Reviewed by Nikki Gamble
The Invisible is a 32-page picturebook. It is about a young girl called Isabel, And there is no escaping the plain truth that her family are poor. The endpapers set the tone for the start of the story. It is deep midwinter, everything is monochrome, it is snowing and icy, you can almost feel the chill transmitting from the page. Sharp angular tower blocks with anonymous windows add little comfort, the landscape is unpopulated. Where are the people from those high rise apartments? Even the pale glow from the street lamps adds little warmth to this desolate scene. The words The Invisible are emblazoned in harsh black across the colourless sky.
On the turn of the page, we are introduced to Isabel. Her surroundings are cold, in fact so cold we are told.
Ice curled across the inside of the window and crept up the corner of the bedpost.
Isabel is the only source of colour. She pulls on her green jumper which matches the grass green of her bedspread. A pair of socks, the colour of a summer sky, hang over the bedstead. A small puppy at Isabel’s feet indicates a caring character and evokes a more positive emotional response. We learn that Isabel’s family has no money for heating – they are very poor.
In spite of this we are told:
…her family had everything they needed…They had each other
The spread accompanying this text shows Isabel’s parents, united. The father has a protective arm around the mother. They smile as Isabel plays in the snow with her puppy.
However, things take a turn for the worse, when unable to pay the mounting bills, the family are forced to move to a tower block in the inner city. Isabel wanders the streets while city workers pass by, seeing straight through her as if she is invisible. Gradually she fades into the background, her green jumper dissolving to the same grey as her miserable surroundings.
The turning point in Isabel’s fortunes comes when she notices an old lady planting flowers in empty paint pots and a homeless man feeding the birds. Isabel joins in, helping with their endeavours and this creates a ripple across the community as more and more people get involved. The ripple becomes a wave, the wave becomes a tsunami of positive community action.
Soon Isabel wasn’t just visible she was vibrant.
Underneath the image of a single seedling in an old paint pot set against a plain white background, the text reads:
And that was how Isabel made something very special. One of the hardest things anyone can ever make…
The turn of the page reveals the transformation. It’s an intake of breath moment as we see the community in its technicolour glory coming together. People interacting across generations, across cultures, mixing with good food, music and a blossoming urban wildlife providing a space where people can feel safe and happy.
And the thing that Isabel has made that is so very special? A difference.
The themes of this story are not new. Readers may make connections with Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin’s The Promise or Jeannie Baker’s Belonging, for instance. What these stories have in common is an understanding that lives are improved when communities come together, when acts of kindness are carried out for the benefit of others. The unique perspective in The Invisible is the focus on the social effects of poverty and the story is told in a way that is accessible to a very young child. It is true but not without hope. It shows that poverty itself may be less devastating than the dehumanising treatment of people perceived to be on the outside the mainstream. It shows that everyone has some power and control to effect positive change in their lives, even when their circumstances are dire. This is not the same as a ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ attitude. It is about everyone pulls together things can be made more bearable and to seed hope.
It is a failure of government – and of us all – that some many children continue to live in poverty in Britain. Action is something that we can all take, whether it be to look a homeless person in the eye and chat with them for a few minutes the next time we put a few coins in their palm, or making our environments more welcoming, or starting a community action group. If the message of this book is to be summed up in a few short words it is – make a connection be part of the change.
Formerly a teacher (secondary and primary) and university lecturer, with over 35 years’ experience, Nikki has worked extensively in schools across the UK and internationally. She is the author of Exploring Children’s Literature now in its fourth edition (Sage, 2019) Co-author of Guiding Readers, winner of the UKLA Academic Book award (UCL, 2016). Nikki runs workshops for teachers, librarians, students and researchers on different aspects of children's literature, an online summer school and an Audience with events, celebrating writers and illustrators who have made an exceptional contribution to the world of children's books. Further information exploringchildrensliterature.uk