Review: Outside, Inside By LeUyen Pham

I have a new favorite book. A bold statement to make, but it is in fact, a new favorite. It speaks to the moment currently at hand, this horrid year and more that we as a collective humanity are dealing with and learning from the pandemic. But it will also serve as a reminder and a memory and a memento when this situation is over. This book encapsulates so much of the arc of what we are experiencing and what we all hope to see on the other side incredibly soon. I also hope that it becomes a classic of some sort, a reminder for every generation after this of something that was so big and so awful and so hard that only some of us made it through and are forever changed as a result. This is a stunning book, a this-very-moment book, and a hope-filled book. Please go get this book, for yourself and for everyone you love. We all need it, now and after. Take a look at Outside, Inside by LeUyen Pham, 2021.

Just a year ago I never would have imagined that I would see a child in a face mask on a picture book, and even more so, that it would actually feel normal. Wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. So many changes, so many losses, so many feelings throughout this year. As an adult, I struggle to express the things I have felt and am still processing – how much more difficult it must be for children. While they retain a resiliency that a lot of adults have lost, I’m so deeply thankful for a book like this that not only captured this moment so beautifully, explained it so gently, and points children and adults alike to endurance and hope.

This book opens with some mysterious and intriguing words:

“Something strange happened on an unremarkable day just before the season changed.
Everybody who was outside…
…went inside.”

It describes how the world changed, seemingly in an instant. Everywhere and everyone was affected. Most people went inside and waited; while others were needed or had to be elsewhere.

It talks about how nature kept going, birds and squirrels and plants all kept on with life as usual; while everyone went inside and did all the lovely and difficult things we had to do to keep busy and wait well.

The book puts into words many emotions we all felt inside… waiting and crying and breathing and laughing and praying and hoping and wishing and more. And at the middle of the book looms the biggest question of all. A question my children have quietly asked and sometimes not so quietly cried about. A question we all lay at night wondering and worrying about:

“So why did we all go inside?”

And the book gives an answer that is both beautiful and hopeful. It ties up the arc of the book with a perfectly lovely, bittersweet hopeful, happily-ever-after. It’s an ending that I have yet to read without choking up and even bursting into tears the first time I read it alone. Perhaps it is just too raw right now, as we all still sit inside waiting. Perhaps it is because LeUyen Pham is a brilliant picture book maker. But I think it is so much more. We all desperately need to know hope right now. We all want to see that picture of what’s on the other side. We want to know there is an end and it will be wonderful. This book delivers just what we all need right now, encouragement to press on, and hope that change is coming. And it is good.

This is such a surprisingly comforting book. I ordered it at the first whiff of knowledge that it was coming. I’m a major sucker for windows like the illustration on the cover, and I desperately wanted to read something beautiful and hopeful about this very moment. And I trust LeUyen Pham and knew that if anyone could give me joy and delight in a picture book about this dreadful pandemic – she could do it.

I could discuss all the ways I love the illustrations in this book – I mean, are you seeing all those windows on page after page?! And I could talk about the incredibly author’s note in the end and how Pham used illustrations of real people and real moments throughout the whole book. And I could discuss the sparse text and poetic language, and lack of ever even using the words coronavirus or Covid19 or unprecedented. And I could marvel in abundance at the quick turnaround Pham took to create this book (a month!).

But the only thing I need to say about this picture book to start off this year of hope is that it is beautiful and touching and honest and stunning. To echo the perfect words of Pham in the author’s note:

“This book is a time capsule of our moment in history, when the world came together as one to do the right thing.”

Get this book, preferably from your local bookshop that is hurting so much right now too. Snuggle up with it. Feel the emotions and breathe in the dreams and hopes for the new day coming soon. We are getting through it together, and with books like this, we’ll make it with a joyful smile too.

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