What price do we pay for progress? Moletown, a largely wordless book by German author/illustrator Torben Kuhlmann, encourages readers to ponder this question in some depth in a story set in a subterranean world of moles and machines.
The machines are not there at the start, just one mole that lives under a ‘lush green meadow’, but change is afoot. Other moles soon move in with packing cases and pickaxes. From simple burrows with basic electricity on one page to a vertiginous network of homes carved out of the earth on the next, Kuhlmann’s intricately rendered illustrations show us the speed of development. The moles bring in mechanical diggers to replace their picks and shovels and Moletown rises within the earth, complete with trains, cars, apartment blocks and commuters jostling for space.
Interspersed with the development underground are illustrations of the changing world above. The center spread shows molehills bursting through the grass and belching out fumes. The lush green meadow of the start of the book has turned a muddy brown and the surrounding trees have lost much of their foliage. By the time we reach of the end of the book, only a small patch of grass remains; the landscape with its dull mounds of earth, industrial pulleys and fume-ridden sky is unrecognizable from the initial illustration.
The wordless format is a powerful tool, encouraging readers to explore the illustrations in detail, decide what is happening and draw our own conclusions. We are not told whether the development, and pace of it, is good or bad. We are not told whether the moles are negatively impacted by changes to their world. It is not until the endpapers that Kuhlmann gives us an indication of their eagerness to protect the environment.
This beautifully illustrated, thought-provoking book provides a valuable starting point for discussing a range of important issues with young readers, such as industrialization, urban living, and environmental awareness and protection.
Originally published in German as Maulwurfstadt by NordSüd Verlag in 2015.
By Torben Kuhlmann
Translated from the German by Andrew Rushton
2015, NorthSouth Books
You can watch the wonderful animated book trailer here.
Laura Taylor is the founder of world children’s literature blog Planet Picture Book. She is a small business copywriter, NAATI-certified translator of French into English, member of AUSIT and IBBY Australia. When she is not writing, she is reading and chasing after her two young children. She tweets regularly @plapibo and posts at www.planetpicturebook.com