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The Sound of Silence

sound-of-silenceThis may be an odd thing to say about a book about the search for peace and quiet, but I’m hoping The Sound of Silence makes a lot of noise around Caldecott season. When people ask me for a 2016 book recommendation, I invariably bring up Katrina Goldsaito and Julia Kuo’s story, which I always describe as a “dharma talk led by Christopher Robin.”

The book follows Yoshio, a young boy searching for “ma,” or “silence”— specifically, the “silence between sounds.” Readers of all ages can appreciate the need to find quiet in a noisy world … and the fact that Yoshio finally finds it by (***spoiler alert***) getting lost in the pages of a book will delight those book lovers among us. And let’s be honest: if you’re reading the Calling Caldecott blog, that includes you.

I encourage everyone to take his or her own deep dive into these beautiful pages, but I’ll point out a few elements that I think make this book deserving of Caldecott consideration.

Use of color to convey sound: This impressive aspect of Kuo’s art is one of the main things that I think distinguishes it from other books this year. Kuo does some interesting things to convey the book’s theme through her illustrations, including binding her use of color to the concept of sound.

The quiet book opens on a mostly white page. We are looking over the boy’s shoulder from behind as he opens the door onto the noisy and color-saturated world beyond (think Dorothy opening the door to Oz). The contrast between the mostly blank opening pages and the intense colors of the outside world create a direct connection between the amount of sound and the amount of color being used. This allows Kuo to adjust the volume of the book by adjusting the amount of color in each spread. Compare the quiet of the house and the sonic/visual cacophony of the busy intersection at Shibuya Crossing.

And it’s not just the amount of color but the choice of color that plays a key role in how the story is told through the illustrations. For example, the busy streets of Tokyo assault us with a variety of sound, so Kuo matches this with a scene that explodes with a full complement of colors. But when Yoshio retreats to a quiet bamboo grove, Kuo dials down the all the other colors until the page is almost all green, isolating a single color, just as Yoshio has isolated the sound of bamboo in the wind. In this way, she creates an almost synesthetic quality to the story, with strong associations between individual colors and sound. Another favorite spread that accomplishes this is the nighttime scene when the children are asleep, and the quiet (though not silent) house is awash in a soft muffled purple.

And, fittingly, at the end when Yoshio finally finds “ma,” the colors of the world fade away, leaving him surrounded by the peaceful silence of a blank page.

Style/attention to detail: Kuo displays excellent linework throughout this detailed book (the amount of rain is wildly impressive). The geometry of the cityscapes has a precision that calls to mind an architectural schematic—but each scene also crackles with great energy and character. There is a richness of texture throughout the story that adds so much depth to each scene—whether it’s the intricate fibers of the tatami mats in the home, the wet and lightly speckled bathroom tiles, or the dense forest of bamboo.

And take a close look at the crowded scenes in the city. Pick almost any character in the background and there is some particular detail (strings of pink pom poms on a girl’s rainboots, a protective mask worn by that man waiting for his train)—almost every character has enough detail to hint at a rich backstory. This interview between editor Alvina Ling and illustrator Julia Kuo provides some more insights as Kuo discusses some of the details that she snuck into the book (including a few references to Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami).

Child-focus and shifting perspective: One of the Caldecott criteria is “excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience,” and I think Kuo does an excellent job with this. The book is told from Yoshio’s perspective, giving young readers an easy entry point into the story. By introducing Yoshio in iconic yellow boots, holding a yellow umbrella, and wearing a bright red cap, Kuo makes it easy for the reader to track the main character through busy city scenes.

And while the story is told through Yoshio’s eyes, Kuo keeps things fresh on each page by varying the visual perspective from scene to scene. Sometimes we are peering over Yoshio’s shoulder, other times we are viewing him from a distance, and other times (as in one of my favorite double-page spreads) we see him from an aerial view. These shifting perspectives match the central premise of the story, which is the search for silence. By varying perspective throughout, Kuo gives the impression of a truly comprehensive search: we are looking for “ma” from every possible angle.

Similarly, as people search for the next Caldecott medalist and honorees, I’m confident that when they look at this book from every possible angle, they’ll find that The Sound of Silence is worthy of its Caldecott buzz.

 

Minh Lê About Minh Lê

Minh Lê is the author of the 2016 picture book Let Me Finish!, illustrated by Isabel Roxas. He blogs about children's literature at Bottom Shelf Books and writes and reviews for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and, presently, The Horn Book Magazine.

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Comments

  1. I am so happy to see this book getting discussed. It is one of my top two of the year. I love your depiction of it being “dharma talk led by Christopher Robin.” The yellow boots bring in that Christopher Robin element and as you mentioned it really helps to draw the child audience.

    The illustrations of this book blew me away for many of the same reasons that you mentioned, especially the use of color. There is a concept that Goldsaito is trying convey to the readers and Kuo engages that concept in a variety of ways. I love her use of negative space around Yoshio in his journey. In that use of negative space I could feel the “ma” as being ever presence throughout each illustration, and it blew me away in how illustrations could create that.

    Thank you for highlighting so many elements of why this is such a heavy contender.

  2. A sublime work for sure, and a fabulous review, thought provoking review in its defense. Everytime I look at it I find something new. But wow the use of color is superlative.

  3. Richard Laurent says:

    I don’t know Julia well…we both teach in the Illustration program at Columbia College-Chicago. Her work on this project sings with color as metaphor, is nuanced and beautifully rendered. Kudos to her.

  4. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    Thanks for this very fine review and analysis. I agree, this is a wonderful book, a beautiful book on so many levels.
    I read it for the first time today to a 2nd grade class as part of my Caldecott reading program. When we got to the green bamboo page, everyone exhaled and the room settled into a new level of calm. the children loved it. Several of the children have been to Japan and recognized places in the illustrations. I really like that.
    I’m hoping for some appreciation also for the careful honoring of traditional Japanese watercolors. If it weren’t for the modern scenes, I would feel transported back hundreds of years!

  5. Susan M. Dailey says:

    Thank you for the excellent review! On first glance through the book, I liked it. But after reading your review, I came to appreciate just how wonderful and amazing the illustrations are. I flipped open to the double spread of the boy moving through the town. The first time through I focused on the multiple images of the boy. But after reading your review, I thought “wow, this is a noisy picture.” It’s taken a spot in the top of my Caldecott possible choices.

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