WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures

While We Were Out
Written & illustrated by Ho Baek Lee
Kane/Miller, 2003, ISBN: 1-929132-44-1

Pet lovers consider their pet to be a member of the family. Owners often wonder what their pets do when the family is not at home. Seen through the eyes of a family pet, Ho Baek Lee’s whimsical story of a pet rabbit’s adventures at home while the family is out delights the reader. While We Were Out opens with the curious rabbit taking advantage of the open patio door. Her adventures reflect what she has learned from the family, starting with her opening the refrigerator and eating at the dining table. She pours through the family’s movie collection, plops herself on the sofa, and even gets herself a snack to enjoy with her movie.

Making the most of her time alone, she explores the world of makeup and fashion as she experiments with lipstick and a Korean costume. She tries to read the family’s books, but gets sidetracked by the children’s toy robots and magnets. Suddenly, she spies what she has longed for– an opportunity to try a pair of over-sized skates. Using her ingenuity, she cleverly figures out a solution and takes a joy ride. As the day wears on, the little rabbit grows weary and snuggles under the bed covers. In the morning, she returns back to her balcony, musing about her secret adventures. Will the family ever find out?

The simple, pastel-kissed pencil sketches lend an ethereal quality to the rabbit’s exploits. The interspersing of bright colors in particular scenes conveys her delight in mimicking what her family does. Lee’s story is a well-crafted tale based on the family rabbit and will appeal to rabbit owners and pet-lovers as it provides an insightful peek into a pet’s perspective on living with a family of humans.

From a cultural perspective, one native Korean reader points out that this interesting story and illustrations mainly provide a modern look into Koreans’ Westernized life style, including similarities to urban life in any culture. This reader infers that a nuclear family lives in the apartment, with working parents who can provide their children with food, books, toys, and a pet. The family may be off visiting grandparents living in rural areas during weekends. While this may be perhaps an authentic, modern-day lifestyle of Korean families, this reader suggests that the story does not present Korean culture other than the use of chopsticks, Korean traditional clothing, and a typical snack of shrimp chips (one of the most popular chips among Koreans). However, it is interesting to note that the book was written from an insider’s perspective. The book is a translation into English from a South Korean author/illustrator and was originally written and published for a South Korean audience, thus strengthening cultural authenticity.

While We Were Out can provide children with an opportunity to share their own family pet stories and talk about ideas for writing stories about their pets. The book’s lead sentence, “The apartment is quiet” shows children how a good lead can set the tone and mood of the story. The surprise ending is an invitation to young writers– “is this something you might try in your writing?” Telling the story from the rabbit’s perspective helps children envision another angle to write about everyday situations. Other books that provide alternative perspectives include The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (Jon Sciezka, 1989), Voices in the Park (Anthony Browne, 1998), The Diary of a Wombat (Jackie French, 2003), and Hey Little Ant (Phillip & Hannah Hoose, 1998).

Avis M. Masuda, University of Hawai`i at Hilo, Hilo, HI

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