Wednesday, November 17, 2021


By Heena Baek


Translated by Sophie Bowman


(Amazon Crossing Kids, 2017, 2021)


This is a curious picture book. I read it, then put it aside, unsure what to think of it. I’ve come back to it after a few weeks. I’m still somewhat uncertain. If I go page by page, I find there are hits and misses for me. I’m dazzled; I’m disappointed. Sometimes it’s best to read a picture book without overthinking things. 


In a nutshell, this is the story of a lonely young boy named Tong Tong who lives with his father and his aging dog, Marbles. As the book opens, Tong Tong tells us:


I play on my own.


It’s not all that bad, playing alone.

The other kids don’t realize how much fun playing with marbles is.

They always only play with one another, never with me.

So I decided I’ll just play by myself.


Given that the boy’s dog and pastime are both M/marbles, I figured marbles would play into Tong Tong’s finding a friend. One would roll too far or someone would draw near, wondering about an old-fashioned form of play; maybe another marble player would show up.


Engaged readers make predictions. Often, as in my case, the predictions are wrong. No matter. Who wants to read something that’s too predictable?


Instead, Tong Tong decides to spice up his play by buying NEW marbles. At the store, he finds a bag of what he thinks are marbles. “Those are hard candies,” the shopkeeper says. Um, okay. Maybe the store could be better organized with toys clearly separated from candy. Or maybe marble-minded Tong Tong got a little disoriented?


Turns out that each candy, which happens to be distinct in size and color or pattern, offers a chance for Tong Tong to hear something or someone communicate to him for as long as the candy lasts: the living room sofa, his dog, his father’s overriding thought, his deceased grandmother and autumn leaves. Each communication varies in tone from humorous to loving, from sentimental to cutesy sweet. 


For me, things begin with a groan as the talking sofa asks Tong Tong get his father to stop sitting on it and farting. Some time ago, farting in picture books almost came off as clever, good for belly laughs. For many, particularly young children (particularly boys), farting will always be a fresh source of amusement, but I just don’t feel it’s executed well here. The fart falls flat. 


Thankfully, it gets better. The boy and his dog come to an understanding and the boy gets insight into his father even if it seems there will be no end to dad’s orders, directions and grilling questions. Tong Tong gets the pleasure of reconnecting with his grandmother, this coming from tasting the pink candy which turns out to be bubble gum. (Slight quibble over pink being the color linked to the only female character. Thought we were moving past that. As this picture books originates in South Korea, perhaps the shift from color-gender stereotypes has yet to happen.) What I loved most was the message from the falling leaves but that may be a problem since it’s as light as, well, a falling leaf. It felt whimsical, but I’m not sure it should be the greatest takeaway. Pacing-wise, the leaves should follow the sofa so that messages become increasingly touching and/or profound. 


The final candy empowers Tong Tong to take on his problem of always playing alone. (Weirdly perhaps, the toy marbles never factor into the story again after the store visit.) The story continues, visually, inside the back cover and on the back cover itself.


The illustrations are outstanding. The fine print explains they are “rendered in mixed media, including handmade miniature figurines and environments.” Characters’ faces are remarkably expressive. The clothing is extremely well crafted. Most scenes have a shallow depth of field, making Tong Tong appear sharp in the foreground while the background appears blurry. This has the effect of focusing the reader’s eye on whatever Tong Tong is doing while adding a subsequent curiosity about what else is in the scene—two levels of image comprehension: first the main point, then added context. For instance, early on we see sad-eyed Tong Tong walking with his equally downcast dog who trails behind. In the blurred background, we see three boys playing soccer and unused playground equipment. There are more things to do than play marbles. If only…


Magic Candies is definitely worth a read and, even more so, worth a look.