A boy and a ball by Phil Cummings

cover image

Illus. by Phil Lesnie. Scholastic, 2020. ISBN: 9781743812525.
(Age: 4+) Highly recommended. A boy playing soccer with his brother against the background of a war ravaged city will evoke scenes seen nightly on television as children cope with the war that surrounds them. Readers will wonder at the black mechanical figure slumped against the crumbling buildings.
The boy is called by his brother; he must leave the ball and come with him to his father. The trio shelters in their house as war rages overhead, the black figures now like bombs falling from the sky, until father decides they must leave. He has heard of a place where the grass is green and soft underfoot, a place where there is nothing to fear.
Anxiously they leave their home walking to a creaking boat and board it to cross the ocean. Even here they are aware of the danger as black figures rise from the deep, shadowing their terrible journey.
But the place they find is fenced and gated, the black figure now a sentry post outside the wire watching them. The boy plays soccer but one day the ball rolls under the fence and stops outside his reach. What happens next will evoke questions, predictions, understandings, sympathies.
This arresting story, underlining the compassion we feel when people are badly dealt with, Cummings' last line, designed to ring a response from the coldest of hearts, will promote discussion amongst its readers.
Children know that there are families held in detention risking all to get to Australia, and Cummings' story brings the tale of many to the simplicity of a boy and a ball, encouraging readers to focus their attention on the crux of the matter.
Supporting the story are the remarkable illustrations by Lesnie, whose watercolour images create the dreadful images of war; the looming black figures, the crumbling walls, night sky filled with light from rockets and tracers, barbed wire fencing, bare dismal huts for the detained. Readers will offer different ideas behind the black figures: more literal ones like bombs, tanks, or sentry boxes while others may see authoritarianism, bureaucracy, an ominous and brooding fear. Lesnie says he first saw them as robots, but then refined them to be sentinels, a 'clear visual shorthand for the kind of systems that keep us cruel and complicit.'
Both author and illustrator provoke the reader to question their own stance, to apply compassion to those relegated to inhumane treatment by a government which says it is acting on our behalf. And all this through the seemingly simple tale of a boy and a ball.
Themes: Refugees, Soccer, Detention centres, Compassion, War, Asylum seekers.
Fran Knight