Thursday, January 20
2 by Suzy Lee
Seven Footer Press 2003
Chronicle Books 2010
A pair of wordless picture books with similar themes from an artist I like to think of as the Master of the Gutter. That's a good thing, I'll explain.
In Mirror, a sullen girl notices the mirror she is slumped near and makes a series of poses, modifying and monitoring her image. Slowly she begins to dance with her reflection, a pas de deux of opposing joy. Then the drifts into the mirror, literally split into two not-quite-matching halves in the book's gutter (the technical name for central fold where the pages meet the binding). Once she's crossed over her reflection is no longer interested in following. Once she's noticed the girl becomes angry with her reflection, smashing the mirror, leaving her to return to the floor and her previously sullen state, this time without reflection.
Shadow finds our heroine in a basement where the light and her imagination see a collection of junk transform into a veritable jungle full of creatures and things with minds of their own. Slowly the transformed items -- a ladder, a vacuum, a bike -- become an elephant beneath a moon and tropical trees. As the imagination takes hold, the original items disappear leaving only their fantasy shadows behind. All of this takes place safely on the other side of the gutter until a wolf appears and leaps out from the imaginary and into the "real" half of the book. The girls flees across the gutter and together with her creations they manage to scare away the wolf. The call to dinner -- the only words I've ever seen in a Lee book -- breaks the enchantment of the imaginary and returns the basement to its collection of junk until the light goes out and from the darkness the imaginary becomes real again, this time without their creator.
I think that from the words needed to describe these books you can see what Lee's messages are : image, reflection, mirror, crossed over, light, shadow, imagination, transformation, imaginary, real, enchantment. There's no small collection of studies to be made on the psychology of these books, but those are no longer for me to write. I've already done my time in those salt mines.
Back when I was working on my MFA I wrote a critical essay that compared Suzy Lee's Wave (Chronicle 2008) with Mercer Mayer's A Boy, A Dog and a Frog. In particular, I was noting how these books used the gutter as an imaginary wall between the scenes on either side that was "broken" midway to silently mark the emotional changes that took place within the narrative. This has become Lee's territory with her books, this dance that takes place on opposite sides of the gutter that must be traversed and broken for growth to take place. (For those who insist that Wave contains a "flaw" spread where the images run into the gutter in a way that makes it seem like it was badly designed I'm going to counter-insist that you look at all her books and see how Lee has done this repeatedly and suggest that it was deliberate.)
In all the books mentioned, the gutter is a little like the border between panels in a cartoon or graphic novel. There is a psychology of "between," the message that is conveyed in the mind of the reader when reconciling the two images. Each side isn't simply a reflection of the other (though they are that) they are a pair of images that inform one another in progression. Reading left to right we see each side as an A + B that yields a C of personal meaning that in turn can send us back to A to reevaluate the information and assumptions we've made previously. It's almost like reinforcing or "proving" the theory in our minds. We look for clues in the visuals and these contextual clues reinforce what we think, see, feel.
Okay, that got a little heavy there, but the point is that what these books do, and do well, is train young readers the language of visual sequential storytelling. Whether on their own or guided by parents, Lee's stories have a surface level of narrative (a girl dancing, a girl imagining shadows) and a psychological level of narrative (the emotions generated between the facing imagery) that are told through a sophisticated use of the same between-the-panels emotional editing that, if we really want to get technical here, comes straight out of the montage theory of film editing. No, I'm not kidding.
Climbing back up (or down) to the book level, I think it's interesting that Lee has taken the same essential idea and made two different studies from it. Her earlier book Mirror is a darker, moodier study that seems to explore the imagination as a place of refuge from a forced punishment, a place where reflection reveals a certain truth about the girl's behavior that causes her discomfort. Perhaps she sees she was wrong (bossy?) and this is what brings her and her fantasy crashing back down. It's a story simply told but perhaps a bit too subtle for younger readers; older readers might simply read the images too fast and not make the connection.
But Shadow is more playful. It takes the same point of imagination and allows the reader in, to take flight with the main character instead of simply observing. This could partially be the function of the book's design as well; the shadows are, naturally, upside down in orientation, begging the reader to keep flipping the book back and forth to monitor and note changes. The interactivity makes the reader an accomplice which in turn allows for a greater emotional investment. So while I initially thought it odd that Lee was revisiting old territory I now think that Shadow is a refinement of the earlier book. I like them both, but Shadow is the better of the two.
Another visual component these books share is the Rorschach ink blot element. Not necessarily in the literal sense where you can step back and view the reflected images for some personality rendering, but in that different eyes might add different details. It could make for an interesting exercise to have older (middle grade, or even high school) students write out what they imagine the narrative of these stories might be. Did the girl use her basement fantasy to get over a fear of the shadows in the dark? Did the "wrong"girl come out the other side of the mirror? As with many wordless picture books and silent sequential storytelling (Sara Varon's Robot Dreams, Shaun Tan's The Arrival), there are probably as many interpretations as their are readers