"Pool" by JiHyeon Lee

Pool by JiHyeon Lee is a good choice for this lazy, summer-holiday weather.

It’s a hot and sticky day. Noise and smoke and sweaty bodies encircle you. The air hangs heavily; your fringe is plastered against your forehead. Irritated by the heat, people argue and push, elbowing you as they go.

But then, you dive.

And as the water envelops you, the noise and the crowds and the whole jostling world disappears, swallowed up in one leaping movement, slipping away behind you as you plunge headfirst into the cool, silent depths.

dipping your toes in the water

As I am writing this at 10am in the morning, it’s already 35 degrees inside. I’m grumpy and lethargic, sitting in front of a fan that seems to be simply blowing more hot air about. I don’t handle the heat well; I never have. So writing about this book today seems to be particularly relevant.

I chose Pool, by JiHyeon Lee (Chronicle Books, 2013) for my first Little Dogeared Books feature, partly because it seemed a good choice for this lazy, summer-holiday weather, and partly because it fitted particularly well with the Introduction I wrote about my sister and her friend the octopus. It was also chosen as one of the Best Kids Books of 2015 by Brain Pickings, and happens to be a wordless picturebook; a trend which seems to be really taking off lately.

I bought this book a couple of months ago, although I’d heard about it before then. I’m definitely a judge-a-(kids)book-by-its-cover sort of person, and the round-faced child, goggled and swim-capped and surrounded by tiny, fantastic fishes, drew me in immediately. Lee’s illustration style is both contemporary and timeless.

Pool seems to invite you to come in, sit down, dip your toes in the water.

The book starts out softly— a young boy stands by a pool. As he moves to the edge, a horde of lumbering holidayers overtake him. They cram into the water, bobbing and bumping around, their faces as round and over-inflated as the pool tubes they’ve squeezed into.

Lee’s characterisation here is masterful. Scribbly lines become gaping mouths, piggy eyes, scowling faces. I feel an acute sense of having encountered these people before—pushing in front of me in lines, scattering their rubbish at the beach, rudely accosting a poor manager in a supermarket about the cost of oranges.

But the child slips into the water, unseen. Only a young girl sees him and follows him. And so they escape the fat legs floundering above them, and with a cautious smile at each other, they dive.

Below them, a magical world opens up, teeming with creatures, strange corals, bent fishes, sharp-toothed blobs and a huge, furry creature; a cross between a whale and the abominable snowman.

As the children and the sea-creatures approach each other, you can see their timidity waning. Reassured in their mutual shyness, they frolic and splash and bubble together in the soft pencil blueness.

Pool is JiHyeon Lee’s first picturebook, which is an incredible achievement. As a child, I would have loved thumbing through the pages of this book, imagining names for all the strange creatures, perhaps drawing some of my own. The lack of words wouldn’t have bothered me one bit—‘all the better for imagining, my dear’. And seeing my shyness and my dislike of noise and crowds reflected in the pages would have been immeasurably comforting.

Reading this book as an adult, I actually feel quite jealous of Lee, entering into the world of children’s literature with such a beautiful, whimsical story. Clearly she has the rare talent of storytelling and technical expertise, combined with an insight into the world of the child. She has certainly reignited some of the half-forgotten memories of my childhood.

With each page, I’m transported back to the thick, warm air of swimming lessons, the smell of chlorine and sunscreen, the stinging eyes, reddening shoulders, 5¢ ‘Big Boss’ lollies. A shivering body wrapped in a beach towel baked hot by the sun.

The feeling of being small, dwarfed by towering, bumbling adults, and then realising that being small means having the chance to do something that the adults cannot:

 Me and my cousin ready for a swim

Me and my cousin ready for a swim

         Play. Imagine. Escape...

Pool also gives you that chance. If you’ve ever dived into a pool and felt the thrill of the world slipping weightlessly away behind you, I think you’ll like this book.

(Now, I think I need a swim!)


Pool, by JiHyeon Lee, Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 2013.

Buy it here. See more of Lee's work here.