Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin are perhaps best known for their graphic novel adaptations of Colfer’s Artemis Fowl fantasy-adventure series. Their latest project marks a clear departure for the duo. Illegal is a middle grade graphic novel about a Ghanaian orphan named Ebo who follows his older brother, Kwame, on a brutal journey in pursuit of asylum in Europe. The narrative alternates between the present—in which Ebo has reunited with his brother but the two are adrift in the Mediterranean, awaiting uncertain rescue—and the past, to Ebo’s trek into Niger to find his brother.
After collaborating on four graphic Artemis Fowl adaptations, Colfer, who lives in Wexford, Ireland, and Donkin, based in London, felt drawn to embark on an original work on a pressing topic. About four years ago, as the two sought out the right subject for their project, Donkin found himself deeply affected by frequent news reports on the sinking of vessels carrying migrants fleeing humanitarian crises. “We’d wait for a follow-up report and a list of names, but they never came,” he says.
Colfer was similarly impacted by the loss of migrant lives and the tragic anonymity of the news reports. In conceiving their story, he drew from an earlier experience he had working with Tunisian orphans in a volunteer orphanage. “The stories of those children were heartbreaking,” Colfer says. “This issue is so sensitive that we wanted to make our story as truthful and real as possible.”
Colfer and Donkin began researching in earnest, attending conferences and connecting with London-based charities Migrant Voice and Women for Refugee Women to hear refugee stories firsthand. For Colfer, the graphic format was a powerful way to tell Ebo’s story. “The beauty of the graphic novel is that it can be poured over a dozen times, and each time the reader will find something they missed,” he says. The authors turned to Italian illustrator Giovanni Rigano, who also created the art for the Artemis Fowl graphic novels, to illustrate Illegal.
“Giovanni has done a stunning job with the artwork, which really brings out the epic nature of their struggles and their long and dangerous journey,” Donkin says. “This is the perfect medium for this story because we can show you what happens to Ebo and his brother without having to overly comment on it and pass judgment ourselves.”
The book’s title is arguably provocative, however. “Illegal is quite a controversial word in this context,” Colfer says. “Often migrants are referred to as illegal, but the children cannot understand how they can be illegal for simply existing on planet Earth.” Colfer adds that he and Donkin took the title from a quote by author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, which begins, “You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is ‘illegal.’ That is a contradiction in terms.”
Since the book’s U.K. release last year, the authors have heard from many readers. “The most powerful reactions have been from people who have made the journey and gave us their seal of approval,” Colfer says. “It was very emotional for some of those people to read this book, and it meant a lot to us that Illegal moved them.”
Donkin says, “The reaction to the book has been fantastic, especially from people who have completed that terrible journey.” After speaking at an exhibition about the book in Como, Italy, Donkin was approached by a young man who could personally relate to Ebo’s experience. “He was so happy we’d written it for others to read,” Donkin says. “That was a really touching moment.”
The authors are hopeful that American readers will be similarly moved by Ebo’s story. “I hope that U.S. readers will focus in on the children who are stranded at sea through no fault of their own and forget the politics surrounding the issue,” Colfer says. “The question is: should we help children in trouble? The answer to that question should always be yes.”