What is the sound of a dazzling picture book? . . .

h1 August 6th, 2006 by jules


Jimmy Liao’s new 80-page picture book, the magical and evocative The Sound of Colors (2006), is sub-titled “A Journey of the Imagination.” The book’s back-cover blurb and every ad and review you see for it will likely tell you it “celebrates the power of imagination.” This is true, but this sublime book is so much more.

A young, braided, bespectacled blind girl — with her cane in hand — sets off via the subway on a journey “for some things {she}
need{s} to find.” She is brave, heading out alone (“I wonder what would happen if I stepped off the last stair and found nothing beneath my foot”), but she sees her glass in life as half-full (“Maybe the air would teach me to fly, just like it teaches the birds”), even after having come to understand that her sight has completely slipped away. In Liao’s surreal, vivid, and often kaleidoscopic illustrations, we see what our intrepid protagonist sees in her mind’s eye, swirling and twirling in a colorful dreamscape. In one double page spread, we see the subway train floating on a watery track, complete with shark fins, as the girl heads down to the platform suddenly in her bathing suit, noting that for the first time she has noticed that the train in the tunnel “sounds like waves against a distant shore.” Liao’s gorgeous illustrations are dream-like and pensive. Observant viewers will see his many allusions to artists from Chagall to Matisse to Escher to the world of children’s literature (Where the Wild Things Are and The Wizard of Oz, to name a couple). Fans of Peter Sis will find many similarities in Liao’s watercolors, though he succeeds in establishing his own individual — and truly unique — style.

The text, translated from Chinese by Sarah L. Thomson, is lyrical and, at turns, wistful — “Home is the place,” the young girl tells us, “where everything I’ve lost is waiting patiently for me to find my way back.” Considering my background, it’s no surprise that I champion the hard work of translators, but I half wish I knew mandarin Chinese so that I could read the original text and pick up every little nuance that Liao intended for his readers.

The true genius of this book, however, is that it can reach multiple audiences — so much so that I am unsure as to how to categorize the book for this blog’s purposes — and that it is about more than just blindness and overcoming a disability. Young children, particularly those reticent ones who might feel oft-unnoticed, will root for the fearless protagonist — and pore over the detailed illustrations. But older children and teens — as well as adults — can also appreciate the parallels to life that the book presents, particularly those in troubled times, trying to find their way. In the end, the girl is, indeed, led back to “the light that I lost, still glowing here,” in a most familiar place — one that can be recognized at any age.

4 comments to “What is the sound of a dazzling picture book? . . .”

  1. I read t his one recently too and liked it. It really is a beautiful ode to bravery and imagination. Great review!

  2. Thanks, Mindy! Yes, this one’s so good. Can’t wait ’til my daughters are older to really take it all in.

  3. Mr Liao is deservedly famous in Taiwan, his home country, where his books are everywhere, and two of them have become movies already. EVEn Sound of colors, by a Hong Kong director. The arist and author is married to the taiwanese translator of the Harry Potter books in Taiwan, Penny Penn, and they haev one daughter. Mr Liao, known in Taiwan only by his pen name of JIMMY, used to work as an advertising copywriter artist for some commercail firms in his 20s and 30s. Then he came down with cancer and the doctors told him he had only a few years to live. SO he quit his job and began doing what he loved, making art and making books, and his cancer went into remission and he has been thriving ever since. A genius!

  4. […] She’s edited some of our very favorite books, including The Sound of Colors by Jimmy Liao, and Hippo! No, Rhino! by Jeff Newman.  Listen here for a great interview with Mark of Just One […]

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