JiHyeon Lee, Pool

Because water stories. Column here, or below.

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JiHyeon Lee’s picture book Pool begins with a young boy by a swimming pool, empty and inviting. He’s about to get in, we assume, when a crowd of other people rush into his (and our) sight. They’re mostly adults, all bigger than him, armed with rubber rings and toys and all looking a lot less serious than our protagonist does. Hell is other people with beach balls. A page later the pool is packed, so full of people and floatation aids that we can barely see the tiny spots of blue water between them. And so our protagonist dives underwater instead, and that is where everything gets exciting.

Sound changes under water, as do movement, and colour, and even time. Immediately once the boy has entered the water he’s cut off from the world above (now a riot of feet and flippers at the top of the page) and in a dreamlike space which seems to work in different ways to the world he’s left behind. This new world has one other human inhabitant; a girl who has had the same idea as him. The boy’s skin and clothes, on the surface the same greys and creams as everyone else, take on new and rich colours; the girl wears a red swimsuit.

Suddenly the children are free, exploring a glorious, improbable underwater world. Shoals of brightly coloured fish with beaklike noses flit birdlike through an underwater forest; tiny creatures with long, tpool3ubelike noses sniff curiously at the intruders. There are friendly sea serpents peeping out of the holes in coral formations, sharklike creatures with huge, prehistoric grins but apparently benign intentions, giant sea slugs, and fish that appear designed to be ridiculous. The range of real world ocean life can often be so weird and wonderful that it’s sometimes hard to be sure that these creatures (a mobile feather boa, a goofy-faced yellow creature with both fur and fins) aren’t based on real things; particularly when a trio of narwhals shows up. Perhaps that’s the point though—our imaginations allow us to have the real and the fantastic simultaneously. We can have dragons and dinosaurs and iguanas all at the same time, should we so choose.

It’s not this diverse underwater menagerie that makes Pool special, however, but how it handles sound and space. In the early pages, there’s often nothing on the page but the boy and his corner of the pool in a vast white plane. Underwater the children have all the space they want; the three-spread sequence in which they meet a huge whale iPool2n particular gives a strong sense of size and scope and wonder. Above, as the pool fills with people, so does the page, till it is covered to the very edges and visually busy. (There’s often something a little disgusting about bodies en masse; in crowds we are reduced to the sweaty meatsacks that we really are. Lee manages to keep her crowds human and distinct, though I wish she hadn’t chosen to depict most of the offending pool-goers as fat.) Pool is a book entirely without words, but manages its depictions of space to make those silences sometimes plangent and echoing (the empty pool, the vast space around it) and sometimes intimate (the underwater world, so safely cocooned against the world above). The colours are delicate, the lines are pencil; it’s a very quiet book.

With an escort of strange creatures, the children swim back to the surface. The crowd has exited the pool as a group (perhaps someone saw a shark); the boy and girl take their goggles and swimming caps off and smile at each other for the first time. Their skin and clothes retain the vivid colour they acquired down below; they have been transformed.

And just as we think the crowd who stayed up on the surface have been utterly discarded by the book, a child in a rubber ring turns around to stare at the weird pink and yellow fish that have appeared in the pool. The children have brought back with them some of the wonder of the deep.

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