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A Different Pond

What happens when a cartoonist/graphic novelist is tasked with illustrating a picture book? The result in this case is a phenomenal piece of work that intensely captures mood and tells an unforgettable story of endurance.

Upon our first look at Bao Phi’s A Different Pond (i.e., the cover), illustrated by Thi Bui, we see a book about a father and son going fishing, as they stand near a pond, a fishing rod in the man’s hand. With a deep blue dominating the space and spotted stars lighting the sky, we instinctively know the hour is early. We are pulled into the gazes of the father and son, and the mood Bui sets is just as blue as the morning. We flip to the back cover and see the pair edging closer to the pond, inviting us into the story. We open the book to the endpapers, filled with mementos of childhood and the home — an idea Bui has said she took from Maurice Sendak’s collection of childhood memorabilia — and we find that this story is about so much more than fishing. The endpapers are Bui’s first hint that this story not only memorializes a father-son relationship but is also an intergenerational story of belonging.

Bui begins the story by leaning on her cartoonist background, opening with panels — a way of immediately acknowledging the importance of two distinct stories intertwined, one of present and one of past. Here is also where she incorporates warmer hues of reds and oranges, symbolic of the close-knit family (which we later see gathered around the dinner table) and of light in what might otherwise seem like a dark time, evident in the bare light bulb that hangs from the kitchen ceiling. Mindful of the picture-book audience, Bui then quickly jumps to using the more common full-page illustrations and double-page spreads. One of the most interesting ways Bui enhances and expands the story is by framing smaller illustrations within larger illustrations — although, skillfully and carefully, Bui makes sure she does not distract from the dominant story being told. A perfect example is the double-page spread where Bao reminisces about past fishing trips, recalling — in smaller, framed, sepia-toned illustrations — some of the people he’d met previously at the pond, as he and his dad await a catch for dinner. Bui’s emphasis on how early the two had to venture out this particular morning (so the boy’s father could get to work afterward) is evident in the emptiness surrounding them and in the boy’s still, chilled-looking body.

Bui masterfully creates each illustration as distinct, serving its own role in telling the story. This is most prominent on the double-page spread incorporating multiple vignettes where, step by careful step, the boy builds a fire to keep his father and himself warm. We see through these vignettes the care the boy takes with his role of catching food for his family and his attempts to make his father proud. The boy’s crouching positions force us to slow down and spend time lingering on each moment in the vignettes. What older readers in the intended audience will appreciate is the full-page illustration of the break the boy and his dad take. Bui spotlights the father gazing off into the distance, as he shares his experience of having to fish for food as a child. Similar to a later image where Bui uses muted blues and grays to vividly capture the boy’s musings on the drive home as to what life might have been like for his dad and grandparents, the moment is a stark look at what the struggle and emotion of being a refugee carries with it, even many years later.

What a story of hope! But more importantly for the Caldecott committee, a perfect execution of combining picture-book techniques with those of graphic novels. I am impressed by how Bui seamlessly tells an authentic story of family and tradition, evoking a particular mood and theme, both of which last the length of the book and beyond.

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of A Different Pond.

Erika Long About Erika Long

Erika Long is a school librarian in Tennessee. She was named a 2017 AASL Social Media Superstar finalist in the Social Justice Defender Category. She works to ensure her library is a safe space for all students and is an advocate of books as mirrors and windows.

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Comments

  1. “The result in this case is a phenomenal piece of work that intensely captures mood and tells an unforgettable story of endurance.”

    Indeed. This sumptuous picture book sorely needed a review that captured its nuances and delicate renderings and this superlative qualification essay has done just that and then some. I purchased this particular book at a local Barnes & Noble several months ago as it is the kind of work that grabs you the very first time you lay odds on it. I immediately thought to myself “will Thi Bui qualify as an artist who was born in Vietnam?” But I quickly and happily learned she actually grew up in California and New York. The story commands an emotional sway worthy of Allen Say. I enthusiastically concur that Bui skillfully weaves smaller illustrations within larger ones, and never loses the focus at hand. Bao Phi’s metaphorical applications (“A kid at my school said my dad’s English sounds like a thick, dirty river, but to me his English sounds like gentle rain”) are largely sublime and the art is suffused with a wistful melancholia. Great amalysis of the fire-building sequence too! The book is so ravishing, technically adroit and shoots an arrow to the heart. It should absolutely received the strongest of consideration from the committee!

    Thank you for this magisterial essay!

  2. Erika Long says:

    Sam, thank you for your heartfelt comments. A Different Pond was such a gorgeous book and I’m happy to know others feel I’ve done it justice with this review.

  3. Susan Dailey says:

    Excellent review, Erika! It’s interesting that you said Bui took her idea for the endpapers from Maurice Sendak. In another tip of the hat to Sendak, I noticed that the illustrations at home were bordered by white while the illustrations outside were full-bleed. I think Bui’s intent was different from Sendak’s though. I felt the use of white and the borders indicated confined spaces, but also the comfort of being surrounded by family. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I like it. I also noted that you can almost tell the story without the words and that Bui captured emotion well in the face of the boy. Although this book isn’t from one of the “big” publishers, I’m glad to see this touching book is receiving its well-deserved attention.

  4. Emmie Stuart says:

    Erika, thank-you for such an insightful post! As you note, the panels and vignettes invite readers to study each panel. And those who linger over the pages are rewarded with a rich and layered story. The colors of the story impress me as well – the blue and grey hues create such an accurate early morning atmosphere. I agree that this book is “a perfect execution of combining picture-book techniques with those of graphic novels.”

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