Children's book getting grown-up praise

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Children's book getting grown-up praise

"Yellow Umbrella," a Korean children's book created by Liu Jae-soo, has collected some impressive kudos of late. In September, the International Board on Books for Young People, a Swiss-based children's books advocacy group, named the book one of the 40 best children's books published in the last 50 years. The New York Times Book Review yesterday called "Yellow Umbrella" one of the 10 Best Illustrated Children's Books for 2002, besting 4,000 submissions.

Translation was not an issue for this wordless book. Instead of relying on words to tell the story, the book comes with a music CD that is to be played while "reading" the book.

The illustrated story opens with a yellow umbrella, carried by a young child, leaving home, and traces the umbrella's journey through the neighborhood -- crossing a bridge, romping through a playground, waiting for a train to pass -- all the time joined by ever-more umbrellas until the umbrellas and their children reach school.

The music by Sheen Dong-il evokes the atmosphere of a rainy morning using a simple theme, developed into several variations, meant to accompany the pictures on the pages. The music that plays while the umbrellas cross a street, for example, allows the reader to imagine vrooom sounds and honking of cars. There are no spoken commands to turn the pages, just a brief pause in the music.

Although many stories can be understood without words, "Yellow Umbrella" takes it to the extreme. Sure, an illustrator can tell a story just through, say, facial expressions because a reader instinctively knows what those expressions mean. But there are no faces in this book -- only umbrellas viewed from above.

"I didn't have anything I wanted to say through this book. I just meant it to be enjoyed visually," Mr. Liu said. "The reader doesn't have to try to build a story." Yet there is a story if one carefully follows the yellow umbrella's journey. "You can guess what the child holding the yellow umbrella is doing," Mr. Liu said. "For example, in the picture of the yellow umbrella on the bridge, there is a reflection of the umbrella on the water and you can guess that he is looking over the bridge into the water."

The idea for the accompanying music came mid-project. He met Mr. Sheen, who, after studying music composition at Seoul National University and New York University, has been composing young children's music. The happy marriage of pictures and music succeed in depicting the mood of a rainy morning.

Mr. Liu, who majored in fine arts in college, began writing children's books in the early 1980s. As a volunteer at a childcare center in a poor section of the city, he was struck by the poor quality of children's books. "They had essentially not changed since I was a child," he said.

The 32-page book was published in Korea last year by J'aimimage, a children's book publisher. In the United States, the book is put out by Kane Miller Publishing, a small publishing house in La Jolla, California, that specializes in translated children's books.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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