I Am The Subway

Authored by Kim Hyo-eun , translated by Deborah Smith
Illustrated by Kim Hyo-eun
Published by Scribble

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This gorgeous picture book is by Kim Hyo-eun. ‘Hyo as in dawn, eun as in divine grace’. Names matter to her because they are part of truly seeing the people around her. She only learnt to do this as an adult; it is a gift she offers to her readers in this book. She shows with astonishing clarity the reality of the people around us, strangers who are intensely, endearingly, themselves. It is also, more simply, a day in the life of a train on the record-breaking Seoul subway.

Initially, the people on the subway are blank-faced and featureless. After all, the opening reminds us that there are 7.2 million of them a day. Then in a move from impersonal to intimate, one of them is shown to be proud father, Mr Wanju. He is hurrying for the train, leaping four stairs at once then hugely relieved to make it on time. On the same spread as his adult commuter dash there is a picture of his child self-overtaking others to achieve victory in a school relay race. This is no faceless commuter but a man with a whole life history contained in his frantic run. Somehow, the simple words and the illustration are strangely powerful and engaging.

Then the train continues, ‘ba-dum, ba-dum’. And what had seemed to be simply the train’s noise turns out to be more, to be the heartbeat of a city, ‘with these busy hearts on board’. At each station, a new passenger is singled out and beautifully encapsulated in a spread or two, lovingly described by the train. The personification of the train is extremely effective and even beautiful as it describes the people in its ‘embrace’. But it is not twee (as I fear my summary may make it sound); the pitifully exhausted Na-yoon shows harsh reality, and the return journey has ‘the sour smell of sweat on the long way home’.

This is a book that has huge capacity to build empathy, and to engender an awareness of the lives of others, ‘the unique lives’ even of those ‘you might never meet again’. The watercolour illustrations are poignant, and the endpapers are especially gorgeous. The words are equally beautiful; it is a work that showcases the immense power of translated text as author and translator together create a poetic work of art.

I love this book. My one reservation is that I did not know from the cover that I would love it, and I am not sure how many children will pick it up unprompted. Even if they do, the muted pictures at the beginning may not persuade them to engage with it. But when read aloud, it bursts with life and movement and speed and interest. An adult who introduces a child to this book will help them to see things afresh and to see the people in their own path a little more clearly; that has to be a good thing.

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