The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa book coverIn this graphic novel, Ehwa lives with her mother, a single parent and tavern-keeper, in a rural Korean town in an unspecified era. Over the course of the book—the first in a trilogy—Ehwa goes through puberty, slowly learning about sex, sexuality and relationships. Her education is fitful; she picks up bits and pieces from her peers, from adults’ overheard conversations, and from observing her mother develop a relationship with a traveling salesman.

The text is a bit too precious. Ehwa is both ignorant unaware of her own body, to the extent that she thinks, at age 7, that she’s deformed because two boys tell her that everyone has a penis. In contrast, she is unrealistically aware of emotions. At thirteen, she’s saying, “A few times, I’ve picked tiger lilies and left them on this bridge in case he comes by… but every time I check I see that the flowers are still here, wilted and dried up. Like Mom with her gourd flower, I left the tiger lilies here as a sign for him. But it looks like only the butterflies noticed.”¹ A little too sweet and a little to aware— of her own emotions and the emotions behind her mother’s actions— it doesn’t feel realistic. She’s incredibly conscious of herself, but without the self-consciousness that paralyzes many teenage girls. More believable, and more interesting, are the dirty, not-quite-good-natured teasing of Ehwa’s mother’s customers at the tavern and the similarly half-in-good-fun and half-mean clashes between Ehwa and her contemporaries.

The art is gorgeous and takes equal billing with the text: both propel the story. The text tries a little too hard to be poignant; the art succeeds effortlessly. The simple black-and-white drawings somehow manages to convey complex facial expression and portray Ehwa’s development and her continuing but changing curiosity and concern about her body. It’s worth it just for the art.

¹ P. 114-115

The Color of Earth