Almost all my friends were Asian American, when I was little—but I almost never saw them reflected in popular culture. In their homes, sure. In museums, too, at least a little. But other than woodblock prints, or Korean pottery, or Chinese jades, I didn’t see my friends or their cultures reflected in the world outside our corner. It makes books like Joanna Ho’s Eyes that Kiss in the Corners, exquisitely illustrated by Dung Ho, even more special.
First, a brief note on form and content. Eyes that Kiss in the Corners is a picture book, and an extraordinary example of its type. Joanna Ho’s text is also, I would argue, poetry. “My eyes crinkle into crescent moons / and sparkle like the stars” is nothing if not poetry, and, therefore, fits quite well into the Sealey Challenge. I mean, it’s a gorgeous book. It deserves to be savored. (I also cried over it, which might not be a normal reaction.)
Our unnamed main character’s first introduction of her own eyes is powerful and beautiful, tying together far more strands of culture and heritage than might be apparent on first read: “I have eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea.” It’s a beautiful written image (and a beautiful illustration!), and “warm tea” is not only a wonderful image but a deft link to the ancient and ongoing tradition of tea throughout Asia. (Think the English were the first tea drinkers? Think again! They stole it! There’s even a great sequence about it in this Courtney Milan novel!)
You can, regardless of your age, appreciate this little picture book. The words are simple and sweet and have great depth, going far beyond the simple text to explore identity and self-love without ever once getting preachy or moralistic. (I think the kids in your life should have this book! Whether or not they’re of Asian descent, or know anyone of Asian descent!)
Dung Ho’s illustrations are beautiful enough to be framed, each one a striking work of art tying together the present with the past, reminding readers of millennia of culture—and of all the futures to come. “Gold flecks dance and twirl / while stories whirl / in their oolong pools, carrying tales of the past / and hope for the future,” Joanna Ho writes, and Dung Ho surrounds her text with swirling dragons and stylized mountains (including a Great Wall), our protagonist watching from the side as koi and birds swirl around her: past, present, and future, all represented in image and text.
Eyes that Kiss in the Corners is a gorgeous book, one which drives home an elegant reminder of self-assurance and worth. It is sweet and tender and goes much deeper than it might seem, at first glance. It can be shared aloud—please share it aloud!—and it can be worked into lesson plans and talks about other cultures and other places. But, most of all, it is a beautiful, beautiful book, and it should be shared. A lot.