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By Suzy Lee.
A girl’s shadow play comes to life in her family’s attic.
*The New York Times November 7, 2010, Sunday Book Review on SHADOW:
Just Over the Page, a Parallel Universe
By GENE LUEN YANG
SHADOW By Suzy Lee- Unpaged. Chronicle Books. $15.99 (Ages 4 to 8)
MIRROR By Jeannie Baker - Unpaged. Candlewick Press. $18.99 (Ages 5 and up)
For years a gulf in the book world has been widening. The digital age has brought about a separation between a book’s story and its platform, its medium of delivery. The same story can now make its way to the reader by iPod, iPad or iPhone; by Kindle, Nook or Sony Reader; by laptop or desktop; or of course, by the old-fashioned printed page. As the options increase, the platform itself becomes more transparent and, some would argue, irrelevant. Today’s reader has grown so used to encountering pages of different shapes, sizes and technological eras that he or she hardly notices the page itself anymore.
In such a world, how can print compete with stories downloaded at the speed of light? Two new picture books offer a possible answer.
In “Shadow,” Suzy Lee, a South Korean illustrator, depicts a little girl playing in her family’s attic. From the very beginning, Lee’s story knows that it is in a printed book. The orientation of the drawings invites the reader to turn the book on its side so that the pages flip bottom to top rather than right to left.
The girl and the objects stored in the attic — a ladder, a pair of worn-out shoes, a broom, a bike — crowd the top page. The bottom page shows the shadows that the girl and the attic’s contents cast in the light of a ceiling-mounted bulb.
The girl’s play is both typical and endearing. She fans out her fingers to make the shape of a bird. She puts an old shoe on her head and pretends to be a storybook wolf. As the girl’s game progresses, the shadows beneath her come to life. The finger-bird flies from her fingers. The broom in the corner becomes a giant exotic flower, and the tires of the bicycle turn into the sun and moon. As each item transforms, its mundane incarnation disappears from the top page and its fantastic shadow below emits a yellow, otherworldly glow. The seam that separates the top page from the bottom is no longer simply an artifact of print technology — it is a border between the world the girl sees and the world she imagines.
Soon, the shadows themselves realize this. To the girl’s horror, the shoe-wolf leaps over the seam and into the attic, ready to eat her. The finger-bird saves the girl by leading her over the seam and into the world of shadow and yellow glow. There, magical creatures protect her.
Lee is a natural at drawing children. Her pictures evoke a timeless charm reminiscent of Crockett Johnson and Sheldon Mayer. The girl’s expressions and poses are those of a child, not those of an adult shrunken in size.
More impressive than Lee’s cartooning, however, is her understanding of the properties unique to the printed book as storytelling devices. Could the pages of “Shadow” be scanned into a computer and read on a screen? Certainly, but that border between the real and the imagined, presented here as a divide that can be felt by the reader’s fingertips, would be reduced to a row of pixels in a slightly darker hue. The shoe-wolf’s leap would be between two spots on a screen rather than from one world to another. In printed form, “Shadow” suggests a third reading at yet a different orientation. By turning the book another 180 degrees, the reader puts the shadows on top, giving the story an entirely new feel.
There is a similar awareness of medium in Jeannie Baker’s “Mirror.” Upon opening it, the reader discovers two parallel books within: on the left, the story of a family living in Australia, and on the right, a family in Morocco. A short passage in English introduces the Australian story, while an Arabic passage on the facing page introduces the Moroccan one. The Australian pages flip right to left, the Moroccan pages left to right. Baker follows the families as they go through an ordinary day of morning rituals, shopping and shared meals. She presents the panels of the two narratives at the same pace, devoting the same amount of space to each family.
With beautiful, meticulously constructed collage, Baker shows two very different worlds. Her Australian city is filled with words. Slogans decorate T‑shirts, storefronts and license plates. A G.P.S. gives directions. Signs direct busy traffic. Baker’s Moroccan village, on the other hand, is completely wordless. Instead, it is a land of color and texture. Women’s woven head scarves, the landscape’s rocky soil and the baskets of food in the marketplace stand in contrast to the Australian family’s smooth, shiny environment.
Unlike Lee’s shoe-wolf, Baker’s characters never become aware of the physical seam that separates them. Even so, elements of each culture make their way to the other side. At a home improvement store, a scarf adorns a woman waiting in line behind the Australian father and son. In the marketplace, the Moroccan son squats to draw a picture in the sand. As he does, he pulls his robe up over his knees, revealing jeans and sneakers beneath. The stories end with the Australian family sharing a moment together on a Moroccan rug and the Moroccan family gathering around a newly purchased personal computer.
Baker, like Lee, designs her book as an object to be held. By asking readers to flip the pages in different directions for each of her narratives, she speaks to the cultural differences between Australia and Morocco. By placing the narratives side by side, opening toward each other, she highlights their similarities.
For many stories, the means of delivery, paper or pixel, may truly be irrelevant to the reader’s experience. But works like “Shadow” and “Mirror” prove the vitality of the printed page.
- Gene Luen Yang is the author of “American Born Chinese,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award in young people’s literature in 2006.
A version of this review appeared in print on November 7, 2010, on page BR33 of the Sunday Book Review.
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