The Only Child
Written by Guojing
Schwartz & Wade Books, 2015, 112 pp.
In her award-winning debut, Guojing presents a wordless picture book/graphic novel that explores the inner-world of an only child in China. Guojing’s artwork is uniquely beautiful in both design and storytelling. The story opens on a young child waking and bidding her mother a hesitant farewell as her mother goes off to work. Alone in the house, the child occupies her time watching television and playing with her toys. After a valiant attempt at self-sufficiency, she succumbs to loneliness and decides to visit her grandmother. The little girl prepares herself by combing hair, getting dressed, and dropping a few coins into a purse. Then she ventures into the snowy city.
At first, the adventure is a delight! The snow-falling, the commotion of the city with the smell of food carts, and the companionship of people is enthralling to the young child. She boards a bus and delights in the view of the city passing by. As happens with children, the excitement is tiring and she drifts off to sleep. When the child awakes, she has missed her stop, panics and dashes off of the bus. She begins to walk, looking for something familiar that might lead her home, but instead wanders deep into the snowy woods. With nothing familiar in sight, she begins to cry. Suddenly, a stag appears from the woods and the child follows it into a dreamlike wonderful world not quite like the child’s own. Led by the stag into the clouds to a beautiful fantasy world, she discovers new friends and adventures. The imagery of the stag as protector and guide invokes a sense of mysticism for the reader. As comforting as her time with her new friends has been, at the end of the day, when she curls on the clouds to sleep, the child misses her mother.
Using the light left on by the child’s parents in the window as they frantically search for the missing child, the stag leads her home. The child bids the stag a loving farewell, and walks into the warmth of her family’s home. In the end, she curls in bed with her mother, a book, and a toy stag, leading the reader to wonder if the story every happened at all. This question of where truth lies between the world of fantasy and reality invokes the words of Dumbledore, “Of course it is happening inside your head . . . but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (Rowling, 2007, p. 723).
In this imaginative story of childhood, the reader recognizes elements of China’s one-child policy. Guojing’s artwork reflects everyday life in a Chinese home and town and a mesmerizing fantasy world. Guojing, herself, is of the generation of children brought up in China during the one-child policy and the story is based on an experience she had as a young child who lost her way. Through the story, Guojing offers hope–if we keep our eyes open, there will always be something to lead us back home.
Readers of all ages can enjoy this book for its richly layered story. Readers will be captivated by the depth of emotion and societal consequences. The Only Child adds wonderful depth and a unique perspective of childhood to the collection of wordless picture books through a mesmerizing story that will resonate with people of all ages. Young children who enjoyed Raymond Brigg’s (1978) The Snowman, Ezra Jack Keats’s (1976) The Snowy Day, and Chris Van Allsburg’s (1985) The Polar Express will enjoy the wonder and hope evoked by the enchanting artwork and brilliant story-telling in this book. Older children and adolescents who appreciated the blurred lines of reality as well as the socio-historical allusions of the dynamic worlds of Lewis Carroll’s (1865) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, J.K. Rowling’s (1999) Harry Potter Series, and Neil Gaiman’s (2015) The Sleeper and the Spindle.
Guojing grew up as the only child of a family in China as a result of China’s 1980 one-child policy. Her parents, as in many families, both had to work to support the family. Guojing describes how she was often left home alone or with her grandmother. The intense loneliness that she felt was part of her whole generation of children. These are experiences that shape her work. As an adult, she studied at an art institute and began working in the game and animation industry. She is now a professional illustrator and concept artist and is planning her next picture book. More about Guojing can be found at the Creative Authors website.
Katie Walker, Texas Woman’s University, Denton, TX