Wishes begins as a mother and her three children pack in the middle of the night. They say a tearful goodbye to the family members who will remain behind, then wait in a long line to board a small boat for a perilous journey across the ocean. They survive crowded conditions, hard winds and rain, the turbulent sea and the searing sun, all in the hope of a new life.
Author Mượn Thị Văn structures this tale as a poetic series of wishes made by one of the children. As the girl watches her family pack food into a yellow knapsack, she imagines that “the bag wished it was deeper.” As a storm tosses the tiny boat, “the sea wished it was calmer.” The child herself holds dear a poignant and heart-rending wish: “And I wished . . . I didn’t have to wish . . . anymore.” This wish is revealed over the course of four spreads set against a brightening sky as a large vessel spots their boat, welcomes its passengers aboard and takes them to the shoreline of a grand, gleaming city.
Victo Ngai’s illustrations do much of the heavy lifting here, extending Văn’s spare, lyrical text in concrete, cinematic ways. Ngai doesn’t hold back, never once shying away from the journey’s traumatic elements. Sorrow, fear, distress, life-threatening danger: It’s all here. One spread, drenched in washes of red, puts readers right on the boat as people cling to one another, the narrator embracing her family with tears in her eyes. “The heart wished it was stronger,” Văn writes.
A closing note reveals that this powerful story is personal for Văn. As a child, she left her grandfather behind and traveled with the rest of her family from southern Vietnam to a refugee camp in Hong Kong, eventually settling in the United States.
This rich and nuanced tale illuminates the closely held wishes of refugees the world over. It’s unforgettable.