The creative team behind the graphic novel adaptations of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series—authors Colfer and Andrew Donkin and illustrator Giovanni Rigano—make a dramatic departure from fantasy in Illegal, a full-color graphic novel that explores the current plight of undocumented immigrants through the story of Ebo, a boy who embarks on a perilous journey from Ghana to Europe in search of his family and a new life. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky has announced a 75,000-copy first printing for the book, due out simultaneously in hardcover and paperback on August 7, and the collaborators will travel to the U.S. in September (Colfer from Ireland, Donkin from England, and Rigano from Italy) to embark on an eight-city tour.

The initial inspiration for Illegal was a newspaper article “about the size of a postage stamp” that haunted Donkin after he read it several years ago. “It was a report of a boat sinking in the Mediterranean, saying that 215 people were believed to have been on board. Eoin and I talked about it, and waited for the follow-up report with the names of the people lost, but no report ever came. No one knew who these lost people were. There was no paperwork, no passenger list, no list of lost souls. That was the starting point for us.”

The leap from writing the Artemis Fowl graphic novels to relaying a harrowing, true-to-life story required a very different creative tack for Colfer and Donkin. “Telling a story is always a challenge, but usually for us real-world factual accuracy doesn’t apply,” Colfer observed. “In this case, we were careful to try extra hard not to distort Ebo’s story in any fantastical away, which is a real challenge for me. But I can confidently say that everything in this book is true to life.”

To achieve that verisimilitude, Colfer and Donkin read and researched extensively, attended conferences, and spoke to survivors of the journey portrayed in Illegal. Their efforts paid off when the authors were in Lake Como for an exhibition on graphic novels earlier this year. “We were approached by a young man named Patrik, who had made Ebo’s exact journey and had had a very hard time doing it,” said Donkin. “It was a nervous moment, and we were very happy when he said he couldn’t believe how close the book was to his own experiences, and he was so glad it had been written.”

Given their shared love of comics and their earlier collaborations , the authors and Rigano immediately gravitated toward that format to depict their young hero’s vexing journey across desert and sea. “I think the graphic novel is an ideal medium for Ebo’s story,” noted Donkin, “because, thanks to Gio’s fantastic artwork, we don’t have to tell you what Ebo is going through with pages of prose. We can show you.”

Teamwork at Its Best

As determined as the authors were to do justice to the story relayed in Illegal, Rigano weighed several options before deciding how to approach the art: “I asked myself, ‘Would simplified, black-and-white art help the reader to focus more on the story?’ But once I’d read the early script, I knew this had to be colorful and detailed artwork, to help younger readers to relate more to Ebo. The color then was a challenge in itself, since I had never colored my own inks for so many pages before. I used to work side by side with a colorist and supervise the result, but this time I wanted to prove myself.”

Though the book’s gritty subject wasn’t always easy to depict, the collaborative process was glitch-free. “Andrew and I have been friends for 20 years, so our writing process is very comfortable,” explained Colfer. “We met in Dublin or London half a dozen times to thrash out the story, and then communicated most days by email. Gio got the pages once Andrew and I and our editor, Steve Geck, were happy with them. He sent back roughs for our comments, and then proceeded to the finished art.” The two are veteran collaborators, added Donkin. “In the last decade, we’ve created over 1,000 pages of comics together, so we’ve evolved a pretty effective shorthand. We’re a very happy team who love working together.”

Geck, editorial director of children’s books at Sourcebooks, was eager to become part of the Illegal publishing team when a representative from Hodder U.K. (which published the graphic novel last October) showed him some early sample pages. “I thought the artwork was tremendous and the story, told from one boy’s perspective, was entirely compelling, and I really wanted to see more,” he said. “When I finally read the nearly finished book, it was around the time of the travel ban announcement, and I knew that we had to publish Illegal. It is such a timely story about migrants and asylum seekers trying to get to a safe place. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read—and I think readers will find that’s true for them as well.”

Asked if the trio has any other book projects underway, Colfer and Donkin were both engagingly cryptic. “We have begun working on a new project,” replied Colfer. “As a group we found it very fulfilling to work on an issue-based book, so I think we will definitely go down that road again, as there are many problems in this world that could benefit from some literary illumination.” Shedding little light on specifics, Donkin added, “We’re always working on a book—that’s what we do! We are currently assembling another project. It’s exactly the same as Illegal, but completely different.”

Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, illus. by Giovanni Rigano. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $19.99 Aug. ISBN 978-1-4926-6214-3; paper $14.99, 978-1-4926-6582-3