water, she drifts to a sanctuary where no soldiers can harm her, finding solace in the strength of Zenobia, but heartbreakingly in the wrong direction.

While the book is fairly short, several artistic techniques are used to slow the reader down and meditate deeply upon the story being told. Words are used sparingly in the book, which features many large panels, evoking a wide expanse of time. Whole minutes could be spent on the two-page spread of Amina stepping outside her door and taking in what she sees—wide columns of black smoke, a destroyed tank, an ominous plane overhead, and not another person in sight. Sometimes a page depicting a single scene will be split into several panels, signifying the fragmentation and loss of that experience, something that can never be experienced as a whole again. Horneman mostly uses flat colors throughout the book, lending a sense of simplicity that seems appropriate for a story being told from a child’s perspective, but does not make the art any less impactful on the reader.

Dürr and Horneman are both Danish, and it is unclear why they were moved to tell this fictional story about a refugee, as no authors’ note accompanies the book. Zenobia reminds me in many ways of Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer, a short and highly visual book that was inspired by three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi drowning in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. Similarly, Zenobia works to build empathy for refugees and the risks they have taken for peace, though there is no clear call to action to the reader. In an interview I found quoted online, Dürr responds that he intends for Zenobia to act as, “a few minutes of silence in honor of the victims.” Nonetheless, it stirs in readers a great pain that desires resolution, rather than to sit with this feeling of hopelessness and despair.

Other than the fact that it is utterly heart-wrenching, the content of the book is appropriate for children. Death and war are present, through the depictions of destruction, a few (not graphic) dead bodies pictured among rubble, and as an overwhelming presence overshadowing her story. While the book is told from a young perspective, the publisher markets the book as a story for both children and adults. I would agree that this heavy tale is essential for adult readers in order to humanize the stories that the news depicts of refugees, particularly those that focus only on their tragic journeys and not on their lives as individuals, their memories of home and hopes for the future.

By Morten Dürr
Art by Lars Horneman
ISBN: 9781609808730
Seven Stories Press, 2018

  • Maria Aghazarian

    Past Reviewer

    Maria Aghazarian is a librarian at Swarthmore College and the Lower Merion library system, in the stretch of southeastern Pennsylvania otherwise known as the “greater Philadelphia area.” Her love of graphic novels started with manga in middle school, but exploded after graduating college when she learned that superheroes aren’t the be-all and end-all of comics. She aims to support small and independent presses, and manufacturers of sturdy bookcases.

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