Coming to Canada. At Bay Press
“You are stronger than you think, dear” (79). This is the message communicated by an imaginary rabbit named Robert to the unnamed child protagonist of Starkie Mak’s gorgeously illustrated graphic novel, Coming to Canada. The line hearkens back to a favourite from my own childhood, The Monster at the End of This Book, in which Grover asks the child reader, “Do you know that you are very strong?” In this echo is a reminder that great books for and about children carry powerful messages without resorting to heavy-handed didacticism. They also can be enjoyed across generational lines. This is certainly true of Coming to Canada, which can be equally appreciated by children and adults, whether reading alone or together. The dual appeal is unsurprising as Mak is an artist and writer who also teaches art to children.
Through beautifully crafted contrapuntal movements of image and text, Mak tells a luscious story of loss, immigration, and the power of the imagination. Like her protagonist, Mak has experience with immigration, having moved to Toronto from Hong Kong in 2018. She deftly represents her human and animal characters in all their complexity; human characters are featureless, encouraging readers to identify with them and their experiences. As the narrative opens with a loving image of two mothers and a child reading cozily together in bed, Mak depicts the “great love” the child receives in the home of her same-sex parents without making the non-traditional family the focal point of the tale.
Whimsical lines and brush strokes capture both the joy and the cruelty of childhood. The child reads to her bunny, Ruby, mirroring the opening scene of love and care in which the mothers read with their child. Only two pages later, Mak captures the potential for childhood cruelty as two faceless children beat Ruby to death with sticks. The moment is conveyed with the same quiet presence as the earlier illustrations, with brush strokes softening the trauma for young readers as the image hints at violence. With respect for readers and her child protagonist, Mak engages in the ensuing pages with the child’s first experiences of grief and loss, as conveyed by the sparseness of the child’s dialogue with her deceased friend—rendered in Mak’s charming calligraphy—and by the richly rendered forest landscape where she buries Ruby.
As the safety of home is compromised by violence and the survival needs of the forest’s animal inhabitants, the child must learn to trust those she meets during her journey to find a safe place to call home without the protection of family. The narrative explores how a child navigates the need to follow her instincts while also tempering bias as she encounters frightening animal guides in a strange land. A wolf, a lynx, and a bear offer protection while remaining true to their own instinctual need to survive. Coming to Canada becomes a lovely fable of immigration as the child, encouraged by her imaginary friend, the rabbit Robert, seeks a new home. Some of my favourite images are those in which the pair pauses to share joyful moments of presence and play that celebrate the beauty of now. With resonant images that hearken back to The Secret Garden and communicate the precious qualities of friendship and imagination, Mak captures equally the fears and joys that are part of a child’s quest for belonging.