In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van, illustrated by April Chu
As minimal as the text might initially appear, Muon Van’s debut picture book is as deep as the Sea she references in her title. The resplendently rendered story seems simple: a family awaits for the safe return home of the fisherman father. But, of course, this is a narrative to examine and enjoy far beyond its exquisite surface.
Van hauntingly intertwines each double-page spread into the next with a single word that dovetails and expands from one spread into another: “In a fishing village by the sea / there is a small house” continues into “In that house, / high above the waves, / is a kitchen …” and so on and so on until the story is told.
A mother, her baby, the dog, and a prescient cricket are gathered within, warmed by a “glowing fire,” above which a delicious hot pot simmers, ready for a family to savor. Architect-turned-artist April Chu’s intricate illustrations elaborate and amplify Van’s careful words: from the rocky cliffs to the meticulously-kept home, from the expert preparation of the phở to the table laden with all the fresh ingredients. Chu even bestows the loyal family dog, who is never specifically mentioned in the text, a lovely narrative of his own: his gentle devotion toward the slowly waking child, his curious eyes as he peeks at the artistic cricket from above, his prominent inclusion in the family portrait that keeps the fisherman company, his patient waiting for his master’s return.
Inside the back cover are perhaps the most resonating details that enhance the story: the “Author’s Note” provides the inspiring family history about boats, about waiting, about danger, about loneliness, and more. Vietnamese-born Muon Van was just nine months old when her family became one of the ‘boat people’ to seek refuge away from her war-torn country. Boats and the sea would prove vital to Van’s family’s survival, not only for escape, but later for sustenance when her father continued the work of his fishing ancestors on the other side of the world: “Just like the family from In a Village by the Sea, we would wonder where my father was, if he found the catch he was looking for, and when he would return home again, safe and sound.”
Van and Chu’s paper and ink manifestation of family and history is magnificent to behold. Read it, love it, share it.