Kim Hyo-eun’s splendid picture book, originally published in South Korea in 2016 and translated into English by Deborah Smith, is told from the perspective of a subway train in Seoul: “Carrying people from one place to another, I travel over the ground and rumble under, twice across the wide Han River.” Three full spreads introduce us to this unique voice before we even arrive at the title page.
Everyone has a story, and the train listens to and observes its passengers closely, capturing the nuances of the personalities who board at many stations. There’s Mr. Wanju, always running for the train so that he can spend as much time as possible at home with his daughter. There’s Mr. Jae-sung, a cobbler who “can tell so much about a person just from looking at their shoes.” There’s Na-yoon, a student taking classes after school who is “so tired she’s barely awake.” In alternating spreads that briefly shift among the different riders’ points of view, we follow these characters into their lives beyond the subway’s cars.
Thanks to the subway train’s musings, readers gain poignant glimpses into the joys, sorrows and hopes of these passengers. The train’s voice is tender and compassionate, and the sound of its movement, “ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum,” is a refrain that anchors the book.
Early spreads feature smudgy faces in shadow, but the faces of the riders whom the subway introduces are distinct and detailed. Kim’s eloquent, fine-lined watercolor illustrations capture the commuters’ humanity and the beauty in what might otherwise be dismissed as mundane. In a striking closing spread, “a gentle afternoon light . . . washes over everything,” and the image’s composition draws our attention not to the subway riders in the upper left-hand corner of the spread but to the light hitting the floor of the car—the extraordinary amid the ordinary.
A poetic tribute to Seoul and its people, I Am the Subway makes for an unforgettable journey. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.