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This beautiful coloring book talks to kids about the border, family separation, and empathy

The unfinished illustrations in the book are themselves an act of optimism, encouraging children to imagine a world without lines others create for them.

This beautiful coloring book talks to kids about the border, family separation, and empathy
[Image: courtesy Families Belong Together]
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“Children teach us,” writes Ai-Jen Poo, cofounder of Families Belong Together, a coalition of close to 250 organizations working to end family separation and detention, in the foreword to a new children’s coloring and activity book published by the organization Coloring Without Borders. “They challenge us to think about why we have certain rules, why we live the way we do. They start from a place free of hierarchy of human value, free of the power dynamics that define our realities. They don’t yet see the borders that we have drawn. They don’t yet color inside the lines.”

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[Image: courtesy Families Belong Together]

December 18 is International Migrants Day, so tomorrow the organization will host a holiday meal and deliver 100 copies of Coloring Without Borders to children in a Mexico shelter. To create the coloring book, the organization recruited 80 artists from around the world to make a book of illustrations that a child completes on their own, by removing the defined borders, edges, or lines that we often ask kids to draw within. The unfinished look parallels the stated intent of the book: “to help children separated from their families at the border to expand their imaginations beyond the walls that confine them.”

It was like the universe connected me and said, ‘feeling angry or sad? Here’s how you can help.’”

Jorge Gutierrez

Even for adults, the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which dictated that migrants who crossed the border illegally be referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution—even when seeking asylum—can be hard to comprehend. Under the policy, which was temporarily put in place in May 2018, undocumented asylum seekers were imprisoned and their children separated from them and placed in an Office of Refugee Resettlement center, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Though a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction on the policy in June 2018, the effects of the policy are still being felt. “U.S. immigration authorities have separated more than 5,400 children from their parents at the Mexico border, before, during and after” the policy ended, according to the Associated Press. Some still have not been reunited, according to Time.

[Image: Jorge Gutierrez/courtesy Families Belong Together]

Jorge Gutierrez, illustrator, writer, director of Book of Life and cocreator of the Emmy-award-winning animated series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, is one of the 80 artists who created work for the coloring book. For him, contributing to the book—and its mission—fits within the impact he hopes his overall body of work will make.

“I’m from Mexico. A lot of people warned me that if you keep making art about your culture, you’re going to have a hard time finding work. . . .  I was told, ‘The only person going to hire you to make Latino artwork is you.'” Unfortunately, he found that to be true. So, he says, he pitched as much as he could and made his culture his strength. Gutierrez and his wife, Sandra Equihua, pitched Nickelodeon, which picked up El Tigre. Gutierrez was mentored by Guillermo del Toro, who was a producer for Book of Life. “My work has always been about celebrating I come from a different culture,” says Gutierrez. “That is the fabric of America.”

Gutierrez says he had been feeling “helpless and shocked with families being separated” when he got the email to contribute an illustration to the Families Belong Together coloring book. “It was like the universe connected me and said, ‘feeling angry or sad? Here’s how you can help.'” For Gutierrez, by providing an outlet for kids to express themselves, the book would be a small way in which art can make a difference.

According to the website, the book is also meant to be used by children in any community and bring conversations about kindness, inclusiveness, and family separation to a bigger audience.

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[Image: Steve Small/courtesy Families Belong Together]

“I feel that kids are still making up their mind about the world,” says Gutierrez. “I take a huge responsibility about showcasing cultures that might not be predominate but are just as valid. I always talk about ‘the window’—whenever a creator presents work, we’re creating a window through which kids can see a different culture, and realize that window is basically a mirror, and all those things you’re seeing are just like you. We all have the same life experiences. They might look different, but they feel the same.”

How can design be politically actionable as a craft? In both Spanish and English, and with work from illustrators around the world, Coloring Without Borders is one example. Its illustrations, without restrictive lines, borders, or instruction, show that art can be universal—an act of optimism we all understand.

You can buy a copy of Coloring without Borders, which costs $25 and will help support the organization’s mission.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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