When a writer and an illustrator blend their gifts to create a picture book, that is a very special kind of magic. When a picture book comes into being because one person has been both author and illustrator, using each of these arts with equal skill, that goes beyond magic into the realm of miracles.
Kam Mak has created one of those miracles with My Chinatown (HarperCollins)–a book that is impossible to ignore because of his glowing, colorful paintings that dominate the front and back covers and the vivid images within that he has created with his words.
A small boy scuffs through ”drifts of red paper,” ”a snowfall the color of luck,” missing Hong Kong as he faces New Year in a place that is not yet home. “So many things got left behind,” he says, “a country/a language/a grandmother,” and the simple poetry in this statement aches with loss, expressed in new words that “taste like metal in my mouth.”
The words and paintings follow him through the year as he explores his new surroundings, makes friends, finds familiar sights in a place that slowly becomes familiar as well. When the New Year comes around again, with its “lions in the street outside,” he’s eager to be nearby watching them “shaking their neon manes.”
Although this book was wonderfully reviewed by PaperTigers’ contributor Jessica Roeder when it was first published in the spring of 2002, I was so enchanted by it when I recently found it in a Bangkok library that I had to bring it home with me to write about the treasure that had come into my hands. It’s a book that addresses the joy of childhood, the pain of leaving family members when coming to a new country, the excitement of exploring the unfamiliar and making it your own place. Each page of text has its own painting, and the words combine with Mak’s masterful use of color and light to make this book unforgettable.
Anyone living near a United States post office can own a small piece of Mak’s art for the price of a postage stamp–he has designed a set of stamps that illustrate the Chinese Zodiac and are released annually, one at a time as the Lunar New Year begins. Happy Year of the Ox, everyone!