Review: I Am The Subway By Kim Hyo-eun

There are some books that are breathtaking from cover to cover, written so poetically and uniquely that you just smile to open them. This import from South Korea is one of those books. Be charmed by I Am The Subway by Kim Hyo-eun, published in the US in 2021.

The book opens with end papers that show the Seoul subway crossing a river – one of the longest subways in the world. It is a beautiful watercolor scene, delicately drawing you into the story.

watercolor landscape of the Seoul subway traveling across a river.

“ba-dum, ba-dum”

blacks and grays watercolor of all ages of Korean people going through the turnstiles to and from the train.

“I pull into a station
ba-dum, ba-dum
and those who were sleeping startle awake.
ba-dum, ba-dum
Is this your stop? It’s time to get off!”

Text on the left, the subway doors are partially open on the right, glimpsing a man racing down the stairs with his briefcase.

With each turn of the page, the subway introduces you to a passenger getting onto the train. We hear and see a tiny bit of their story, from Mr. Wanju who races to catch the train, Granny carrying some fresh fish to her daughter and granddaughter, Yu-seon and her little ones tired from a busy day, and many many more.

A giant man races in his suit through the train station. Lots of smaller people are also racing around him.

They are “busy hearts” as the train affectionately calls them as it carries them faithfully and carefully along its route.

the left side shows several people sitting and riding in the train car. The right page has the doors partially open, with a glimpse of a large woman holding the hand of a small child.

The train wonders about each one, how they are and what they have been doing.

The full spread shows inside the shop of a man working on repairing shoes. Two cats can be seen through the open door eating from a plate.

The train fills, running its “big ring around the city of Seoul each day, sending people off and welcoming them on.”

A big view of Seoul buildings stacked with ads and much traffic driving past. On the far right side, a young girl is walking slumped over under some streetlights with her backpack.

“So many people and things… are all around you, every time you take the train.”

A big spread inside the subway car showing all the characters and many more riding along through the city.

I love this book so so much. When I spotted it and added it to our holds list at the library, I falsely assumed it was a book about the NYC subway. Not surprising, considering we live in NYC and are most familiar with it. I was thrilled to discover it was actually about the Seoul subway network. But the emotions and thoughts of the subway resonate with how I feel about our daily subway rides and what I also imagine the NYC trains, or any public transit, would think about its passengers. It is a delightful concept, examining its passengers and tenderly caring about them as it transports them throughout their day.

A wordless spread with all the people facing the reader while they ride and wait. Some on their phones, some just standing holding their bags, one in a mask.

I also love Kim Hyo-eun’s illustrations so much! They are beautiful and detailed in such a gentle way. They feel soft and muted. It is a remarkable feat to illustrate the subway in so many pages without it becoming dull and boring. It helps to have every other spread be about a passenger – where they are coming from in the city. This is such a beautiful portrayal of everyday life in Seoul.

A beautiful spread of the floor of the subway car with streaks of light coming in and just a few legs and shoes seen in the left top corner.

I hope you’ll grab this book and ponder your daily commute from a new perspective as well. It’s a lovely book to behold.

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