The gorgeously rich illustrations, magic filled setting and wordless story of The Only Child by Guojing reminded me immediately of The Arrival by Shaun Tan. While Tan's book always feels deeply rooted in our world and the immigrant experience, despite the magical creatures and moments, Guojing's book beings in a foreign but familiar feeling city then flies off to a magic filled world of wonderful creatures and billowy clouds.
The Only Child begins with an author's note that frames the story perfectly. Guojing writes of growing up in China in the 1980s under the one-child policy. Her graphic novel grew out of a childhood experience that was common for children her age, which she refers to as a "very lonely generation." Put on a bus to her grandmother's as a six year old, Guojing fell asleep and woke up lost, crying and walking as she tried to find her way home. The Only Child begins with a cheerfully rumpled little girl waking in the morning just as her mother is leaving for work. A series of panels show her entertaining herself for a while, then looking at pictures in her scrapbook. A picture of her grandmother inspires her and she gets dressed, combs her hair, leaves a note and packs a tiny purse before heading out into the snowy, industrial, crowded city.
Guojing's illustrations of the city, the factories in the distance, the small houses, the tall apartment buildings, lumberyards, shops and the many electric bus lines are compelling, especially when viewed in the slightly grim sepia and grey tones of of the graphic novel.
The little girl falls asleep on the bus and wakes to a quiet, snowy forest. She begins to make her way through the forest, crying as she moves forward, until she sees a stag. Something about the beast encourages her to follow and soon she finds herself grabbing the horn of the stag and pulling herself onto its back. The two ascend a stairway of clouds to a pillowy land filled with play and exploration.
The pair find a new friend that looks a bit like a white otter crossed with a baby polar bear as well as an enormous, cloud surfing whale. These scenes create a quiet, ethereal world that is easy to sink into as you explore page after page, sunk in the atmosphere. It's even more amazing when you consider the limited palette that Guojing uses to evoke this blissful time. While fear, sadness and loneliness are part of the story, they feel far away for most of it. And the girl's return to her parents is, or course, a joyous one.
Describing it here, The Only Child sounds like a simple story, and in many ways it is. The unforgettable beauty of Guojing's book is everything she creates within the bounds of this simple story - the feelings she evokes, the memories, the warmth and the connection are anything but simple.