Written and Illustrated by JiHyeon Lee
Chronicle Books, 2013
The plot in a nutshell: Two children explore the depths of a pool.
A boy stands, pondering an empty pool. A crowd of people (most of them with swim rings or rafts) jump into the pool, filling it to capacity. The boy sits on the edge, and then dives in, swimming underneath the crowd of people and coming face to face with a girl who is doing the same thing. Together, they swim down and discover a whole world beneath the pool. They see small strange sea creatures and suddenly find themselves in a whole school of them. They swim past elaborate tunnels with funny sea snakes popping out of holes. They see large predatory fish chasing smaller fish. A white whale swims past them, so huge that they are no bigger than his eye. They swim for a while with all of these creatures, and then they head for the surface, where they can see the kicking feet of the other swimmers again. The boy helps the girl from the pool and they remove their swim caps and smile at each other.
This wordless picture book is a very impressive debut from author/illustrator JiHyeon Lee and, as with many wordless picture books, there’s so much to discover that it merits multiple reads to absorb them all. Ms. Lee has stated that her inspiration for this book comes from an experience she had at a crowded pool and the discovery that diving deep into the water underneath the crowd took her to a place that was quiet, weightless and otherworldly. It’s a beautiful allegory for friendship and those wonderful like-minded people we find when we step away from the ordinary.
The illustrations, in colored pencils and oil pastels, are spectacular. Before the boy goes into the pool, the artwork is mostly grey and the color starts to seep in only when he dives down underneath the throng of swimmers. Even then, we really only get red and blue added to the color palette, but it feels perfectly right. The sea creatures they encounter are reminiscent of actual fish, but different enough that you know they haven’t just tumbled into a real ocean. The images of the huge white whale approaching and then swimming away are breathtaking. At the end, the regular swimmers exit the pool and they are all still grey, but the boy and girl are in color, showing that they are transformed by their experience, returning you to the idea of how friends, and the adventures you share together, change your lives.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that the only way to discover everything that’s waiting is to be brave enough to take that first step.