Suzy Lee made a splash on the international picture book scene with Wave, a deceptively simple book about a girl playing at the edge of the water on the beach. It is wordless with the entire story told in pictures. The two-page spread illustrations utilize the gutter—the fold in the center of the book where the pages are sewn or glued into the binding—as the shoreline. On one side of the gutter, the girl and the seagulls play. On the other side is the ocean. Eventually the girl gets the courage to wade out into the water where she splashes with joy until a wave comes along and dumps her back on the beach, leaving a wealth of shells behind. Words cannot do justice to the charm and joy of this book told completely in images. It was acknowledged around the world since minimal translation was needed to communicate its story and charm.
 
Lee is a book artist (she prefers this title to “author” or “illustrator”) born in Seoul, South Korea, who has lived and studied all over the world. Her travels have taken her to the United Kingdom, Texas, and Singapore, where she currently lives. She has crossed almost as many borders as her books have. She has several other wordless titles, including Mirror, a dance between a girl and her reflection, which utilizes the gutter of the book as the mirror separating the two images. The girl and her reflection move closer to each other, eventually merging into one, but when they separate, the reflection has taken a life of her own and doesn't mirror the girl anymore. Ultimately, the mirror is shattered, and the girl is returned to the lonely state she inhabits at the beginning of the book. Mirror is somewhat darker in tone than Wave, but uses a similar layout with play of images in two-page spreads on either side of the book's binding.

This fall, Lee has published Shadow, which is about the interplay of light, shadow, and imagination. With the simple click of a light bulb in a storage room, a girl unlocks a whole new world. This book features the objects casting the shadow on one side of the page, while the other side shows the shadows. At first the shadows are recognizable as a ladder, a hose, and a bicycle. But then the girl creates a simple hand-shadow of a bird. The bird flies away, and gradually the shadows of common household objects grow into a whole jungle, complete with elephants, alligators, snakes, and a long-toothed creature that is initially scary, but ultimately harmless. The animals dance together in the jungle, swinging each other around and crossing the boundary between the pages. Shadow has one phrase—"Dinner's ready!"—which interrupts the girl's play and transforms the jungle back into the storage room, restoring the world to its strict order once again. A slightly more complex story than Wave, requiring the reader to look more closely at the images to decipher what's going on, it is nevertheless rewarding and charming. I found myself reading it several times to figure out which objects had caused what shadows.
 
Lee also has a picture book called Zoo, which has words about a trip to the zoo, but pictures that contradict the words. The book begins, "I went to the zoo with my mom and dad," listing the animals they visited. Initially the pictures show empty cages in a somber color palette. Following a peacock into a more brightly colored world, the girl interacts with the animals, swept up in a swirl of color while her parents search for her frantically. Eventually she is found sleeping on a bench, but more brightly colored than she was at the beginning of the book and notably missing one of her bright pink boots. At the very end of the book, the empty cages contain their animal inhabitants, again, and the last pictures show the animals admiring a bright pink boot, left behind by the girl in one of the cages. 
 
Last week, Sandy posted about the New York Times article causing controversy over parents supposedly moving children past picture books at early ages. Lee's work is an example of how picture books can be simultaneously simple and sophisticated. You can read the simple stories about a day at the beach or a trip to the zoo, or you can get caught up in the artistry and the interplay of the images and medium in which it’s presented. Lee's work intentionally invites the reader to look at the images in different ways. Shadow's innovation—while still using the gutter as a demarcation line between two worlds—is that the book can be read from just about any angle: upside-down or sideways. It doesn't matter how you hold the book, it doesn't alter the story or one's ability to read it. Being able to read images is just as important as being able to read words, especially in a world where we are constantly inundated and subtley influenced by the images we see. Lee's work not only is an excellent tool in learning to read images, but it helps in the ability to free them from the constraints of the traditionally composed page. I recommend her books to readers of all ages. I think they have something for everyone to enjoy.
 
Do you have any favorite books without words? Where do you place visual literacy in terms of its importance to an education?

 

Sarah Wood, a reviewer for teenreads.com and kidsreads.com since 2003, is a lifetime reader and writer. She refuses to accept that there are people who don't like to read and stubbornly believes this is only because they have not met the right book yet.

 


 

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