In the opening author’s note of The Only Child, Guojing briefly discusses how her experiences as a child growing up under China's one-child policy in the 1980s formed her story. As a young girl and only child, she was often left alone when her parents had to work. At the age of 6, her father put her on a bus to her grandmother’s, but she fell asleep and woke to unfamiliar surroundings. From that memory grew this story, a hybrid graphic-novel/picture book tale more than 100 pages long.
A young and wide-eyed girl spends a morning alone and then decides to head to her grandmother’s via bus, but in this fantasy, when she falls asleep and then wakes on the bus, she's dropped off in a snowy landscape in the woods. She's terrified but then meets a mysterious and friendly stag who carries her up into the clouds. There, they make a friend and meet a majestic sky whale. Eventually, after a good deal of bonding, exploration and play, the stag flies the child home, where she greets grateful parents, who have been frantically searching for their daughter.
Guojing does many things well here, but best of all is the book’s expert pacing. She takes her time to establish the child’s loneliness and longing at the book’s opening, as well as the intimate bond between the loving stag and the child throughout the rest of the story. Soft, velvety pencil illustrations, adjusted in Photoshop, bring readers tender, close-up moments of the duo, and panels pick up the pace on many spreads, communicating loads of action and emotion. One striking and very dramatic spread from the inside of the whale is pitch black.
In this day and age of American helicopter parenting, it’s a story that stands out, and children may very well marvel at the child’s freedom. But it’s the touching return to parents who care that make the story a universal tale of home and belonging.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.