In every city around the world, there are millions of stories—in its cars, its homes, schools, and business, and its public transport. Such is the conceit of I Am the Subway, written by Kim Hyo-eun and translated by Deborah Smith. Originally published in Korea, the protagonist of this lyrical picture book is the Seoul subway, one of the world’s busiest and most extensive subway systems.
The book begins with a cold open of sorts; it jumps straight into action, introducing the reader to the noise, routine, and bustle of the Seoul subway. I AM THE SUBWAY, the title page proclaims, the train cars illuminating their way through a dark tunnel. The train pulls into a station, its sound represented onomatopoeically by a ba-dum, ba-dum that repeats throughout the book.
First up is Hapjeong Station, where Mr. Wanju hurries through the turnstile and down the stairs, all the way to the platform. He was a champion relay runner in school, a skill he calls upon as he just makes it onto the train car. The next station is City Hall, where a grandmother enters, carrying octopus and abalone from the seaside for her daughter and granddaughter. At each station, new passengers enter: a harried mother with two young children, a shoe repairman striding proudly in well-shined shoes, a sleep deprived student, a street vendor, and a young man looking for work.
Each passenger’s story is rendered in italics, and Kim Hyo-eun devotes two pages to each of them, alternately using brilliant watercolors, white space, comic book speech bubbles, and detailed drawings to give the reader a glimpse of each subway passenger’s life and emotional state. Meanwhile, the Seoul subway’s observations of its passengers, its ruminations of its journey on the tracks, and its appreciation of all the strangers in its train cars are in print typeface. It is indeed the central character of this beautiful picture book.
This book would fit in well with a study unit on South Korea, or one on different modes of transportation. Many young children are fans of trains, and this would be a welcome addition to a themed story time or a home library. I think the true power of this book, however, is the respect it gives to its featured subway passengers, and how it encourages the reader to respect the strangers they meet throughout their days.
Title: I Am the Subway
Written and illustrated by Kim Hyo-eun
Translated from Korean by Deborah Smith
Originally published 2016 as Nanuen jihacheolimnida, Munhakdongne Publishing Group
You can purchase the book here.
Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.
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