Pool by JiHyeon Lee – Review by Brett Vogelsinger
Pool is a wordless picture book, the publishing debut from South Korean artist JiHyeon Lee. This beautifully illustrated work tells the story of a quiet boy who wants to go for a swim in a suddenly overcrowded swimming pool. At first he is tentative, and it looks like he might leave, but then he takes a swift, deep dive into the water. He makes a surprising discovery in the depths: a new friend, who has also decided to swim deeper than the everyone else, deeper than the tumult of kicking feet, inflated tubes, and intrusive oars that dominate the surface. Together, their discoveries just keep coming. This newly-forged friendship soon becomes a quest to discover schools of strange fish, inquisitive, smiling eels, even a ginormous white whale — a much friendlier whale than that other well-known white whale, I might add. When they return to the surface, their Seussian cast of creatures follows the two children, scaring the crowd out of the pool and returning the pool to a place of peace.
This book with both enthrall young readers with its whimsy and challenge them with it’s complexity, leaving readers with some interesting things to think about and discuss. Is this primarily a book about friendship? About imagination? About introversion and our need to find a quiet, uncrowded place to explore sometimes? The last page leaves a bit of an open mystery that children and adults alike will find fun to interpret. My favorite books at any reading level always leave me with an ending that feels like a new beginning, and not in a way that is merely bait for a sequel. That is the kind of ending this book delivers — it leaves the reader musing.
While I first encountered this book as a selection for my own very young children, I revisited it recently as a book to share with my most advanced ninth-grade readers. In our discussions of Lord of the Flies this year, the kids really latched on to the idea of allegory and interpreting the classic tale of marooned choirboys gone wild as a spiritual allegory, a psychological allegory, or an allegory of war. So I wondered what kind of allegory they might discover if handed a wordless picture book with a somewhat cryptic plot.
The most exciting part about turning teenagers loose in a complex children’s book is that they will notice details that both very young children and adults overlook. For instance, the author’s use of color was one of the first elements they wanted to discuss. Then, the front cover image suggested to one student that the whole story is simply in the character’s imagination. Several others suggested that the pool functions as a microcosm representing the whole word, the same way the island in Lord of the Flies functions. And one student suggested that since most of the plot happens under water and therefore cannot include dialogue, the book is really a story about how we can communicate in ways that are even better than words.
As a teacher, I read the whole story as an allegory about going deeper than the world around us encourages us to go. It is easy to live a life on the surface of the pool, swept along with the crowd, but braving to go a bit deeper is richly rewarding, and in those depths we find others who are interested in living the same life of curiosity and wonder that we enjoy. Interpreted this way, the book could even be an allegory about reading . . . but I digress.
The bottom line is this: if you enjoy a book that makes you think, that works on many different levels, and does it all without a single word, plunge right into Pool — you will love it!
Brett Vogelsinger teaches ninth-grade English at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He also serves as literary magazine advisor and enthusiastic advocate for classroom libraries, giving students time to read, and “Poem of the Day” in English class.