Wordless Books


JiHyeon Lee

This watery picturebook celebrates the sheer inventiveness of the make-believe worlds children can create. It is also a tale of new friends found in unexpected places, and of the strength that can be gained from facing challenges with a like-minded companion. Even the book’s dedication, ‘To Hoon, who always shares joys and sorrow with me’, draws attention to the special closeness that friendship brings.

The opening image shows a small shy boy, effectively disguised beneath a swim hat and goggles, standing beside a tranquil empty pool. He is about to enter the pristine water when suddenly a horde of enormous bathers, armed with an array of vast inflatable boats and floats, leap in before him and take up the entire pool. Luckily the boy spots a tiny gap through which to slip into the water, and quickly dives below the feet of the swimmers.

Pool spread

In this peaceful liminal space of deep water the boy meets a lone girl. And now the story takes on a surreal aspect as a magical landscape of fantastical creatures and turreted corals begins to appear. Some of these creatures look like a cross between a fish and a shell, others like a seahorse with a flute stuck on its nose, and yet others like ‘bird-fish’ with big red beaks. Delighted and a trifle scared, the children swim on to discover yet more exotic beasts, including a furry white whale resembling a polar bear, a fearsome fish with needle-sharp teeth, and some very cute yellow ‘fish-dogs’. Eventually, when the children resurface, we see a touching close-up of them silently acknowledging their new friendship. It is as if, with swim hats and goggles removed, they can at last reveal their true selves.

JiHyeon Lee studied illustration at the Hankuk Illustration School (HILLS) in South Korea, and this large-format wordless picturebook began life as a project there. The images were created using coloured pencils and oil pastels on paper, and they demonstrate Lee’s skilful use of colour. At the beginning of the story, the majority of images feature a palette of muted blues and greys, with the crowd of overbearing bathers – grotesquesly crying, yelling, gaping and frowning – shown in gloomy monochrome. But then, as the imaginary underwater creatures begin to appear, flashes of bright colour invade the pictures, suggesting the enrichment of the children’s world. Finally, in the close-up image, where the children’s eyes meet properly for the first time, warmer tones of pinky creams and reds indicate that a genuine human connection has been made.

Pool spread

The endpapers deserve special mention too, with the front showing silhouettes of graceful child swimmers, and the back showing outlines of the crazy creatures. The cover image, of the boy’s face with the strange fish-like beings emerging directly from his goggles, emphasises the surreal nature of the story and implies the creatures are products of his creative brain. What the boy imagines, we get to see.

At heart, though, the overriding message of this book is one of possibilities. The image of the timid boy standing beside the empty pool, about to dive into the unknown, conjures a sense of anticipation of what might happen next. It could be just a delicious refreshing swim, but it could also be an opportunity to delve into metaphorical new waters and discover different ways of being. It’s a choice that is offered to us, the readers, as well.