I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: picture books are for everyone. Through relatively simple premises, picture books can shed light on deep truths, or serve as the starting point for nuanced conversations on complex topics. My Uncle is Coming Tomorrow/Mañana viene mi tío is a very simple book that addresses the forced disappearance of citizens by repressive governments.
A child, rendered in stark black lines upon a white background, sits on a low stool in front of a closed door. He is waiting for his uncle, who “is coming tomorrow to stay with us for a few days.” As the story continues, the child continues to expectantly wait for his uncle. Every turn of the page reveals a new milestone that the protagonist hopes to share with his uncle: his school grades, his first apartment, the birth of his son, the completion of his degree. The child grows old, yet he continues to sit before the door, which remains closed. His uncle never comes.
The narrative text gives no reason for the uncle’s decades long absence, but the loneliness of the boy against the plain white background intimates that something is very wrong. It is only once the stool where the boy once sat is empty and the story ends that we learn that the book is dedicated to people — who like the boy’s uncle — have been forcibly disappeared.
This is not an ornately illustrated book, nor does it have rich vocabulary or sonorous language. But it is because the book is so simple that it is so powerful. Each line of text (in English and in Spanish) begins the same way: “Great!” or “¡Genial!,” followed by what the boy hopes to share with his uncle upon his arrival. The reader feels the boy’s hope and expectation, only to hurt with him when it is dashed. In an afterword, author and illustrator Sebastián Santana Camargo describes this as “a searing pain in those left behind.”
The afterword provides further information about the rise of forced disappearance as a tool of political terror, particularly during the Cold War in the second half of the twentieth century. My Uncle is Coming Tomorrow/Mañana viene mi tío is designated as being for children ages ten and up; it can therefore be used in the middle and high school classroom in units on human rights or global conflicts. While the book does not explicitly mention a specific setting for its narrative (therefore giving us an universal story), the afterword reveals that is set in South America, where forced disappearances took place by the hundreds of thousands.
My Uncle is Coming Tomorrow/Mañana viene mi tío would be ideal in a library display marking the annual observation of the International Day of the Victims of Forced Disappearances. Niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile (another translated text from South America) would be another appropriate addition to such a display. There are still governments and armed forces around the world that use enforced disappearances to repress and oppress those who are different. We have yet to consign it to the past.