Outside, Inside

There is so much to notice and appreciate about LeUyen Pham’s Outside, Inside that it’s hard to know where to start.

This is a book about the COVID-19 pandemic, a book that explains the major societal changes the onset of the pandemic wrought in a way that the many preschoolers who have little or no memory of life pre-COVID can understand. Pham accomplishes this visually, couching a lot of big ideas in something so simple — a concept book illustrating opposites, specifically the notions of outside and inside.

Here are some nifty ways Pham signals opposites in her choices:

  • The palette is heavily greens with flashes of reds and pinks, opposites on the color wheel.
  • The dust jacket shows inside; the cover art shows outside.
  •  The front endpaper shows our main characters inside; the back shows them outside. And look at how Pham slyly flips the inside and outside colors in the two images.

We’ve seen this kind of thing in countless concept books, of course. It’s excellently done, but this is not all Pham is up to, because while she’s letting us know that outside and inside are definitely two different things, she’s also throwing in the idea that outside and inside are not different at all.

Pham shows this by framing the book with a child, our main character, and their slinky black cat. In the first full-page spread, the child is carrying a plant into their home and, throughout the book, we revisit the plant, seeing this piece of the outside growing and thriving inside, mirroring the path of the child. You can go down a rabbit hole in these illustrations by looking at the ways Pham is showing outside and inside as opposites, while simultaneously connecting them. The compositions are abundant with windows and doors that remind us that these spaces flow one into the other and back, culminating in the beautiful gatefold spread at the end that shows the main character’s flourishing window garden with the outdoor view gently transparent in the window panes. The image then unfolds into the main character and a grandparent, embracing on the other side of the glass, the view from inside exploding into full shape and color and life outside. The cat also serves as a reminder of connection throughout the book, moving fluidly between the indoors and outdoors, guiding readers through each spread — and also serving as a seek-and-find element for the very young audience this book is aimed at.

I want to pause here to note that this is one of the most genuine depictions of diversity I’ve ever seen in a picture book for young children. Pham shows not just people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages; she shows the different ways people live, including things like desperation and suffering and grief. As an example, look at each of the spot illustrations in the spread devoted to what has been going on in hospitals. The one that gets me is the hospital staff member staring at the recently emptied bed — the ventilator tubes tossed to the side, the pillow left with an impression, the blankets disheveled. I feel like if I touched that mattress, it would still be warm. I mean, my god. All these people who died, who are dying now — it still stuns me. Pham is showing children the truth: some people took up a new hobby and played board games during this time, and as hard as some people worked to prevent it, a lot of people suffered. And a lot of people died. So, when we get to my favorite spread —  “But on the INSIDE, we are all the same” — the effect of taking away all colors but shadows, the yellow light inside each home, and the red hearts beating within each child that also float out into the world: that moment is not saccharine, but earned. Pham has, in some detail, shown us what is not the same, and also she has shown us what is.

The COVID-19 pandemic is never named in this text, and this book both documents and transcends the moment. By closely examining a particular time, Pham has found the universal — there is always suffering, there is always humanity, there is always hope. I stand in awe of Pham showing all this in the visual language of a concept book one can share with a child snuggled in a lap. This is everything that makes me love picture books as an art form, an example of an artist in command of her craft and voice, giving her young audience so much to think about in a format they can wrap their minds around.

If I were on this year’s Caldecott committee, I’d lobby hard for this one.  

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Outside, Inside here.]


Adrienne L. Pettinelli

Adrienne L. Pettinelli is the director of the Henrietta (NY) Public Library. She has served on several book award committees, including the 2015 Caldecott Committee, and is the author of Helping Homeschoolers in the Library (2008).

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Susan Dailey

Great review about a wonderful book! As pointed out, there are so many details to pour over and notice. I thought the two double-paged spreads that showed the town with people outside followed by the same scene with everyone inside was particularly powerful.

Posted : Sep 27, 2021 12:13

Sam Juliano

Splendidly erudite review of a book documenting the new norm, with as you note subtle implication. It is surely a life-affirming work by the illustrator of BEAR CAME ALONG, one of the most magnificent books of the last few years methinks. But OUTSIDE INSIDE aims in other directions and most successfully.

Posted : Sep 14, 2021 10:07



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