It is the floating season on the Mekong Delta and a young boy, An, sets out alone in his sampan to travel to school for the first time. This story tells of the dangers and fears he faces along the way, and his courage and determination to reach his destination.
This is no ordinary first journey. An, a young Vietnamese boy, sets out alone in a wooden boat wearing a little backpack and armed only with a single oar. Much of his journey takes place in the darkness on the flooded Mekong River. On the way, he is confronted by giant crested waves, heavy rainfall and an eerie Melaleuca forest where fear takes hold of him. But this is also a story of courage and determination. Although daunted by the dark unknown, An realises that he is not alone and continues to paddle until he arrives safely at his destination.
The artwork in this picture book just blows me away. Apart from the first page, every scene is a double spread. A palette of dark green, black and brown is used in many of them as An travels away from his village through the night, but clever details add interest, texture and variety: thatched rooftops, fine lines that swirl through the water, brightly-coloured flowers and glowing leaves, and An’s sampan and oar highlighted in the darkness.
In the Melaleuca forest, a crocodile with a gleaming yellow eye lurks in the water unbeknownst to the young boy in his boat. As An ventures deeper in, the inky sky is filled with snake-like creatures that encircle him and chase him as he paddles to escape, fuelled by fear and determination. The snakes may be figments of An’s imagination, but the crocodile is a very real threat.
Other illustrations feature glorious bursts of colour and movement. In a scene that reminded me of Hokusai’s iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa, we are treated to a double spread where crashing white-topped turquoise waves meet a peachy-blue sky of scudding clouds. In other images, birds beat their wings in flight as day dawns, and the sea is transformed into a swirling mass of colourful fish.
The first-person narrative is sparse – so much of the story is told through the illustrations. But the words provide a necessary framework; they propel the story gently forwards; they explain An’s actions and they also reveal his inner thoughts and fears, adding depth and helping to create empathy for his situation. The authors also provide an interesting afterword about the floating season. This seasonal event, particular to the Mekong Delta, has a big impact on everyone in the local community, including schoolchildren, who must still make the journey to school on the flooded waterways.
I love this picture book! The First Journey is a unique – stunningly visual – story about a solo boat trip on the Mekong Delta in the floating season, told through the experience of a courageous young Vietnamese boy.
The First Journey by Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien, (Scholastic, 2017). A Vietnamese edition of this picture book is also available.
The author/illustrator team
Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien are book creators who live and work together in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In 2015, their unpublished manuscript for The First Journey won the Scholastic Picture Book Award. Quang and Lien are currently working on illustrations for a number of children’s titles to be published in Vietnam and Europe.
You can find out more about Quang and Lien’s work on Facebook @kaaillustration or on their website.