‘CLICK!’ A little girl pulls on the lamp cord and transforms her attic into a playground of shadows. In this wordless picture book, household objects take on strange and wonderful forms … and the dividing line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred.
Shadow is decidedly different in format as well as content. For starters, the page orientation is landscape and not portrait: the pages of the book flip from bottom to top, not from left to right. Each scene comprises a double spread with the ‘real’ world on the top page and the ‘world of the shadows’ underneath the central seam. The shadows are depicted upside-down – they are, after all, shadows. On my first (OK, and my second) reading with my girls, I found this layout confusing. We were spinning the book around to see both worlds the right way up and I couldn’t work out which page to turn to go to the next scene. Maybe it’s my poor sense of direction, maybe not. But it is worth persevering with a third reading, I assure you.
The main character of the story is a little girl. Her character is clear from the outset. She is a mischievous munchkin, with her wide eyes, snub nose, cute bob and cheeky grin. I love her initial experiments with her shadow – attempting an arabesque ballerina-style in one scene, then crouching down and stretching out her hands to make a bird’s wings in the next. The illustrations speak of childhood innocence and the simple pleasures of imaginative play.
As the little girl makes her hands into bird’s wings, Lee gives us a subtle hint of what lies ahead. The illustrations up until this point have been solely in black and white. Now, the bird’s shadow is outlined in yellow flecks. And a careful observer would notice that yellow flecks surround the broom heads, too. Something is going on …
Gradually, all the objects in the attic take on new forms in the world of the shadows. Brooms become plants, a boot with a floppy sole becomes a strange fox-like creature with huge teeth and – best of all, I think – a vacuum cleaner is transformed into an elephant. The bottom page has come alive; it is a jungle teeming with myriad creatures and plants. The creatures interact with each other, the plants grow and the backdrop becomes a deeper yellow. Only the little girl is left in the real world on the top page, her eyes closed as her imagination runs riot.
But what is the ‘real’ world? The border between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly blurred as the story progresses. Lee makes use of the book’s format to reinforce this theme, no more so than when the fox-like creature leaps out of the jungle, across the seam and towards the young girl on the top page. The chaos which ensues is vividly illustrated: mouths open in silent screams and creatures are flung through the air. The scenes are also, of course, an acknowledgement of the dark side of imaginative play, which is so important to young children.
Not to fear though. The terror doesn’t last and the situation resolves with a celebration involving the little girl and all her jungle friends, before a loud call back to reality, ‘DINNER’S READY!’ just when things are getting into full swing. Typical.
Shadow is a picture book which uses both format and content to raise questions about reality and fantasy. It is a fascinating journey through a child’s imagination, cleverly conceived and beautifully illustrated.
Shadow by Suzy Lee (Chronicle Books, 2010)
Suzy Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea. She holds a BFA in Painting from Seoul National University and an MA in Book Arts from Camberwell College of Arts, London. She currently lives and works in Seoul. Her work as an author and illustrator has garnered many awards and her books are published across the globe.