Review of Wishes: The Elaborate Restraint of Victo Ngai
In honor of Meg Medina spotlighting the book during the ceremony for her new role of National Ambassador of Young People's Literature, I want to revisit an old review of the book wishes by Mượn Thị Văn, illustrated by Victo Ngai.
This review was originally written for the Picturebook class with the Simmons University graduate program in Children's Literature. In the class, we formed a mock Caldecott committee. This book was our choice for the 2021 Caldecott Award (though it did not win the actual committee's distinction).
Victo Ngai’s illustrations for wishes are so intricate that it is initially surprising to read that he was inspired by the “restraint and omission” in Mượn Thị Văn’s manuscript (Văn 37). And yet, each spread does capture the feeling of emotion barely contained.
The story follows a family making a dangerous immigration journey. The gentle words create the impression that the full weight of the family’s experience is straining to reach the reader. The detailed illustrations offer a window that does not simply show the reader the experience but inspires their imagination to fill in the full story.
For example, in the first doublespread, the protagonist peers out an elaborately patterned window at an adult figure digging up a suitcase. The text “The night wished it was quieter,” suggests the danger (Văn 7). Both text and illustration, however, leave the reader to imagine the reason that the migrant family must hide their intention to leave so thoroughly that they are forced to bury and unearth their belongings.
The wooden fence forms a prison-like frame that suggests the family is trapped despite the picturesque rural setting. Yet the beautiful interplay of vines and the heavy outlines of the woodgrain on the fence also underscores that the family is leaving home.
Similarly, the protagonist gazes out a window, whose the culturally specific design underscores both what she will be losing and the way that that home culture has become a trap that could ensnare her family if they remain. Beyond the initial beauty of the seemingly quiet spreads are a host of stories not told, waiting for the reader to uncover.
Most books described as 'inspiring the child reader to imagine the story' are light and fantastical, but the heaviness of the spreads in wishes asks something more complex. This empathetic imagining asks the reader not to invent but to listen and understand.
The tone is reinforced by the darkness of each spread – often despite the inclusion of several light colors within the composition. Many spreads have large and even prominent sections in light colors, yet the thin wash over the painting ensures that the overall tone stays dark. Even the doublespread on pages 22 and 23, which depicts the burning heat of the sun, counters the yellow-white sea with a swirling red sun that dominates the upper half of the spread.
The swirling red patterns creates the sense that the surface of the sun is bearing down on the tiny boat in the bottom third of the recto. Thus even a story of blinding light and heat remains within the overall dark tone. This push and pull of lighter elements in the determinedly dark spreads suggests that the entire book, like the objects narrated in the text, wishes that it could illustrate a lighter, easier experience for the migrant family.
This uncovering of a deeper story and the strain to find the lighter side of the tale are both realized literally by the interplay between the book jacket and the coverboard illustration. The book jacket shows the protagonist in a crowded boat, surrounded by the darkening blue sky cut with stars and reflected in the water. Removing that layer, the coverboard reveals a warm yellow background similar to the breaking dawn shown at the end of the journey. The protagonist’s face takes up almost the full height and half the width of the cover, facing the reader directly as if in challenge. There are more faces behind her, staring out, from a variety of apparent racial backgrounds, expanding the scope even more on the back of the coverboard. These children are bathed in hope, but their faces are shadowed, as if they face great darkness first.
The message of the book as a whole can be seen in the interplay of these two images. The specifics of the protagonist’s story are told in beautiful detail with each star unique in the sky and sea, and these intricate details invite the reader to look deeper into the bold, simple truth of the situation facing too many children across the world.
The baldness of the statement on the coverboard stands in contrast to the delicacy of the main illustrations. It also proves that “restraint” is, in fact, the right word for the elaborate paintings, even with all of the layers and carefully balanced contrasts. The richness of detail and power of the individual story provoke the reader to consider the reality of the coverboard. They do so in a way that does not tell the reader how to feel but invites them to imagine, and thus arrive at the same destination.