In ‘Walk with Me’, a young girl asks a lion to accompany her on the long walk home from school. On the way, as they collect her brother from daycare and food from the grocery store, we learn about the hardships facing her and her family and her unique way of dealing with them.
This is one of those wonderful picture books where words and illustrations combine to create a story of great depth. On their own, the words are simple and few – with a sentence or less on each double spread. And on the surface it is a simple tale of an unnamed young girl’s walk home from school, narrated in the first person. But taken together with Rafael Yockteng’s glorious double page spreads, the words gain in meaning. As we follow the young girl’s journey out of the city with the lion, we gradually grasp the magnitude of the hardships she is facing and the questions start coming. Where are the girl’s parents or caregivers? What is a young girl doing looking after a much younger sibling? Why don’t their family have any credit at the local grocery store? And who or what does the lion represent?
I both pity and admire the young girl in this picture book. She can be no more than eleven years’ old, and yet she has responsibility far beyond her years. She has no-one to meet her after a day at school. She has to collect her younger brother on the way home, pick up groceries for their dinner, and then cook before her mother gets home from work. I find the illustration where the young girl cooks dinner particularly moving. Her brother and the lion are sitting at table. There is a massive pan of boiling liquid on the stove top and the girl has to stand on her tiptoes on raised steps to stir it.
Shouldering this responsibility does not come easily to the young girl. Hence her need for someone strong to accompany and protect her. ‘Keep me company on the way home’ she asks the lion, as she leaves the polluted urban sprawl in an unnamed city. She is tired, but as we have seen she still has much to do. There is no comfortable car journey, sports activities or television for her after school. The lion alleviates some of her hardships. She rides on his back for part of the journey, nestled in his mane as he gallops along the road, terrifying many of the onlookers. He roars at the shopkeeper who won’t give the family credit, ensuring that they have food to eat that evening. And he stays with the young girl and her brother until their mother returns home from work.
The father is absent, except in a couple of illustrations featuring a family holiday snap. In the bottom left corner of one of these spreads is a stack of newspapers, with the headline in Spanish ‘Familias de desaparecidos en 1985’ (Families of missing persons in 1985). It’s a powerful image and I couldn’t help noticing the yellow flower under the photo frame, the father’s yellow shirt and mane of shaggy hair . . .
Walk with Me is a subtle and powerful book about the hardships facing a young girl and her family, but it is also a celebration of a child’s courage, resilience and imagination. I highly recommend it.
Walk with Me by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng and translated by Elisa Amado (Groundwood Books, 2017)
Jairo Buitrago is a children’s book author. He has collaborated with Rafael Yockteng on a number of award-winning books, including Walk with Me, Jimmy the Greatest! and Two White Rabbits. Born in Colombia, he now lives in Mexico City.
Rafael Yockteng is a children’s book illustrator who trained as a graphic designer. His work has garnered him many awards, including a prize in the A la Orilla del Viento competition alongside author Jairo Buitrago for Walk with Me. He was born in Lima, Peru and moved with his family to Colombia in 1980. He lives in Bogota, Colombia.
Elisa Amado is a Guatemalan-born author and translator. She has written a number of picture books, including Barrilete: A Kite for the Day of the Dead (Un barrilete para el Día de los Muertos), Cousins (Primas) and Tricycle (El triciclo), which is on the Américas Award Commended List and is a USBBY Outstanding International Book. She lives in Toronto.