Jimmy Liao, Sarah L Thompson. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006
According to the artist, the story began with a visit to a fortune-teller, who predicted that he would leave his formerly unhappy self behind and strike off on a path that would bring him happiness and abundance. Years later, after he was diagnosed and successfully treated for leukemia, Liao began to realise his dream of writing, illustrating and publishing books.1 The first two titles appeared in 1998: Secrets In The Woods, which is an Alice In Wonderland - like fantasy featuring a girl and a white rabbit, and The Smiling Fish, which centres on a lonely man and an unusual denizen of the deep.
This year, Little, Brown and Company published Liao's The Sound of Colors for American audiences. The artist's ninth book, the title was first published in Taiwan in 2001. Since then, the story has been adapted for film and stage. Formatted as a children's picture book, the volume and its message of finding genuine sources of comfort in an often confusing world will resonate with readers from kindergarten age through centenarian.
The main character is a girl who has lost her sight. Initially dejected, she sits at home in the dark, consumed by her loss. Finally, when she can no longer bear the absence - of hope, light and her favourite things - she sets off to recover what she needs. She dives into the subterranean world of the subway, where it is cold and grey, and filled with strangers. With each turn of the page, Liao introduces more colour, mirroring the girl's efforts to piece her life back together from the fabric of physical sensations, memory and imagination. Intricate cartoon-like watercolour and line paintings are filled with checks, cross-hatching and stray multicoloured dashes, reflecting the array of incoming perceptions encountered by the girl on her journey.
In one spread, as she climbs slowly out of the subway, she is led by a string of elephants. One creature wears a mustard-coloured suit jazzed up with bananas; another's is red with pumpkins; the third's is green and accented with apples; and the fourth has donned a yellow bathing suit decorated with cheerful cherries. The girl describes her movement from the darkness toward the light outside: 'As slowly as an elephant, I plod. Up and Up, peacefully, patiently, one step at a time.2 When she arrives at the exit, other animal friends appear: a pair of playful pigs, who greet her as she remembers how the sunshine feels as leaves fall from the trees and onto her face.
Later, her journey takes her to the ocean, where she swims with dolphins and dreams she can understand their language. Making connections between what she feels here and remembers from her past - and the sparks that are generated in her imagination - the girl realises that the subway train makes a sound like the waves hitting the shore. At this point, she is beginning to trust the process of navigating from the inside out.
In a masterful spread showing a boxcar train, each car is painted with images that mimic Matisse's colourful dancing figures. Perhaps Liao finds a kindred spirit in Matisse who, while recovering from major surgery at the age of 72, set off on his own path of self-discovery, re-imagining himself as artist of the cutout. Passengers on this unusual train include favourite childhood companions: the cast from Baum's Wizard of Oz and Red Riding Hood and the wolf. The farther readers travel with this remarkably courageous girl, the more they will begin to question just what she is searching for. Is it her sight? Or is it something we all need - someone waiting for us at the end of the line? She wonders about this person who might sip tea with her, share stories and listen.
The closing spread is a tour de force that leaves readers with a new possibility. Liao's stained glass-like painting serves as a window on a future filled with hope, light and life, for it is the entrance to the girl's heart. At last, she is home. Everything she needs is there, in her heart, and the journey has just begun.
Cindi Di Marzo
1. See the artist's website at www.jimmyspa.com for an essay in which he describes his meeting with the fortune-teller and subsequent journey from cancer survivor to author-illustrator.
2. Liao J. The Sound of Colors: A Journey of the Imagination.English text adapted by Sarah L Thomson. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006.
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