Tuesday, October 2

Waiting for Mama

by Tae-Jun Lee
illustrated by Dong-Seong Kim
NorthSouth Books 2007
first published in Korea 1938

This book gave me the creeps, and even once I sorted out the problem with the final spread I still find it a little weird.

A child goes to the trolley stop to wait for his mother. With each arriving trolley he looks for his mother and asks the driver "Have you seen my mother?" He waits all day, into the early evening, watching the dull winter day fade into a dark winter night. Bundled against the cold, he waits. And snow begins to fall until, at last, the child is buried. The end.

No! Wait!

Study that last spread carefully -- it is a huge cityscape done in shades of seasick green, and you can see a just-ever-so-slightly-darker green splotch of mother and child walking home, alone, at night, through the snow.

Am I missing something here? An unwatched child can go an entire day at a trolley stop without being noticed or cared for? He waits all day for his mother because... she ditched him to go to work and thought it was okay to leave the little fellow behind? I'll bend quite a way forward and backward on a book from another time and place because I can't hold my modern expectations to an older book, except that I need to have something to hold onto in order to make it relevant to my experience if it's going to be republished. Especially with a children's picture book, if I'm going to have to explain some element (Why is the boy alone all day? Why does no one help him? Why did his mother leave him?) then I need to be able to place it into a context more complete than "Well, that's just the way things were."

As far as the illustrations go, though they are contemporary they are meant to feel older, from a different time, which explains their monochromatic feel. The browns and greens do recall those days when color printing was prohibitive and present a sort of mood, but that doesn't explain why any editor would have found the last spread acceptable. It is way too easy to scan that final scene and not see the parent and child, leaving a reader only with the final image of the motherless child buried in snow at the trolley stop. Nothing before in the scant few lines of text indicates that she has arrived and they have been unified, no text explains that everything is okay. It is the most morose ending one could imagine, and while you spend the entire book hoping for the better, without catching that tiny (less than half an inch) image of the reunited family you find yourself drawing the saddest conclusion.

I think this book should be required reading for illustration students as an example of how not to illustrate a book that requires so much storytelling from the visuals.

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