Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: A Different Pond

A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui. Capstone Young Readers, 2017. 32 pages. ISBN 978-1623708030. Click here to purchase.

A boy and his dad go fishing early one morning, but this trip isn’t just about father-son bonding time:

" '[W]hy do we still have to fish for food?' I ask.
'Everything in America costs a lot of money,' [Dad] explains."

This particular morning they fish in relative quiet; the boy and his father don’t see the Hmong man “who speaks English like my dad and likes to tell funny jokes,” or the African American man with his colorful collections of fishing lures. Dad tells the boy, “I used to fish by a pond like this one when I was a boy in Vietnam.” It’s not something Dad talks about often, his time in Vietnam, and we soon find out why: “He and his brother fought side by side [in the Vietnam War]. One day, his brother didn’t come home.”

“I get it to light with just one match.
Dad nods.”
We also see how much the boy idolizes his father through the interplay between Phi’s text and Bui’s art. When he starts the fire going “with just one match,” the boy earns a nod of approval from Dad – a close-up (in its own panel) shows the boy’s proud smile. And when Dad relays this story of triumph to Mom, the boy stands in profile, smiling warmly in the foreground while helping in the kitchen.

I get the same feeling from Bao Phi's writing in A Different Pond that I do when I read Matt de la Peña’s Newbery Medal-winning text for Last Stop on Market Street. I don’t make this comparison lightly. There are many distinguished picture book texts published each year, but this one is special in the way it conveys so much emotional depth with such understated grace.

“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.”

“I rub my hands together, yawn, and look up to see faint stars like freckles.”

Phi’s attention to detail establishes a real sense of place within the text while presenting an authentically loving father-son relationship.

“Dad hands me a sandwich… ‘Careful of the spicy stuff,’ he says.
There’s half a peppercorn, like a moon split in two, studded into the meat.”

Illustration detail from Thi Bui
And then there’s Thi Bui’s accompanying artwork. (Before we get to that, let me just put in a plug for Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do; it’s probably my single favorite book of 2017. If you haven’t seen it yet, find a copy post-haste and read it. You’ll thank me later!) Bui’s meticulous use of color and shadow establish the moody, EARLY morning setting. As the boy and his dad drive to the pond, blues and grays of the pre-dawn street contrast with the golden leaves of the trees. The spread showing their arrival at the pond shows the wild, scrubby slope down to the water in a surreal range of bluish-greens (it also shows clearly the “No Trespassing” sign along the fence). And on their way home, as the rising sun shines through the car windows in “just a faint tint, blue and gray instead of gold,” Bui expertly uses those blues and grays (with a healthy dose of black shadow) to create a moody light quality that feels just right for that moment of the day.

The best picture books have a feeling to them that can be hard to pinpoint; the word “lasting” comes to mind. For me, A Different Pond has a lasting quality to it that few other books have. Buy it, gift it, and read it to the children in your life.

by Sam Bloom

1 comment:

Jules at 7-Imp said...

I love this book. Your review articulates well what is so wonderful about it. I also love the page where the boy talks about seeing (at the pond) a “Hmong man” and a “black man.” And that’s because I still sometimes hear parents bragging about how their child “doesn’t see color,” as if we can eradicate racism by telling children that everyone is the same.