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October 21, 2010

New Books: Shadow

It’s a little strange, given that I’m a words person both personally and professionally, that some of my very favorite children’s picture books in recent years have been wordless, or nearly so. Last year, it was Jerry Pinckney’s resplendent The Lion and the Mouse that I was flipping over (since it ended up winning the Caldecott, I guess I wasn’t alone!). And I recently encountered its equivalent for 2010: Shadow, by Suzy Lee.

In a way, this shouldn’t be so surprising, since the first picture book I read by this South Korean–born author-illustrator was one of the highlights of my four years covering children’s books at Cookie magazine. Wave, a word-free narrative of a little girl’s encounter with the ocean, demonstrated Lee’s immense talent not just as an artist but as a storyteller. The book is downright cinematic, as clever and funny and smart as great silent films, and all the parents and kids I knew fell in love with it instantly.

In Shadow, Lee uses the same basic framework—again, the story is told through progressive illustrative variation on one basic idea. But while both titles are, at root, about playful imagination, this one has a very different, and perhaps even more ideal, setting. The book, which you read turned on its side horizontally (in other words, each page has “landscape” orientation), begins with a little girl switching on the light in a cluttered attic. You see the typical contents of such a space (a ladder, old boots, a hanging bicycle, a broom, a vacuum cleaner) above the fold, and below it, the shadows cast by each object, all rendered in charming black-and-white charcoal-and-pencil drawings.

On the next spread, the girl sees the shadows and begins to play—and her imagination starts to take hold of what we see right away. While the shading at the bottom half continues to reflect what she’s literally doing above at first—making a bird shadow with her hands, say—the dark shapes quickly start to morph on their own, the broom and ladder becoming jungle flowers and vegetation, the bicycle wheels a couple of moons, the vacuum cleaner an elephant, and so on.

Soon the “real” world above the fold starts to disappear, leaving only the girl herself, while the shadow world of play correspondingly fills out more and more, takes on color, and eventually invades and takes over both halves of each spread. The girl joins and interacts with her mind’s creations, the scene becoming more and more jubilant and wild, until the book’s only words—“Dinner’s ready!”—interrupt.

The pages immediately flash back to attic and shadows, respectively (with most of the attic’s contents in the top half in different places than they were before, and in even greater disarray). The girl clicks off the light, and there’s one black spread of complete darkness—before another click. At the end, we see the shadow creatures of the girl’s imagination—and the girl’s shadow too!—still dancing on the bottom half of the last spread.

My description doesn’t do it all justice, but maybe this will: The first time you read the book, if you’re anything like me, you will be turning each page in open-mouthed astonishment at the simple sophistication of what Lee is doing. And by the book’s end, you will be unable to repress a gigantic grin at what you’ve just experienced. Shadow is marvelous, the best picture book I’ve seen this year. And I can’t wait to see what Lee’s fertile mind and agile hand will turn to next.

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

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